Punic language

The Punic language, also called Canaanite[1] or Phoenicio-Punic, is an extinct variety of the Phoenician language, a Canaanite language of the Northwest Semitic branch of the Semitic languages. An offshoot of its parent Phoenician language of coastal West Asia (modern Lebanon and western Syria), it was spoken on the Mediterranean coast of Northwest Africa, Iberian peninsula and several Mediterranean islands such as Malta and Sicily by the Punic people/Phoenicians throughout Classical antiquity, from the 8th century BC to the 6th century AD.[2][3][4][5][6][7]

RegionTunisia, Morocco, and coastal parts of Algeria, southern Iberia, Libya, Malta, western Sicily
Era8th century BCE to 6th century CE
Early form
Phoenician alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3xpu
neop1239  Neo-Punic

"Punic" is considered to have separated from its "Phoenician" parent around the time that Carthage became the leading city in the area under Mago I, but scholarly attempts to delineate the dialects lack precision and generally disagree on the classification.[8]


The Punics stayed in contact with Phoenicia until the destruction of Carthage by the Roman Republic in 146 BC. At first, there was not much difference between Phoenician and Punic, but as time went on Punic began to become influenced less by Phoenicia and more by the Berber languages spoken in and around Carthage by the ancient Libyans.

The term Neo-Punic is used in two senses: One pertaining to the Phoenician alphabet and the other to the language itself. In the present context, Neo-Punic refers to the dialect of Punic spoken after the fall of Carthage and after the Roman conquest of the former Punic territories in 146 BC. The dialect differed from the earlier Punic language, as is evident from divergent spelling compared to earlier Punic and by the use of non-Semitic names, mostly of Libyco-Berber origin. The difference was due to the dialectal changes that Punic underwent as it spread among the North-African peoples.[9] Neo-Punic works include Lepcis Magna N 19 (92 AD).

By around the fourth century AD, Punic was still spoken in what is now Tunisia, other parts of Northwest Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Neo-Punic alphabet also descended from the Punic language. By around 400, the first meaning of Punic was used mainly for monumental inscriptions, replaced by the cursive Neo-Punic alphabet elsewhere.[10] Examples of Punic literary works are those of Mago, a Punic general with great notoriety, who spread Carthage's influence as much through writing books as he did fighting. Mago wrote 28 volumes about animal husbandry.

The Roman Senate appreciated the 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 the Navigator, who wrote about his encounters during his naval voyages around Africa and about the settling of new colonies.[11]

A third version of Punic would be Latino-Punic, a Punic written in the Latin alphabet, but all of the spellings favoured the Northwest African pronunciation. Latino-Punic was spoken until the 3rd and the 4th centuries and was recorded in seventy recovered texts.

Latino-Punic texts include the 1st-century Zliten LP1, or the second-century Lepcis Magna LP1. They were even written as late as the 4th century, Bir ed-Dreder LP2. Classical sources such as Strabo (63/4 BC – AD 24), mention the Phoenician conquest of Libya.

There is evidence that every form of Punic changed after 146 BC according to Sallust (86 – 34 BC), who claims Punic was "altered by their intermarriages with the Numidians". That account agrees with other evidence found to suggest a North-African influence on Punic, such as Libyco-Berber names in the Onomasticon of Eusebius. The last known testimony reporting Punic as a living language is that of Augustine of Hippo (d. 430).

Today there are a number of common Berber roots that descend from Punic, including the word for "learn" (*almid, *yulmad; compare Hebrew למד).[12]


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.[13]

Augustine of Hippo is generally considered the last major ancient writer to have some knowledge of Punic and is considered the "primary source on the survival of [late] Punic". According to him, Punic was still spoken in his region (Northern Africa) in the 5th century, centuries after the fall of Carthage, and there were still people who called themselves "chanani" (Canaanite: Carthaginian) at that time.[9]:4 He wrote around 401:

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.[14]

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 Ancient Greek, Latin and Punic. It may have even survived the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, as the geographer al-Bakri describes a people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in Sirte,[15] where spoken Punic survived well past written use.[16] However, it is likely that Arabization of the Punics was facilitated by their language belonging to the same group (both were Semitic languages) as that of the conquerors and so they had many grammatical and lexical similarities.[9]:71

The idea that Punic was the origin of Maltese was first raised in 1565.[17] Modern linguistics has proved that Maltese is in fact derived from Arabic, probably Siculo-Arabic specifically, with a large number of loanwords from Italian.[18] However, Punic was indeed spoken on the island of Malta at some point in its history, as evidenced by both the Cippi of Melqart, which is integral to the decipherment of Punic after its extinction, and other inscriptions that were found on the islands. Punic itself, being Canaanite, was more similar to Modern Hebrew than to Arabic.

