Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Etruscans in Person

The Etruscan language (spoken in antiquity in central Italy) is a strange beast. It is seemingly quite unrelated to any of the language families of the ancient world - its only known relatives are the very scantily attested Lemnian and Rhaetic: Lemnian is preserved to us in one (1) single inscription. Etruscan, however, is attested in over 9000 inscriptions, but most of these are extremely short. Only a handful of the Etruscan texts exceed 25 words, which has of course somewhat hampered the modern interpretation. But this does not mean that Etruscan is a "complete mystery": substantial portions of the language have been made quite understandable after over a century of systematic scholarship.

The fact is that we can find a number of remnants of Etruscan in modern languages, even though it died out during the first century of the common era. Latin borrowed a few words from their Etruscan neighbours, and some of these have travelled on into English, German, French, Swedish and other modern languages. The most well-known of these (possibly) Etruscan words is "person".

The Latin word persona originally means "theatre mask", from which the current meaning was extrapolated: our personalities can, after all be viewed as masks. There is an Etruscan word phersu, which seems to mean "theatre mask". This word was probably borrowed into Latin and thence into English, etc. So every time you talk about "persons", "personalities" or "personas" or "personal things", you might be inadvertently rehashing an old Etruscicism!

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