Iberian language

The Iberian language was the language of a people identified by Greek and Roman sources who lived in the eastern and southeastern regions of the Iberian peninsula. The ancient Iberians can be identified as a rather nebulous local culture between the 7th century BC and the 1st century BC. The Iberian language, like the rest of paleohispanic languages, became extinct by the 1st to 2nd centuries AD, after being gradually replaced by Latin. Iberian seems to be a language isolate and while its different scripts have been deciphered to various extents, the language itself remains unknown.

Links with other languages have been claimed, but they have not been clearly demonstrated. One such proposed link was with the Basque language, but this theory is disputed and has not been supported by modern scholarship.

Geographic distribution

The Iberian language spread along the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

In the north, the Iberian language reached the south of France up to the Hérault river. Important written remains have been found in Ensérune, between Narbonne and Béziers in France, in an oppidum with mixed Iberian and Celtic elements. The southern limit would be Porcuna, in Jaén (Spain), where splendid sculptures of Iberian riders have been found.

Towards inland the exact distribution of the Iberian language is uncertain. It seems that the culture reached the inland through the Ebro river (Iberus in Latin) up to Salduie (Zaragoza) but not farther.

Among the pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula it is believed that the following spoke Iberian languages: Ausetani (northeastern Catalonia), Ilergetes (Lleida and Huesca up to the Pyrenees), Indigetes (coast of Girona), Laietani (Barcelona), Cassetani (Tarragona), Ilercavones (Murcia and Levante up to Tarragona), Edetani (Valencia, Castellón and Teruel), Contestani (Valencia, Alicante, Cartagena and Albacete), Bastetani (Granada, Almería and Murcia) and Oretani (Jaén, Ciudad Real, Albacete and Cuenca). Turduli and Turdetani are believed to be of Tartessian language.


The origin of the language is unknown. There are three main hypotheses to explain the origin of the language:

  • Native hypothesis: assumes that Iberian language was the language of the native people who settled in the Iberian peninsula during the Neolithic.
  • African hypothesis: proposes that the language arrived from the north of Africa. This hypothesis links Iberian with the Berber languages.
  • European hypothesis: a recent theory, links the arrival of Basques/Aquitani and Iberians to the Pyrenees and the Iberian peninsula with the arrival of the urnfield culture.


The oldest Iberian inscriptions date to the 4th century BC or maybe the 5th century BC and the latest ones date from the end of the 1st century BC or maybe the beginning of the 1st century AD. More than two thousand Iberian inscriptions are currently known. Most are short texts on ceramic with personal names, which are usually interpreted as ownership marks. The longest Iberian texts were made on lead plaques; the longest is from Yátova (València) with more than six hundred signs.

Three different scripts have remained for the Iberian language:

Northeastern (or Levantine) Iberian script

The northeastern Iberian script is also known as the Iberian script, because it is the Iberian script most frequently used (95% of the remaining texts (Untermann 1990)). The northeastern Iberian inscriptions had been found mainly in the northeastern quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula: mainly on the coast from Languedoc-Roussillon to Alicante, but with a deep penetration on the Ebro valley. This script is almost completely deciphered.

All the paleohispanic scripts, with the exception of the Greco-Iberian alphabet, share a common distinctive typological characteristic: they present signs with syllabic value, for the occlusives and signs with monofonematic value for the rest of consonants and vowels. From the writing systems point of view they are neither alphabets nor syllabaries; they are mixed scripts that normally are identified as semi-syllabaries. About its origin there is no agreement among researchers: for some they are linked only to the Phoenician alphabet, while for others the Greek alphabet played a part.

Southeastern (or Meridional) Iberian script

The southeastern Iberian script is a semi-syllabary too, but it is more similar to the Tartessian script than to the northeastern Iberian script. The southeastern Iberian inscriptions had been found mainly in the southeastern quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula: eastern Andalusia, Murcia, Albacete, Alicante and Valencia. This script is not completely deciphered.

Greco-Iberian alphabet

The Greco-Iberian alphabet is a direct adaptation of an Ionic variant of a Greek alphabet to the specificities of the Iberian language. The inscriptions that use the Greco-Iberian alphabet have been found mainly in Alicante and Murcia.


Current extent of linguistic knowledge

Very little is known for certain about Iberian. The investigation of the language is past its initial phase of transcription and compiling of material, and is currently in the phase of identifying grammatical elements in the texts.

The hypotheses currently held are unconfirmed, and will remain so with some degree of certainty unless the discovery of a bilingual text allows linguists to confirm these deductions.



Iberian has five vowels, the same as in Spanish or Basque, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, the front vowels (a, e, i) appearing more frequently than the back vowels. Although there are indications of a nasal vowel (<ḿ>), this is thought to be an allophone. It does not seem that there were differences in vowel length if judged by Greek transcriptions; if this is correct then Iberian uses the long ē (Greek ῆτα ēta) as opposed to the short epsilon (Greek ἔψιλόν épsilón).


It seems that diphthongs were declined by [vowel] + [closed vowel], attesting to the /ai/ (śaitabi), /ei/ (neitin), and /au/ (lauŕ). Untermann observed that the diphthong /ui/ could only be found in the first cluster.


The possibility has been found for the semivowels /j/ (in words such as aiun o iunstir) and /w/, although this only in loanwords such as diuiś from Gaulish. This has cast doubt that semivowels really existed in Iberian outside of foreign borrowings (and diphthongs).