Like its Phoenician parent, Punic was written from right to left, in horizontal lines, without vowels.[10]


Punic has 22 consonants.[19]

Orthography Name Transliteration Pronunciation Notes
Neo-Punic Phoenician
𐤀 ʾalp later ʾalf ʾ /ʔ/ Sometimes also used for the indication of vowels.
𐤁 Bēt b /b/
𐤂 Gaml g /g/
𐤃 Dalt d /d/
𐤄 He h /h/ Under Roman influence often elided but was still pronounced in certain Carthaginian words.
𐤅 Waw w /w/ Sometimes also used for the indication of the vowel "u".
𐤆 Zēn z /z/ In a few names attested as "sd", like in Hasdrubal for "ʿazrubaʿl", "esde" for heze ("this", used in some Punic dialects), but most texts show a simple "s": "syt" for zut ("this", in Late Punic)
𐤇 Ḥet /ħ/ Seldom used as a vowel for "a, e, i, o, u", the sound of Het was weakened, and words written usually with it were often instead written with the letter Alf in Late Punic inscriptions.
𐤈 Ṭet //
𐤉 Yod y /j/ Sometimes also used for the indication of the vowel "i" but mostly in foreign names.
𐤊 Kap k /k/ Some words in Latin transliterations, which ended with final Kof, show a spirantization as [χ], written indicated by "h" instead of the usual "ch".
𐤋 Lamd l /l/
𐤌 Mēm m /m/
𐤍 Nūn n /n/
𐤎 Semk s /s/
𐤏 ʿēn ʿ /ʕ/ Often used for the vowel "a" and "o" in late Punic, mostly for foreign Latin names.
𐤐 Pi later Fi p
In Late Punic and in Late Phoenician, p (/p/) underwent a fricativization to f (/f/) in the 3rd century BC.
𐤑 Tsade /sˤ/ Attested as "ts" mostly as "s" in Latin and Ancient Greek and Hittite, Lydian and Etruscan texts. Attested in some Latin texts as "st".
𐤒 Qop later Qof q /q/
𐤓 Rūš r /r/
𐤔 Shin š /ʃ/
𐤕 Taw t /t/

Table of consonant phonemes

Labial Alveolar Palatal
/ Velar
Uvular /
plain emphatic
Nasal m n
Stop p~f b td kg q ʔ
Fricative sz ʃ ħʕ h
Approximant w l j
Trill r


The definite article was evolving from Phoenician ha- to an unaspirated article a- by 406 B.C.E., when both variants were attested. In later inscriptions, only a- is used.[20]


Act V of Poenulus opens with Hanno speaking in Punic, his native language. The language of the next few lines (italicized) is uncertain but is believed to be Hebrew or "Lybic" [sic] (likely a misspelling of Libyc, a reference to one of the Berber languages), if not Punic. Plautus then provides a Latin translation of the preceding lines:[21]

Yth alonim ualonuth sicorathi symacom syth 930
chy mlachthi in ythmum ysthyalm ych-ibarcu mysehi
li pho caneth yth bynuthi uad edin byn ui
bymarob syllohom alonim ubymysyrthohom
byth limmoth ynnocho thuulech-antidamas chon
ys sidobrim chi fel yth chyl is chon chen liful 935
yth binim ys dybur ch-innocho-tnu agorastocles
yth emanethi hy chirs aelichot sithi nasot
bynu yid ch-illuch ily gubulim lasibithim
bodi aly thera ynnynu yslym min cho-th iusim

Yth alonim ualoniuth sicorathii sthymhimi hymacom syth 940
iulecantheconaalonimbalumbar dechor
bats . . . . hunesobinesubicsillimbalim
donobun.hun ec cil thumucommucroluful 945
sitt esed anec naso ters ahelicot
alemu [y]s duber timur mucop[m] suistiti
aoccaaneclictorbod es iussilim limmim colus

deos deasque veneror, qui hanc urbem colunt, 950
ut quod de mea re huc veni rite venerim,
measque hic ut gnatas et mei fratris filium
reperire me siritis, di vostram fidem.
[quae mihi surruptae sunt et fratris filium.]
sed hic mihi antehac hospes Antidamas fuit; 955
eum fecisse aiunt, sibi quod faciundum fuit.
eius filium esse hic praedicant Agorastoclem:
ad eum hospitalem hanc tesseram mecum fero;
is in hisce habitare monstratust regionibus.
hos percontabor qui hinc egrediuntur foras.

