From Lexicon Leponticum
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Attestation: TI·27.1 (kuaśoni:pala:telialui), TI·31 (]aḷạ[), TI·33 (]nialui:pala), TI·34.1 (aui:pala:), TI·34.2 (otiui:pala), TI·34.3 (]rkomui:pal[), TI·36.1 (slaniai:uerkalai:pala), TI·36.2 (tisiui:piuotialui:pala), TI·39 (piuonei:tekialui:lala), TI·43 (]ọni:kuimpaḷui:pạḷạ), TI·44 (]ọni:klanalui:p̣ala), TI·45.1 (]ẹ?ẹ[   ]alui:pala), TI·45.2 (aụaị:uesa?aị:pala) (13)
Language: Lepontic
Word Type: noun

Grammatical Categories: nom. sg. fem.
Stem Class: ā

Morphemic Analysis: pal
Phonemic Analysis: /palā/ (?)
Meaning: 'grave' (?)


ā-stem noun in the nominative which forms part of what appears to be the standard Lepontic funerary formula of the 4th–2nd century BC: 'to X son/daughter of Y the pala'. The nominative form is repeatedly attested on grave stelae in the Ticino (see the map below); only the archaic Vergiate inscription from south of the Lake region contains the accusative palam.

Though the function of the word in inscriptions is fairly evident – viz., it refers to the grave or some element of it – its exact meaning and etymology are unclear. Its phonetical form could a priori be [pālā] or [ballā] or any combination of these elements. Eska & Mercado 2005 (also 2011) provisionally transcribe VA·6 palam with anlauting /b/ on the assumption that it alliterates with pruiam (putative /brūi̯ām/).

The word was first (I believe) suggested to mean 'grave' by Pauli 1885: 71, who compares Etruscan inscriptions of the type 'this the grave (śuθi) of X Y'. (His connection of the word with Goth. filhan and Lat. sepeliō can be disregarded; see Hirunuma 1990: 62 f., 64 f.) Pisani 1964: 281, 285 translates 'tomba' or 'sepolcro'. Kretschmer 1905: 100 f., though agreeing with the interpretation, suggests to derive the word from a PC *kal- as reconstructed by Stokes & Bezzenberger 1894: 57 on the basis of OIr. claidid, W palu, Corn. palas, Bret. palat 'dig', MW, Corn., Bret. pal 'spade, shovel' (in W later also 'dug soil, a digging') (cf. IEW: 545). Rhŷs 1913: 4 f., apparently also inspired by Stokes & Bezzenberger, further compares MW paladyr 'spear shaft', OIr. celtair 'spear, lance', and interprets pala as "a plot of ground marked out for a burial place with stakes" (cf. also W pal '(that which is enclosed by a) pale', see GPC s.v. pâl 2). As observed by Hirunuma 1990: 62, PC *kal- 'dig' is a chimera: all OIr. words have unconnected etymologies and must be set aside; OBrit. pal 'spade' (W palu is a secondary verb derived from pal) can be explained as a borrowing from Lat. pāla 'spade' with shortened root vowel. The connection of Lep. pala with these Insular Celtic words is rejected by Whatmough PID II: 69, who (PID III: 34) throws Umbr. pelsā- 'bury' into the discussion. The effort to furnish pala with a PIE etymology was and is rendered challenging by the scarcity both of convincing Celtic comparanda and of phonetically as well as semantically fitting PIE roots.

An alternative route is taken by scholars who explain pala as a loan from a substrate or adstrate language, which usually results in an interpretation 'stone', pala referring specifically to the stela on which the inscription is written. Many of the various theories involve an "Alpine" or "Mediterranean" word pala 'rock, ledge, mountain' vel sim. – see PID III: 34, Tovar 1985: 235 f., Hirunuma 1990: 65–68 and Pellegrini 1983: 34–36 for literature; the latter disputes a comparison of Lep. pala with the alleged toponomastic 'rock'-word, which he considers to be from Latin pāla 'spade'. A related idea works with the second element (?) of the Ligurian (?) hydronym ue/indupalis (line 9 IN RIUO UENDOPALE EX RIUO UINDOPALE) in the Sententia Minuciorum (CIL V 7749, 117 BC). Already mentioned by Whatmough PID III: 34, its popularity is due to Lejeune 1971: 85–87, who, with reference to Devoto 1939 and Devoto 1962: 201 (with further literature), analyses the form as a bahuvrīhi u̯indo-palis 'having white palas', concluding that pala can but mean 'stone'. Observing that there are no words for 'stone' to compare in IE, he considers pala to be a pre-IE lexeme, borrowed from Ligurian into Lepontic or by both from a different substrate. The connection of uindopalis with Lep. pala, however, is by no means evident; see Prósper 1998 for a different analysis (with literature on pala p. 144). A third version of the 'stone'-theory is put forward by Meid 1991: 39 f., n. 9, who connects pala to the PIE nominal root *pel(s)- 'rock, stone' (IEW: 807) – since the direct derivation of Lep. pala from *pel- is precluded by initial *p, which should have been lost or at the very least weakened in a Celtic language (see The Cisalpine Celtic Languages), Meid assumes a later borrowing (from a non-IE language, as he considers *pel- to be ultimately of pre-IE origin). See also Meid 1989b: 304, n. 11; Meid 1999: 14. Risch 1989: 1581, who translates 1970: 130, n. 5 'grave monument' ("Grabmal"), 1984: 26 'gravestone', mentions that an unnamed colleague at Zürich pointed out the existence of a dialectal balun 'block of stone' in the Ticino. The meaning '(grave)stone' for Lep. pala is the one usually given – also with regard to the word's appearance in VA·6, where it complements pruiam, which is assumed to refer to the grave (construction) itself (e.g. Morandi 2017: 367; see also Tibiletti Bruno 1978: 141 and her publications on VA·6).

