The Veronese Riddle.

From Giulio Lepschy, “History of the Italian Language,” in Gaetana Marrone, Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies, Vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 2007):

Frequently collections of Early Italian texts begin with documents for which it is difficult to say if they are in Latin or in Italian, such as the Indovinello veronese (Veronese Riddle), penned at the beginning of the ninth century (or possibly earlier) on a page of a prayer book prepared in the seventh or eighth century and now preserved in the Chapter Library at Verona. The text says: “se pareba boves alba pratalia araba & albo versorio teneba & negro semen seminaba” (He was driving oxen, ploughing white meadows and holding a white plough and sowing black seed. This is one of the many possible interpretations).

The riddle is apparently about oxen and ploughing and sowing, and the solution is the quill used for writing, leaving ink traces on the page. Linguistically, certain features are clearly Latin (b instead of v in the imperfect endings of pareba, araba, teneba, seminaba; the consonant endings in boves and semen; the voiceless t instead of d in pratalia). Others are, equally clearly, vernacular (the dropping of the consonantal endings in the -ba instead of –bat suffixes; the endings in –o instead of –um in albo, versorio, negro; the pronoun se instead of sibi).

Via Laudator Temporis Acti. If you want to read more of Lepschy’s article, here’s the page at Google Books.


  1. The Encyclopedia’s next page isn’t available in Google Books, but I could buy the e-book from Google for $540. I wonder how often that happens.

    The passage following mentions assumed pronunciations in documents from Pompeii that mirror today’s Campanian dialectic pronunciations. Is that phenomemon widespread?

  2. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Pretty interesting. I would guess that the intent was to be Latin but phonetically spelled according to contemporary pronunciation.

  3. A reasonable guess.

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