Map of the area of the Lepontic inscriptions, based on Lejeune 1988: 5
Lepontic is the earliest attested Celtic language. It was written exclusively in the Lepontic script (also known as the ‘alphabet of Lugano’), which was derived from Etruscan. It is known from about 140 inscriptions found in Northern Italy and Southern Switzerland (Uhlich 1999: 277). These inscriptions date from ca. 550 BCE to ca. 100 BCE (Uhlich 1999: 300-1; Prosdocimi 1991b: 52; de Marinis 1991: 106; Kruta 1991: 517). The language is named after the Lepontii, an ancient local population-group. The name is convenient but somewhat imprecise, since the areal distribution of Lepontic inscriptions is not coterminous with the territory of the Lepontii (Kruta 1991: 517) – the texts are found across a much wider region. (It is somewhat as though the Greek language was known simply as the ‘Athenian language’). Eska (1998) has argued that Lepontic is in fact merely an early form of Gaulish and not a separate language. However, Uhlich (1999: 299) tentatively points to a phonological development in Lepontic not shared by any of the other Celtic languages (the evolution of the Proto-Celtic accusative plural ending *-ans into *-ents [written -eš] rather than into -ās).

The Lepontic inscriptions, from an archaeological standpoint, are associated with the Golasecca culture, an archaeological culture-complex dating from ca. 1000 to ca. 375 BCE, which was preceded by the Proto-Gollasecca (12th-10th centuries BCE) and Canegrate (13th-12th centuries) cultures (Uhlich 1999: 292). It cannot be assumed, however, that the earliest bearers of the Golasecca culture were Lepontic- or Celtic-speakers, though, as Prosdocimi (1991a: 139) rightly points out, the date of the earliest Lepontic inscription is a terminus ante quem, not a terminus post quem. It marks the date by which, not at which, Celtic speech arrived or evolved in the region.

What can we say about the significance of Lepontic? Aside from its tremendous linguistic value for the study of the evolution of the Celtic languages, it is also of some historical import. The Lepontic inscriptions are of particular significance because they mark the earliest non-archaeological evidence for the existence of the Celts; indeed, they mark the first solid evidence of any kind for the presence of these people in any area. It is ironic that a people who in the minds of the general public are often thought of as illiterate (and portrayed as such by sloppy scholars) make their debut in history via written documents which they themselves left behind (and in Italy of all regions, which is again not often thought of as a part of the Celtic world). The evidence of the Lepontic inscriptions also helps to correct the popular misconception that there were no Celts in Italy before ca. 390 BCE – something which the historical sources do not state in the first place, but which has nevertheless often been mistakenly construed through the misinterpretation of the largely legendary surviving accounts of the Celtic capture of Rome at the onset of the fourth century BCE. Finally, the later surviving Lepontic texts, which post-date the Roman conquest of Celtic Italy, offer us a vivid reminder that the Celts and their languages did not simply cease to exist when they lost their political freedom.

Sample Text

The inscription on the 'vase of Latumaros', after Lejeune 1987: 498
Latumarui Sapsutai-pe uinom Našom

Translation: “For Latumaros and for Sapsuta, Naxian wine” (Lejeune 1971: 75). Here, ‘Latumaros’ and ‘Sapsuta’ are personal names. The former is masculine, the latter feminine. ‘Sapsuta’ is however a non-Celtic name in origin (Lejeune 1987: 497), though it is here inflected as a Celtic word. ‘Latumaros’, on the other hand, contains the obviously Celtic element -maros ‘great’, which is common in ancient Celtic personal names (e.g., Segomaros) and cognate with Old Irish már and Welsh mawr, ‘great’. The element latu- has been connected with the Gaulish root lato- ‘ardor, fury,’ thus making the name literally mean ‘great fury’ or ‘one with great fury’ (Delamarre 2003: 198; Lambert 2003: 21). Interestingly, the text may actually be a brief poem in quantitative verse on the pattern ˉ ˘ ˉ ˉ | ˉ ˘ ˉ ˘ | ˉ ˘ ˉ ˘ (Lejeune 1987: 499). ‘Naxian wine’ refers to wine emanating from the Greek town of Naxos, Sicily, not to be confused with the island of Naxos, which is one of the Cyclades. In ancient times, Naxos was famous for its wine, which was widely exported and even portrayed on the town’s coins. Tibiletti Bruno (1981: 162-5) proposed quite a different interpretation of this inscription: she argued that every instance of the letter M was in fact to be read as Š, drastically altering the translation; however, this theory has been rejected by Lejeune on epigraphic grounds (Lejeune 1988: 8). This particular inscription is one of the latest Lepontic texts, originating from the cemetery at Ornavasso and dating to the second or first century BCE (Solinas 1995: 375; Tibiletti Bruno 1981: 162; Uhlich 1999: 301).