Since neither of the above options – an IE etymology for 'grave' or a loanword 'stone' – is necessarily convincing, some scholars prefer not to commit themselves to a translation, seeing that the word's function is non-problematic, e.g. Hirt 1917: 211; Prosdocimi & Solinas 2017: 344; Eska & Mercado 2005: 162 f., 168; Eska 2019: 55, n. 12. Eska & Mercado 2005: 168, however, do report an oral suggestion by Raimo Anttila, who derives the word from the PIE root *bʰeh₂- 'speak' → *bʰh̥₂-lo- 'speaking (stone)'; the homonymous and possibly identical root *bʰeh₂- 'shine' (LIV²: 68 f., NIL: 7–11) appears to form a derivation in -lo- in Indo-Iranian (though with unsuitable semantics).

Recently, Solinas 2015: 188–195 has argued extensively that Lep. pala is more likely to refer to the grave in its entirety rather than just the stone on which the inscription is written. She also proposes (p. 195 f.) to derive pala from the PIE root *kelh₁- 'turn', suggesting a meaning along the lines of 'circular construction', which would originally have referred to round tumulus graves, then to any grave. Interestingly, *kelh₁- brings us back to Kretschmer's etymology insofar as OBrit. pal 'spade' could theoretically be derived directly from that root (in its semantic aspect relating to the turning of soil, cf. Lat. colere, Gr. πολέω, LIV²: 386 f.). The same goes for MW paladyr, though the etymology is doubtful (see Schrijver 1995: 82–84; Zair 2012: 167). But even if the 'spade'-words were discounted as loans, *kelh₁- 'turn' is securely continued in Celtic n-infix presents: OIr. do·imm-chella < *to-ambi-kelna-, do·air-chella < *to-ari-kelna- 'walk around something, encircle, enclose', W pallu 'end, perish, decay, die' (see Schumacher 2004: 427–429 with literature). Between them, the Celtic (possible and certain) continuations of *kelh₁- provide a range of semantic options for a verbal noun *kl̥h₁-eh₂ 'grave' vel sim. (e.g. 'dug-up space' → 'grave', 'enclosed space' → 'grave chamber', 'encircled area' → 'burial precinct'). While a specific interpretation is difficult, *kelh₁- seems the most promising choice for a PIE etymology of palā. However, Stefan Höfler p.c. points out to me that Umbr. pelsā-, already mentioned by Whatmough, attests a meaning 'bury' for the PIE root *pelh₂- 'cover' in Italy (see Höfler 2017: 19, Weiss 2010: 310–313). While *p in the anlaut remains problematic, in light of the apposite semantics one might consider a loan of an otherwise unattested verbal noun *pl̥h₁-eh₂ 'grave' vel sim. from an IE adstrate.

See also Prósper 1996 on hydronymic *pal- and Prósper 2002: 44–47 on Lusit. trebopala (with literature).

David Stifter, Corinna Salomon


Distribution of inscriptions including the words pala and palam:

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Marker 030.png pala (13); Marker 060.png palam (1)


CIL Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. (17 volumes, various supplements)
Devoto 1939 Giacomo Devoto, "Pala « rotondità »", Studi Etruschi 13 (1939), 311–316.
Devoto 1962 Giacomo Devoto, "Pour l'histoire de l'indo-européanisation de l'Italie septentrionale: quelques étymologies lépontiques", Revue de Philologie 88 (1962), 197–208.
Eska & Mercado 2005 Joseph Francis Eska, Angelo O. Mercado, "Observations on verbal art in ancient Vergiate", Historische Sprachforschung 118 (2005), 160-184.
Eska & Mercado 2011 Joseph F. Eska, Angelo O. Mercado, "More on the metrical structure in the inscription of Vergiate", Historische Sprachforschung 124 (2011), 227–238.
Eska 2019 Joseph F. Eska, "Vergiateter", in: Adam Alvah Catt, Ronald I. Kim, Brent Vine (eds), QAZZU warrai. Anatolian and Indo-European Studies in Honor of Kazuhiko Yoshida, Ann Arbor / New York: Beech Stave Press 2019, 50–58.
GPC R. J. Thomas, Gareth A. Bevan, Patrick J. Donovan, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, Caerdydd: University of Wales Press 1950–.