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Punic language

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Title: Punic language  
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Subject: Phoenician language, Phoenicia, Ancient Carthage, Semitic people, Maltese language
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Punic language

Region (coastal parts of) Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, southern Iberia, Libya, Malta
Extinct 1st millennium
Early forms
  • Punic
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xpu
Linguist list
Glottolog puni1241[1]

The Punic language, also called Carthaginian or Phoenicio-Punic, is an extinct variety of the Phoenician language, a Canaanite language of the Semitic family. It was spoken in the Carthaginian empire in North Africa and several Mediterranean islands by the Punic people from about 800 BC to 600 AD. The Punics stayed in contact with Phoenicia until the destruction of Carthage by the Roman Republic in 146 BC. During the time periods Punic was spoken, it underwent many changes under Berber language influence. At first there was not much of a difference between Phoenician and Punic, but as time went on, and Carthage and her colonies lost contact with Phoenicia, Punic began to become less influenced by Phoenicia and more influenced by the local Berber language of the area in and around Carthage. The term Neo-Punic has two contested meanings. The first meaning refers to the more formal Phoenician script. The second meaning of Neo-Punic is that Neo-Punic was the dialect of Punic spoken after 146 AD, after the fall of Carthage and after the Roman conquest of the former Punic territories. Neo-Punic, in the second sense, differed from the traditional Punic language because it spelt out words more phonetically than the former Punic language, and the use of non-Semitic names, which were mostly of Libyco-Berber origin. The reason for this difference was the dialectal change Punic underwent as it spread among the North-African peoples.[2] Neo-Punic works include Lepcis Magna N 19, which dates back to 92 AD.

By around the 4th century AD, Punic was still spoken in Tunisia, parts of North Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Neo-Punic alphabet also descended from the Punic language. By around 400 AD, Punic, in the first meaning, was mainly used for monumental inscriptions, while the cursive Neo-Punic alphabet was used elsewhere.[3] Examples of Punic literary works cover the topic of Mago, a Punic general with great notoriety, who spread Carthage's influence as much through writing books as he did fighting. Mago wrote twenty eight-volumes about husbandry. The Roman Senate appreciated these works so much that after taking Carthage they presented them to Berber princes who owned libraries there. Mago's work was translated into Greek by Cassius Dionysius of Utica. The Latin version was probably translated from the Greek version. Further examples of Punic works of literature include the works of Hanno, not the Hanno who lived in the time of Agathocles of Syracuse, but a more ancient Hanno. Hanno wrote about his encounters during his naval voyages around Africa and about the settling of new colonies.[4]

A third version of Punic would be Latino-Punic, which was a Punic written in the Latin alphabet, but all of the spellings favoured those of the North African pronunciation. Latino-Punic was spoken right up to the 3rd and 4th century, and was recorded in seventy recovered texts, which show the surprising survival of Punic under Roman rule. It survived because the people speaking it did not have much contact with Rome, and thus did not need to learn Latin. Latino-Punic texts include the first century Zliten LP1, or the second century Lepcis Magna LP1. They were even written as far as the fourth century AD, Bir ed-Dreder LP2. Classical sources such as Strabo (63/4 BC - 24 AD), mention the Phoenician conquest of Libya.

There is evidence that every form of Punic changed after 146 BC according to Sallust (86 BC - 34 AD), who claims Punic was 'altered by their intermarriages with the Numidians'. This account agrees with other evidence found to suggest a North-African influence on Punic, such as Libyco-Berber names in the onomasticon.


Punic is known from inscriptions (most of them religious formulae) and personal name evidence. The play Poenulus by Plautus contains a few lines of vernacular Punic, which have been subject to some research because, unlike inscriptions, they largely preserve the vowels.[5]

Augustine of Hippo is generally considered the last major ancient writer to have some knowledge of Punic, and is considered "our primary source on the survival of [late] Punic". According to him, the Punic language was still spoken in his region (Northern Africa) in the 5th century AD, centuries after the fall of Carthage, and there were still people who called themselves "chanani" (Canaanite, i.e.: Carthaginian) at that time.[6] Writing around AD 401, he says:

Quae lingua si improbatur abs te, nega Punicis libris, ut a viris doctissimis proditur, multa sapienter esse mandata memoriae. Poeniteat te certe ibi natum, ubi huius linguae cunabula recalent.

And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men, that many things have been wisely preserved from oblivion in books written in the Punic tongue. Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm. (Ep. xvii)

Besides Augustine, the only proof of Punic-speaking communities at such a late period is a series of trilingual funerary texts found in the Christian catacombs of Sirte, Libya: the gravestones are carved in Classical Greek, Latin and Punic. It may have even survived the Arabic conquest of North Africa: the geographer al-Bakrī describes a people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in Sirte, a region where spoken Punic survived well past written use.[7] However, it is likely that Arabization of the Punics was facilitated by their language belonging to the same group (the Semitic languages group) as that of the conquerors, and thus having many grammatical and lexical similarities.[8]

The idea that Punic exerted an influence on the modern Maltese language was first raised in 1565.[9] This theory has been mostly discredited; mainstream theories hold Maltese to be derived from Siculo-Arabic, with a large number of loanwords from Italian.[10] Punic was indeed spoken on the island of Malta at some point in its history, as evidenced by the Cippi of Melqart, integral to the decipherment of Punic after its extinction, and other inscriptions found on the islands.

Similar to Modern Hebrew, Punic is written from right to left, in horizontal lines.[11] This was because it was a language related to Phoenician, and in Phoenician, sentences are written from right to left in horizontal lines, exactly like Punic. In many cases, Punic was written without vowels, and the reader of Punic written in this way was expected to know how to fill in the vowels needed to complete words, as most readers of Punic spoke Punic. An example of a word written without vowels would be Hannibal Barca's first name which was written as HNB'L.


The Punic language has 20 consonants.


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Punic". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^,%20A%20History%201.htm
  5. ^ Sznycer, Maurice (1967). Les passages puniques en transcription latine dans le Poenulus de Plaute. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck. 
  6. ^ Jongeling. Karel; & Kerr, Robert M. (2005). Late Punic epigraphy: an introduction to the study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic inscriptions. Mohr Siebeck. p. 4.  
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Jongeling and Kerr, p. 71
  9. ^ L-Akkademja tal-Malti. "The Maltese Language Academy". 
  10. ^ Vella, Alexandra (2004). "Language contact and Maltese intonation: Some parallels with other language varieties". In Kurt Braunmüller and Gisella Ferraresi. Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. Hamburg Studies on Multiculturalism. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 263.  
  11. ^
  12. ^ 1976: A Grammar of Phoenician and Punic. Munich: Beck. ISBN 3-406-00724-4

External links

  • Punic alphabet on
  • Phoenician fonts from unicode
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