11 Jul 2010

An etymology for 'Rome'

I think I finally got it. This etymology has eluded me for a while but with so much to look up I left it on the backburner, simmering like a spicy gumbo. Nonetheless, it frustrated me at every turn. In almost every book, there's always the same answer: "unknown origin". Worse yet, some lazy etymologists tack its origin on Etruscan without any substantiation whatsoever, often without even being qualified in this language, effectively explaining one mystery with another.[1] How convenient. However, just last night, I had a brainwave and it all seems to have fallen into place. Here's what I believe to be the most optimal solution I can muster.

I dare say the name of 'Rome' was originally Umbrian, not Etruscan nor Latin: *Rūma. It would literally have meant '(Town of) flowing waters', from *rūmōn 'river; flowing water', a securely Indo-European formation built on the root *reu- 'to flow, to run (as of liquid)' and the derivational suffix *-mo-. When we gander at an ancient dialect map, we see that the ancestors of the Umbri probably covered the area of Etruria before the arrival of the Etruscans. It also helps that an ancient name for the Tiber, the river running into Rome, was Rumon according to Servius.[2] I can find no possible, attested root in Etruscan at all to help us unlock its meaning nor has anyone else published anything convincing and competent to this effect, so an Etruscan origin seems the least likely in all of this.

When the Etruscans finally came, they would have adopted the Umbrian name, thus Etruscan *Ruma. Note that Etruscan has no phonemic long vowels. In fact, the Etruscan language has no phonemic contrast between u and o either. Therefore, probably being pronounced [ˈɾo.mə] (assuming u in open syllables was pronounced as high-back /o/), the early Latini would have adopted it as Rōma (its original meaning in Umbrian presumably lost or obscured at this point).

Further word associations, immaterial to the debate of Rome's etymology, such as the pun with Latin rumis 'teat' created the myth of the nursing she-wolf protecting the founding twins, Romulus and Remus. Sound good? Good.

[1] Gessman, The tongue of the Romans: Introduction to the history of Latin and the Romance languages (1970), p.8 (see link); Pulgram, The tongues of Italy: Prehistory and history (1958), p.256 (see link).
[2] Servius, Aeneas 8.63 (see link): "Nam hoc est Tiberini fluminis proprium, adeo ut ab antiquis Rumon dictus sit, quasi ripas ruminans et exedens."; Servius' passage is acknowledged in Partridge, Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1977), p.2809 (see link). The fact that the author claims "more likely from Etruscan Ruma, the name of an Etruscan clan" despite being comparatively much less secure, even after already elucidating a perfectly rational and sufficient origin through Rumon, is a puzzling but typical display of obscurum per obscurius that continues to irk me as a reader.


  1. Yes, no doubt since Corssen read Servius' own classical etymology. This etymology is quite ancient, I know.

    However, here I'm adding to this view the detail that the name possibly transfered specifically from Umbrian first to Etruscan second to Latin third. This transfer pattern would obscure the original etymology among Latin speakers because of the non-IE/Etruscan intermediary that garbled the vocalism ever so slightly.

    I also am openly challenging those who claim an Etruscan origin based on no evidence to speak of and those that would dare elevate these flimflam Etruscan etymologies to the same level as Servius' etymology from Rumon which makes by far the most sense. As far as I'm concerned, it seems to be the only plausible etymology remaining.

    In fact, I'm wondering when the association between this placename and Latin rumis started and by what people? There are a lot of interesting filaments in this semantic web that I still need to understand.

  2. To clarify on the topic of flimflam Etruscan etymologies that irk me, see for example Augias/Jenkens, The Secrets of Rome: Love & death in the eternal city (2007), p.3 (see link): "Other hypotheses include the Etruscan word rumon, or river, and thus the 'city of the river,' or the Oscan ruma, or hill."

    The joke here is that there is no such word **rumon in the attested Etruscan lexicon and it's evidently Indo-European in formation. In fact, to even claim that any word in Etruscan contained "o" is a confession of complete ignorance. An example of things that shouldn't have been published. I rest my case.

  3. Another author shoveling bull manure: Baldi, The foundations of Latin (1999), p.106: "It is possible that Rome and its name are due to the Etruscans (cf. Etr. rumon 'river')."

    Again, the alleged Etruscan word is imaginary, concocted out of thin air. I don't get it.

  4. Yes, your positing an Umbrian -> Etruscan form is an advance over Corssen.

  5. (assuming u in open syllables was pronounced as high-back /o/)

    Are you assuming this part just for the sake of this etymology, or are there other examples of Etruscan /u/ in open syllables reflected as Latin /ō/? (Or, for that matter, as something else.)

  6. Stephen Carlson: "Yes, your positing an Umbrian -> Etruscan form is an advance over Corssen."

    If you're speaking about general migrations now, and if Corssen had proposed that Etruscans had taken over former Umbrian territory, then yes.

    There remains an inane controversy concerning how Etruscans entered Italy or, if we are to follow Larissa Bonfante, whether they came from elsewhere at all. I come to the conclusion from what I have been finding versus what Bonfante states that Bonfante is completely contrarian to reality. I've come to the view that Etruscans must not only be from Asia Minor (as per Herodotus) but must also have first entered Italy from the Po Valley to the north-east (off of the Adriatic Sea). This seems to be the only way to explain the linguistic facts (and also, I think, manages to explain the archaeological ones).

    As the Etruscans spread through from the north, then, they would adopt Umbrian terms and the Umbrians would likewise adopt Etruscan terms, all occurring before the Orientalizing Period.

  7. Tropylium: "Are you assuming this part just for the sake of this etymology, or are there other examples of Etruscan /u/ in open syllables reflected as Latin /ō/? (Or, for that matter, as something else.)"

    It's based on the fact that in a language without phonemic contrast between /u/ and /o/, there will nonetheless likely be free variation or allophonic alternation under the one vowel "u".

    Much shared Etrusco-Latin vocabulary shows Latin "o" in place of Etruscan "u", such as Latin tōfus/Etr tupi.

  8. I think it's probably best not to get me started on what I really think of the Bonfantes' idea that the Etruscans were autochthonous. Your more measured response will have to suffice.

  9. This has been bothering me for years, but (not being a philologist) I could only follow the question so far. But as a historian, I know an unsupported assertion when I see it, and the Etruscan etymology bit is a prime example. Thanks for the debunk!

  10. One fun result of this is that Romulus becomes a "Man of the Flowing Water" and Remus becomes an "Oar", Romulus just using Remus as a tool to found the city on the river. Metaphorically, of course!