|Region||Southwest Iberian Peninsula|
|Extinct||after 5th century BC|
Approximate extension of the area under Tartessian influence
The Tartessian language is the extinct Paleo-Hispanic language of inscriptions in the Southwestern script found in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, mainly in the south of Portugal (Algarve and southern Alentejo), and the southwest of Spain (south of Extremadura and western Andalusia). There are 95 such inscriptions, the longest having 82 readable signs. Around one third of them were found in Early Iron Age necropolises or other Iron Age burial sites associated with rich complex burials. It is usual to date them to the 7th century BC and to consider the southwestern script to be the most ancient Paleo-Hispanic script, with characters most closely resembling specific Phoenician letter forms found in inscriptions dated to c. 825 BC. Five of the inscriptions occur on stelae with what has been interpreted as Late Bronze Age carved warrior gear from the Urnfield culture.
Most researchers use the term Tartessian to refer to the language as attested on the stelae written in the Southwestern script, but some researchers would prefer to reserve the term Tartessian for the language of the core Tartessian zone, which is attested for those researchers with some archaeological graffiti – like the Huelva graffito and maybe with some stelae such as Villamanrique de la Condesa (J.52.1). Such researchers consider that the language of the inscriptions found outside the core Tartessian zone would be either a different language or maybe a Tartessian dialect and so they would prefer to identify the language of the stelae with a different title: "southwestern" or "south-Lusitanian". There is general agreement that the core area of Tartessos is around Huelva, extending to the valley of the Guadalquivir, but the area under Tartessian influence is much wider (see maps). Three of the 95 stelae and some graffiti, belong to the core area: Alcalá del Río (Untermann J.53.1), Villamanrique de la Condesa (J.52.1) and Puente Genil (J.51.1). Four have also been found in the Middle Guadiana (in Extremadura), and the rest have been found in the south of Portugal (Algarve and Lower Alentejo), where the Greek and Roman sources locate the pre-Roman Cempsi and Sefes and Cynetes peoples.
The most confident dating is for the Tartessian inscription (J.57.1) in the necropolis at Medellín, Badajoz, Spain to 650/625 BC. Further confirmatory dates for the Medellín necropolis include painted ceramics of the 7th–6th centuries BC.
In addition, a graffito on a Phoenician shard dated to the early to mid 7th century BC and found at the Phoenician settlement of Doña Blanca near Cadiz has been identified as Tartessian by the shape of the signs. It is only two signs long, reading ]tetu[ or perhaps ]tute[. It does not show the syllable-vowel redundancy more characteristic of the southwestern script, but it is possible that this developed as indigenous scribes adapted the script from archaic Phoenician and other such exceptions occur (Correa and Zamora 2008).
The script used in the mint of Salacia (Alcácer do Sal, Portugal) from around 200 BC may be related to the Tartessian script, though it has no syllable-vowel redundancy; violations of this are known, but it is not clear if the language of this mint corresponds with the language of the stelae (de Hoz 2010).
The Turdetani of the Roman period are generally considered the heirs of the Tartessian culture. Strabo mentions that: "The Turdetanians are ranked as the wisest of the Iberians; and they make use of an alphabet, and possess records of their ancient history, poems, and laws written in verse that are six thousand years old, as they assert." It is not known when Tartessian ceased to be spoken, but Strabo (writing c. 7 BC) records that "The Turdetanians ... and particularly those that live about the Baetis, have completely changed over to the Roman mode of life; with most of the populace not even remembering their own language any more."
Tartessian inscriptions are in the Southwestern script, which is also known as the Tartessian or South Lusitanian script. Like all other Paleo-Hispanic scripts, except for the Greco-Iberian alphabet, Tartessian uses syllabic glyphs for plosive consonants and alphabetic letters for other consonants. Thus, it is a mixture of an alphabet and a syllabary that is called a semi-syllabary. Some researchers believe these scripts are descended solely from the Phoenician alphabet, but others think that the Greek alphabet had an influence as well.