Sample Vocabulary

Joshua Whatmough (1897-1964), the first to collect the Lepontic inscriptions into a corpus
uinom – wine
pala – funerary stela
dedu – gave
-pe (suffix) – and (cf. Sanksrit ca, Latin que, Greek te, Celtiberian kue)

Sample Grammar (based on Uhlich 1999: 278)

o-stems a-stems n-stems
Nominative -os -a -u
Genitive -oiso
Dative -ui -ai -oni
Accusative -om -am

There has been some debate about whether the supposed n-stem nominative singular ending -u is in fact an alternative o-stem genitive. This view was advocated by de Hoz (1990; 1992: 16-18), but has been treated with caution by Eska (1995: 34-7, 43 ff.).


Bernardo Stempel, Patrizia de
1990 Einige Beobachtungen zu indogermanische /w/ im Keltischen. In A.T.E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia (eds.), Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: A Festschrift for Eric P. Hamp. Van Nuys: Ford & Bailie; 26-46.

Lepontic inscription from Castelleto Ticino, the earliest definitely Celtic inscription
Delamarre, Xavier
2003 Dictionaire de la langue gauloise. Paris: Éditions Errance.

de Hoz, J.
1990 El genitivo celtico de los temas en -o-. El testimonio lepóntico. In F. Villar (ed.), Studia Indogermanica et Palaeohispanica in honorem A. Tovar et L. Michelena. Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca; 315-29.

de Hoz, J.
1992 ‘The Celts of the Iberian Peninsula,’ Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 45: 1-37.

Michel Lejeune, the first to demonstrate that the Lepontic inscriptions were Celtic
de Marinis, Raffaele C.
1991 Golasecca Culture and Its Links with Celts beyond the Alps. In V. Kruta et al. (eds.), The Celts. New York: Rizzoli; 103-115.

Eska, Joseph F.
1995 Observations on the thematic genitive singular in Lepontic and Hispano-Celtic. In J.F. Eska,, R.G. Gruffydd, and N. Jacobs (eds.), Hispano-Gallo-Brittonica. Cardiff: University of Wales; 33-46.

Eska, Joseph F.
1998a The Linguistic Position of Lepontic. In B.K. Bergin et al. (eds.), Proceedings of the twenty-fourth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 2. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society; 2-11.

Eska, Joseph F.
1998b ‘PIE *p >/ Ø in proto-Celtic,’ Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 58: 63-80.

Gambari, Filippo Maria and Colonna, Giovanni
1988 ‘Il bicchiere con inscrizione arcaica da Castelletto Ticino e l’adozione della scrittura nell’Italia nord-occidentale,’ Studi Etruschi 54: 119-164.

Kruta, Venceslas
1991 Celtic Writing. In V. Kruta et al. (eds.), The Celts. New York: Rizzoli; 516-32.

Lake Como today, once the heartland of the makers of the Lepontic inscriptions
Lambet, Pierre-Yves
2003 La langue gauloise. Paris: Éditions Errance.

Lejeune, Michel
1971 Lepontica. Paris: Société d’Édition “Les Belles Lettres”.
[Comments: French text]

Lejeune, M.
1987 ‘Le vase du Latumaros (Discussions sur l’alphabet de Lugano),’ Latomus 46: 493-509.

Lejeune, Michel (ed.)
1988 Recueil des inscriptions gauloises, volume 2 – fascicule 1 (textes gallo-étrusques, textes gallo-latins sur pierre). Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Prosdocimi, Aldo L.
1991a ‘Note sul celtico in Italia,’ Studi Etruschi 57: 139-78.

Prosdocimi, Aldo L.
1991b The Language and Writing of the Early Celts. In V. Kruta et al. (eds.), The Celts. New York: Rizzoli; 50-60.

Solinas, Patrizia
1995 ‘Il celtico in Italia,’ Studi Etruschi 60: 311-408.
[Comments: Corpus of Lepontic inscriptions]

Tibiletti Bruno, Maria G.
1981 Le iscrizioni celtiche d’Italia. In Enrico Campanile (ed.), I Celti d’Italia. Pisa: Giardini; 157-207.

Uhlich, J.
1999 Zur sprachlichen Einordnung des Lepontischen. In Karl Horst Schmidt (ed.), Akten des Zweiten Deutschen Keltologen-Symposiums. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag; 277-305.

Copyright © 2007 WP Ancient-Celts.com. All rights reserved.