Iberian the mysterious language of a pre-Roman people

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Hispanics, a group of culturally related peoples from ancient times who lived mainly on the southern and eastern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. The script they used was never fully understood. Finally, the sounds were mapped. National Geographic Historia devoted an article to it.

Research into pre-Roman writing since the Renaissance

More than 400 years ago, ‘Renaissanceists’ were already trying to understand Iberian signs on coins. Old Iberian tradition texts; texts about legends. It would provide new insight and knowledge about pre-Roman civilization. Unfortunately, they were lethargic time after time. In contrast, the meaning of the Greek script and Latin was well known. The ‘Iberian’ was literally downgraded to a ‘primitive Latin American script’.

The similarities with Greek and Phoenician

The Age of Enlightenment brought new insight. Research into ancient inscriptions gained momentum, and scholars took a stand. Inscription expert Gregorio Mayans indicated in 1759 that he had almost completed the decipherment puzzle – but the insight would take more than 150 years. Archaeologist Juan Batista de Erro was convinced that the Iberian script was derived from Greek and Phoenician.

The writer Luis José Velázquez stated the opposite in his essay of 1752. Velazquez proved to be right. More than a century later, the German scholar Emil Hübner published a collection of Iberian inscriptions. He stated unequivocally that Iberian descended from Phoenician.

Using the comparative material, the letters -a, -e, -r, -y and -l could be identified. In the past, some numismatists (coin experts) might have taken the ‘n’ and the ‘e’ home.

Iberian: an alphabetic and syllabic script

In the 19th century, the ‘knowledge base’ of Iberian was further expanded. The French numismatist Aloïs Heiss produced a table of Iberian coin legends in 1870. He was able to map the ‘Latin’ equivalents of almost all Iberian characters. Still, Heiss overlooked a crucial aspect: the syllables. This pre-Roman script is not only a letter alphabet, but also semi-syllabic: a mixture of letters and syllables. The scholar Jacobo Zóbel managed to identify several syllables (ka, ke, kok and du) in 1880.

The plan was further elaborated: Gómez found answers

Manuel Gómez, archaeologist and historian from Granada, wanted to build on the knowledge available until then. In the 1920s he researched lead-engraved texts in ‘Greco-Iberian’: a simplified version of the Greek alphabet based on Iberian. In addition, Gómez researched coin legends. He found that many coins, both the Iberian script and the Latin script, contained the same image and came from the same distribution area. Regardless of the language, the place names on the coins must have been the same.

Gómez mapped the Iberian and Latin coin legends, which came from the same area. This enabled him to ‘extrapolate’ the sounds from Latin to Iberian. This led to an almost complete understanding of the phonology behind the Iberian script. In ordinary language: the sounds of letters and syllables became clear. In 1943, Gómez would publish another article comparing Iberian with other ‘Mediterranean scripts’.

Not one Iberian script

The pre-Roman Iberian script is and remains special. The half-syllable aspect in particular is quite unique; with characters containing the syllables –ba, -ta, -ka, -be, -te and -ke represent. Other characters are only alphabetic, such as the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the consonants (n, m, s, ś, l, r, ŕ).

Yet it is not the case that there was only one Iberian script. Gómez discovered that Latin Americans used multiple scripts. The script, fully mapped by Gómez, is known as ‘the dominant variant’: the so-called ‘Levantine-Iberian’ script. Most of the pre-Roman inscriptions we know are written in this variant.

Thanks to the work of Gómez and other scientists, we now know which sounds belong to which letters. Yet we are still in the dark when it comes to grammar, vocabulary and meaning.

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