The Tartessian script is very similar to the Southeastern Iberian script, both in the shapes of the signs and in their values. The main difference is that the Southeastern Iberian script does not redundantly mark the vocalic values of syllabic characters, which was discovered by Ulrich Schmoll and allows the classification of most of the characters into vowels, consonants and syllabic characters. As of the 1990s, the decipherment of the script was largely complete and so the sound values of most of the characters are known. Like most other Paleo-Hispanic scripts, Tartessian does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants ([t] from [d], [p] from [b] or [k] from [ɡ]).
Tartessian is written in scriptio continua, which complicates the identification of individual words.
Tartessian is generally left unclassified for lack of data or proposed to be a language isolate for lack of connections to the Indo-European languages. Some Tartessian names have been interpreted as Indo-European, more specifically as Celtic. However, the language as a whole remains inexplicable from the Celtic or Indo-European point of view; the structure of Tartessian syllables appears to be incompatible with Celtic or even Indo-European phonetics and more compatible with Iberian or Basque; some scholars consider that all Celtic elements are borrowings.
Since 2009, John T. Koch has argued that Tartessian is a Celtic language and that the texts can be translated. Koch's thesis has been popularised by the BBC TV series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice and the associated book by Alice Roberts.[better source needed]
Although others such as Terrence Kaufman have suggested that Tartessian may be a Celtic language, this proposal is widely rejected by linguists. The current academic consensus regarding the classification of Tartessian as a Celtic language is summarized by de Hoz:
J. Koch’s recent proposal that the south-western inscriptions should be deciphered as Celtic has had considerable impact, above all in archaeological circles. However, the almost unanimous opinion of scholars in the field of Palaeohispanic studies is that, despite the author’s indisputable academic standing, this is a case of a false decipherment based on texts that have not been sufficiently refined, his acceptance of a wide range of unjustified variations, and on purely chance similarities that cannot be reduced to a system; these deficiencies give rise to translations lacking in parallels in the recorded epigraphic usage.
(The following are examples of Tartessian inscriptions. Untermann's numbering system, or location name in newer transcriptions, is cited in brackets, e.g. (J.19.1) or (Mesas do Castelinho). Transliterations are by Rodríguez Ramos .)
This is the longest Tartessian text known at present, with 82 signs, 80 of which have an identifiable phonetic value. The text is complete if it is assumed that the damaged portion contains a common, if poorly-understood, Tartessian phrase-form bᵃare naŕkᵉe[n—]. The formula contains two groups of Tartessian stems that appear to inflect as verbs: naŕkᵉe, naŕkᵉen, naŕkᵉeii, naŕkᵉenii, naŕkᵉentᶤi, naŕkᵉenai and bᵃare, bᵃaren, bᵃareii, bᵃarentᶤi from comparison with other inscriptions.
In the texts above, there are repetition of bᵃare-, naŕkᵉe-, tᶤile-, bᵒoii-, -tᵉero-, kᵃaltᵉe-, lok-, -ᵒonii, whereas bᵒoii tᵉero-bᵃare repeats three times, with assumably rero corruption of tᵉero in Mesas do Castelinho transcription. tᶤile- appears in the beginning of the sentence, which might imply, that in:
Mesas do Castelinho: Tᶤile kᵘuṟkᵘuarkᵃas tᵃa ḇᵘutᵉebᵃan. Tᶤile bᵒoii tᵉero bᵃare naŕkᵉe aφiuuliieianii. Tᵃa eanira Kᵃaltᵉe. Tᵃa obᵉesaru[?]an.
Fonte Velha: Logo boniirabotoaŕaiai galte, logo nanenaŕeŋaginśiiugolo boii tero bare betasiioonii.
Herdade da Abobada: iŕualkᵘusiel naŕkᵉen tᶤimubᵃa tᵉero bᵃare-[?]ᵃa. Tᵃa ne atᵉe.