An English translation is as follows:

I worship the gods and goddesses who preside over this city, that I may have come hither with good omen as to this business of mine, on which I have come; and, ye gods, lend me your aid, that you may permit me to find my daughters and the son of my cousin; those who were stolen away from me, and his son from my cousin. But here lived formerly my guest Antidamas. They say that he has done that which he was doomed to do. They say that his son Agorastocles lives here. To him am I carrying with me this token of hospitality. He has been pointed as living in this neighbourhood. I'll make enquiry of these who are coming hither out of doors.[21]

As a Latin transliteration, the text recorded necessarily departs from the original Punic speech. In addition, the "unknown" text differs in different manuscript sources, with the P ("Palatine") script showing some words being split out and some mis-interpretations.[23] The "unknown" text used here is from the A (Ambrosian Palimpsest) family; both families have lost small chunks of text over time. Some efforts have been made to, among other things, fill in the redactions in the "unknown language" part and to properly split the morphemes. The close mirroring between lines 930-931a/940 and lines 937/947 (underlined above) appear to suggest that the "unknown language" text is also Punic. It is usually assumed that the more corrupted "unknown" form is earlier.[24][25][26] Some punic phrases known in the text include:

  • 930-931a/940: 'yt 'lnm w'lnt šqrt qr't 'š tmlkn 'lt hmqm z. The "z" (𐤆) comes from an "esse" kept in the P version. "mucom" in 949 is also MQM.[24]
  • 937/947: 't z 'nk nš't ly ḥrs hhlkt. Same "esse".[24]
  • "duber" in 940-949: Semitic root DBR "read".[25] "fel": Semitic root P'L "do".[24]


