It’s become something of a tradition over the last few years for me to make linguistics-themed cakes, decorated with copies of inscriptions in various ancient languages and scripts (previous cakes can be found here). This term it was the turn of a language from ancient Italy known as Venetic, because inscriptions in this language have mostly been found in the area around Venice (dating between around 550-100 B.C.E.). As is often the case with ancient languages, many of the inscriptions which survive are on gravestones: this is a woman’s epitaph from the town of Este (near Padua).
Reading from the top left down, and then back up the right-hand side, the text reads eg]okata.i.ege.s.tn[a.i.: ego katai iegestnai, or ‘I (am a tombstone) for Kata Iegestna’ (or ‘Egestna’, if the straight mark at the beginning of the second line is actually just the edge of the stone. Our reading group couldn’t decide from the photograph!).
A couple of things stand out even from this short inscription. Firstly, the Venetic alphabet is clearly related to the Latin and Greek alphabets (O, K, I, E, S, N are fairly recognisable), but with a few distinctive differences: the ‘X’ is actually a ‘T’ – essentially a cross +, turned sideways; what looks like a ‘P’ is actually an ‘A’, just without the second leg (I don’t know why the letter that looks like a Greek ψ (which stands for ‘ps’) is actually a ‘g’, though…).
Secondly, the Venetic language has some similar features to Latin and other related Italic languages – such as ego meaning ‘I’ (restored here, but attested in plenty of other inscriptions!), or the way of saying ‘for Kata’ (the Latin equivalent to katai would be Katae). A longer inscription would obviously provide more similarities like these, but unfortunately wouldn’t have fit on a cake. Exactly how closely Venetic is related to Latin is still a bit controversial, but knowing some Latin helps with trying to read it to some extent!
Finally, observant readers may have noticed the two shorter strokes (transcribed as dots) on either side of the ‘I’ and ‘S’: kata.i. iege.s.tn[a.i. These are examples of Venetic punctuation, which has the dubious distinction of being probably the most complicated and the most pointless punctuation in history. It doesn’t mark sentences, as modern punctuation tends to, or even words, as other kinds of ancient punctuation often do, but rather syllables. Venetic speakers seem to have had a thing about open syllables (syllables containing only a vowel, or a consonant plus vowel); any other kind of syllable apparently had to be marked out with those two little strokes (e.g. in the syllable -ges-, the ‘s’ at the end is what stops it from being an open syllable -ge-, so it’s the letter that gets marked out with the punctuation). Why anybody thought this was a sensible or helpful thing to do, I have no idea; and we have some evidence that Venetic speakers themselves found it a rather complicated system, because at one sanctuary in Este, people dedicated bronze models of writing-tablets with what seem to be exercises for learning how to use this system carved on them (there’s an example here). As someone who researches ancient writing systems, I have a bit of a soft spot for anyone who a) comes up with such a ridiculous system and b) dedicates a whole sanctuary to a goddess of writing (her name is Reitia, by the way). A sanctuary like that could be a useful thing to have in the Faculty library, for when thesis deadlines start approaching…
Thanks to Katherine McDonald, who organised the Venetic reading group and provided both the information about Venetic and the excuse for making the cake. You can read more about Venetic on Katherine’s blog, here and here.