The Origins of the Oscan Alphabet

“The Origins of the Oscan Alphabet”, James Clackson and Michael Crawford, Cambridge Epigraphy Saturday, 27 January, 2007.

James Clackson first spoke for twenty minutes or so on the state of scholarship concerning the origins of the Oscan alphabet. Inscriptions in the Oscan language were at times written in the Etruscan and Greek script, and finally in a national Oscan alphabet. The standard view has been that the national alphabet was adapted from the Etruscan, with which it shares many letter forms in common, but there have long been problems, principal among which being the absence of the voiced consonants /b/, /g/, and /d/ from written Etruscan, and their appearance in the national Oscan alphabet. Clackson summarised a posthumously published article of Helmut Rix in which the German scholar argued that the Oscan national script was descended from Etruscan, but only via the South Picene alphabet and a little known alphabet that he termed “Opikisch” (Clackson prefers “the Nocera alphabet”, as the script is found only on three vases in the region of Nocera, all dating from c. 500 BCE).

This theory, according to Clackson, has two great advantages: (1) it explains the transposition of the signs for /d/ and /r/ in Oscan writing; and (2) it removes some of the difficulty with the absence of the letter-form <O> in Oscan, which is absent from Etruscan but present in Greek. On the other hand there are weaknesses with the Rix model, not least that we need more examples of the Nocera alphabet to be able to trace its development as confidently as Rix wanted to. It is also troubling that the letters [í] and [ú] ([i] and [u] with a diacritical mark, representing a new letter), which Rix traced through South Picene and the Nocera alphabet do not appear in early Oscan. Finally Clackson argued that the idea of the cultural transmission of alphabets through population migrations and “sacred spring” journeys is an unlikely one.

At this point Michael Crawford took over the presentation to argue for an adapted version of the traditional view of the origin of the Oscan script, his suggestion being that the national alphabet was invented by Greek-users for Oscans who were used to using the Etruscan alphabet. He pointed out that in early periods of the language, Oscan inscriptions were written in the Etruscan, Ionic Greek, and Achaean Greek scripts. Oscan names written in the Etruscan language (which lacks voiced consonants, for example, or an /o/ vowel) create ambiguity with regards to sound distinctions that do exist in the Oscan language. Crawford suggested that light may be cast on this difficulty by the examination of six coinages of ancient Campania (for which he follows almost entirely the schematisation of Keith Rutter from his 1979 Campanian Coinages). All six cities discussed had their coinages minted in Neapolis, a Greek city that used the Ionic alphabet natively, but all adopted slightly different strategies to write their native tongue in the Greek script. Capua and Nola used the straightforward Greek alphabet; Phistelia used an almost entirely Greek script, but with the single addition of the Etruscan letter <8> to represent the sound /f/ in their name; Allifae likewise used the Greek script, but employed the Greek <H> to represent /f/; Hyria used Greek except for a letter <D> representing /r/, and occasionally had a diacritic above the upsilon, resembling the diacritic on Oscan [í], but probably representing the rough breathing; finally one Campanian city used the purely Oscan alphabet. Crawford’s argument, therefore, was that the Oscan speaking cities adapted as their national alphabet the Greek of Neapolis, the only city with a mint that could issue their coinages, with the addition of a few letters from the Etruscan alphabet they were previously in the habit of using to represent sounds in their language that the Greek script could not distinguish.

Clackson brought the presentation to a close by drawing attention to two remaining problems with Crawford’s hypothesis. Firstly, the derivation of the Oscan alphabet from the Greek leaves problems with the absence of the letter <O> to represent the /o/ sound in Oscan (represented by [u] or later [ú]). Secondly, it remains to be explained why the letter shapes of the Oscan national alphabet remain closer to Etruscan scripts than to Greek.

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