  1. Adams, James Noel (2008). Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-5217-3151-5.
  2. Moscati, Sabatino (2001). The Phoenicians. I.B.Tauris. p. 200. ISBN 9781850435334.
  3. Palma, Salvatore Di (2014-11-18). L'Histoire des marques depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au moyen âge (in French). Société des Ecrivains. p. 139. ISBN 9782342031201.
  4. Jouhaud, Edmond Jules René (1968). Historie de l'Afrique du Nord (in French). Éditions des Deux Cogs dÓr. p. 22.
  5. Camps, Gabriel (2015-10-09). L'Afrique du Nord au féminin (in French). Perrin (réédition numérique FeniXX). p. 45. ISBN 9782262057435.
  6. Temporini, Hildegard (2016-09-26). Politische Geschichte (Provinzen und Randvölker: Allgemeines; Britannien, Hispanien, Gallien) (in French). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 664. ISBN 9783110882070.
  7. Caruana, A. A. (1852). Report on the Phœnician and Roman Antiquities in the Group of the Islands of Malta. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 50.
  8. Guzzo, Maria Giulia Amadasi (2014). "Punic Scripts". In Jo Ann Hackett and Walter Emanuel Aufrecht (ed.). "An Eye for Form": Epigraphic Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1-57506-303-4. The place to begin is with a definition of what can be called a Punic script in relation to a Punic language. Conventionally, we call “Punic” the writing typical of Carthage, which spread to other colonies when the “New City” became the “capital” of the Phoenician west. Judging from the existing data on the history of the region, Carthage became leader of the other colonies toward the middle to the end of the 6th century B.C.E., when we first know of symbola with the Etruscan cities, the first treaty with Rome (ca. 509 B.C.E.), and the first Carthaginian involvement in wars in Sardinia and Sicily. One can suppose that, before this period, the Phoenician language, written according to Phoenician orthographic and paleographic conventions, was still in use in the west, with some local changes in the scripts from region to region or from city to city… As for language, the Phoenician-Punic grammars (the authors of which generally do not agree on the classification of the different phases and dialects of Phoenician) make a distinction between Phoenician and Punic. They lack precision, however, when they attempt to define the characteristics of Punic and the period in which it originated… We are able to distinguish Punic from Phoenician (in part) because of the orthography of the written language. The first linguistic characteristic we can recognize is the tendency to drop the pronunciation of the laryngeal ʾalep, followed by he (in Punic), and finally, the whole series of laryngeals and pharyngeals (in late Punic).
  9. Jongeling, Karel; Kerr, Robert M. (2005). Late Punic Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic Inscriptions. Mohr Siebeck. ISBN 978-3-1614-8728-6.
  10. "Punic". Omniglot. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  11. Rollin, Charles, Ancient Carthage, archived from the original on 2008-05-09, retrieved 2014-06-18
  12. Blažek, Václav (2014), "Phoenician/Punic Loans in Berber Languages and Their Role in Chronology of Berber" Archived 2019-06-22 at the Wayback Machine, Folia Orientalia, Vol. 51, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic.
  13. Sznycer, Maurice (1967). Les passages puniques en transcription latine dans le Poenulus de Plaute [The Punic passages in Latin transcription in Poenulus by Plautus]. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck.
  14. Augustine of Hippo, Monteverde, Franco (ed.), "Epistola 17" [Letter 17], Sant'Agostino — Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana
  15. Dunn, Michael Collins (2013-07-30). "Did Punic Survive Until the Advent of Arabic? Part 4: The Post-Augustine Evidence". MEI Editor's Blog. Retrieved 2019-08-30.
  16. Jongeling, Karel. "Latino-Punic texts from North Africa". Dept of Comparative Linguistics, Leiden University. Archived from the original on 9 November 2005.
  17. Cassar, Mario. "L-Istorja tal-Ilsien Malti" [The History of the Maltese language] (in Maltese). Akkademja tal-Malti. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23.
  18. Vella, Alexandra (2004). "Language contact and Maltese intonation: Some parallels with other language varieties". In Braunmüller, Kurt; Ferraresi, Gisella (eds.). Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. Hamburg Studies on Multiculturalism. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 263. ISBN 978-90-272-1922-0.
  19. Segert, Stanislav (1976). A Grammar of Phoenician and Punic. Munich: Beck. ISBN 978-3-406-00724-8.
  20. Krahmalkov, Charles. R (2001). A Phoenician-Punic grammar, p. 10. Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section One, the Near East and the Middle East 54. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  21. Riley, Henry Thomas. "The Comedies of Plautus". Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University.
  22. Plautus. "Poenulus". The Latin Library.
  23. Schröder, Paul (1869). Die phönizische Sprache: Entwurf einer Grammatik nebst Sprach- und Schriftproben : mit einem Anhang enthaltend eine Erklärung der punischen Stellen im Pönulus des Plautus (in German). Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses. p. 287.
  24. Krahmalkov, Charles R. (1988). "Observations on the Punic Monologues of Hanno in the "Poenulus"". Orientalia. 57 (1): 55–66. ISSN 0030-5367. JSTOR 43075544.
  25. Gratwick, A. S. (1971). "Hanno's Punic Speech in the Poenulus of Plautus". Hermes. 99 (1): 25–45. ISSN 0018-0777. JSTOR 4475664.
  26. Rosół, Rafał (2012). "Zum Monolog Des Hanno Im Plautinischen Poenulus (V. 930-960)". Hermes. 140 (1): 89–95.

Further reading

  • Hoftijzer, Jacob, and Karel Jongeling. 1985. Dictionary of the north-west Semitic inscriptions. With appendices by R. C. Steiner, A. Mosak-Moshavi, and B. Porten. 2 vols. Handbuch der Orienatlistik, Erste Abteilung: Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  • Jongeling, K. 2008. Handbook of Neo-Punic Inscriptions. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
  • Jongeling, K., and Robert M Kerr. 2005. Late Punic Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic Inscriptions. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
  • Kerr, Robert M. 2010. Latino-Punic Epigraphy: A Descriptive Study of the Inscriptions. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
  • Krahmalkov, Charles. 1970. "Studies in Phoenician and Punic Grammar." Journal of Semitic Studies 15, no.2: 181–88.
  • --. 2000. Phoenician-Punic dictionary. Studia Phoenicia 15. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.
  • --. 2001. A Phoenician-Punic grammar. Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section One, the Near East and the Middle East 54. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  • Schmitz, Philip C. "Phoenician-Punic Grammar and Lexicography in the New Millennium." Journal of the American Oriental Society 124, no. 3 (2004): 533-47. doi:10.2307/4132279.
  • Segert, Stanislav. 1976. A Grammar of Phoenician and Punic. München: C.H. Beck.
  • --. 2003. "Phoenician-punic: Grammar and dictionary." Archív Orientální 71. no. 4: 551–56.
  • Tomback, Richard S. 1978. A comparative Semitic lexicon of the Phoenician and Punic languages. Missoula, MT: Scholars.
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