  • Vibrants: the vibrants and <ŕ>. There is unanimity among linguists studying Iberian that <ŕ> is a simple vibrant, the alveolar flap, /ɾ/. Correa has advanced the hypothesis that <ŕ> is a simple vibrant and a compound vibrant, i.e. the alveolar trill, /r/. More recent hypotheses have proposed that is an uvular fricative, /ʁ/ (Ballestar) or a retroflex vibrant, /ɽ/ (Rodriguez). Neither r appears at the start of a word, the same as with Basque.
  • Sibilants: there are two sibilants . The distinction is unclear. Ballester theorizes that is the voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative, /ɕ/. Rodriguez proposes that <ś> is the alveolar /s/ and Basque also has two sibilants: s as apical alveolar and z as laminal alveolar, which could correspond to <ś> and
  • Laterals: the lateral: , is normally interpreted as /l/. This is extremely rare in final position and it could be that the distribution is on occasions complementary with <ŕ>: (aŕikal-er / aŕikaŕ'-bi).
  • Nasals:
    • The is a normal alveolar /n/
    • The rarely appears in initial position. Velaza proposes that it could be a variant of /n/, backed by the example of iumstir/iunstir. José A. Correa advances the possibility that it may be a geminated or strong nasal. Rodríguez Ramos notes the idea that it could be a variant of /n/ in cases that it nasalizes the preceding vowel.
    • There is a certain controversy over the letter <ḿ>. While it's thought that it's some type of nasal, there is no certainty as to the exact value. Several linguists have proposed the value /na/, based on similarities with texts written in the Greek Alphabet, as there are similarities between the suffixs -ḿi / -nai, and in the onomastic elements -ḿbar- / -nabar-. Another part of this theory seems to contradict itself with the transcription of ḿbar-beleś into Latin as VMARBELES. Correa proposes that this is a labialized nasal. It is not even clear that the sign is always pronounced in the same form. Ramos considers it a nasalized vowel, produced by progressive nasalization.
  • Plosives: there are five plosives.

unvoiced voiced
velar /k/ /ɡ/
dental /t/ /d/
labial /b/

The evidence indicates the non-existence of the phoneme /p/ as it is not documented in either the Greek alphabet nor in the dual Iberian systems. It is only found in Latin inscriptions naming native Iberians and is thought to be an allophone of /b/.
It has been indicated that the phoneme /b/ would on occasions be pronounced similar to /w/ (this would be explained by the frequency of the sign /bu/), as such it could have a nasalized pronunciation.


There are a number of known affixes, especially applied to last names. For the Iberian language these seem to be postpositional, and apparently more agglutinative than declined.

The best-known are the following.

-ar: applied to proper names to mark possession.
-en: of a similar or identical use to -ar. -en or aren are used for Basque genitives.
-ka: seems to indicate the person who receives something
-te: seems to indicate the agent, or ablative
-sken: found on coins, applied to the names of a city or tribe to indicate origin or a plural genitive
-k: has been proposed on occasions to mark the plural. -k is a plural mark in Basque.

Personal names

Thanks to the Latin Inscription of the plaque of Ascoli, which includes a list of Iberian leaders which was analyzed by Hugo Schuchardt, the forms of Iberian proper names have been unraveled. Iberian names are formed by two interchangeable elements, each usually formed of two syllables, which are written together. For example, the element "iltiŕ" can be found in the following names: iltiŕaŕker, iltiŕbaś, iltiŕtikeŕ, tursiltiŕ, baiseiltiŕ or bekoniltiŕ. This discovery was a giant step: from this moment it was possible to indicate with confidence the names of persons in the texts.

The components of names are: abaŕ, aibe, aile, ain, aitu, aiun, aker, albe, aloŕ, an, anaŕ, aŕbi, aŕki, aŕs, asai, aster, atin, atun, aunin, auŕ, austin, baiser, balaŕ, balke, bartaś, baś, bastok, bekon, belauŕ, beleś, bels, bene, beŕ, beri, beŕon, betan, betin, bikir, bilos, bin, bir, bitu, biuŕ, bolai, boŕ, bos, boton, ekes, ekaŕ, eler, ena, esto, eten, eter, iar, iaun, ibeś, ibeis, ike, ikoŕ, iltiŕ, iltur, inte, iskeŕ, istan, iunstir, iur, kaisur, kakeŕ, kaltuŕ, kani, kaŕes, kaŕko, katu, keŕe, kibaś, kine, kitaŕ, kon, koŕo, koŕś, kuleś, kurtar, lako, lauŕ, leis, lor, lusban, nalbe, neitin, neŕse, nes, niś, nios, oŕtin, sakaŕ, sakin, saltu, śani, śar, seken, selki, sike, sili, sine, sir, situ, soket, sor, sosin, suise, taker, talsku, tan, tanek, taneś, taŕ, tarban, taŕtin, taś, tautin, teita, tekeŕ, tibaś, tikeŕ, tikirs, tikis, tileis, tolor, tuitui, tumar, tuŕś, turkir, tortin, ulti, unin, uŕke, ustain, ḿbaŕ, nḿkei.

In some cases linguists have encountered simple names, with only one element for a suffix: BELES, AGER-DO and BIVR-NO are not in the plaque of Ascoli, neitin in Ullastret and lauŕ-to, bartas-ko or śani-ko in other Iberian texts. More rarely there have been indications of an infix, which can be -i-, -ke- or -ta- (Unterman used oto-iltiŕ in front of oto-ke-iltiŕ or with AEN-I-BELES). In rare cases Untermann also encountered an element is- or o- prefacing a proper name (is-betartiker; o-tikiŕtekeŕ; O-ASAI).

In the elements that formed Iberian names it's common to encounter patterns of variation: as in eter/eten/ete with the same variations as iltur/iltun/iltu; kere/keres as lako/lakos ; or alos/alor/alo and bikis/bikir/biki).

See also

External links

Further reading


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