Rhaetic on screen

I was amazed to hear recently that there is a film out where the dialogue is in Rhaetic. This is one of the more obscure languages of ancient Italy, and not one which usually gets a lot of attention. [NB – some links and videos in this post include images of human remains.]

Iceman (2017) is a film about the life of the man known as Ötzi, who lived sometime around 3400-3100 BC and was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Here’s a trailer for the film:

I have not seen the film yet, as it’s not playing anywhere near me at the moment – I’m keen to get hold of it! But keep in mind that I’m only speculating from the trailer so far.

The director, Felix Randau, has been pretty keen to emphasise that the film has no subtitles, and that the language being spoken is Rhaetic, an ancient language of the Alps. Most of the reviews of the film have picked up on this unusual detail. In this interview with ScienceMag.org, he says:

To me it always sounds ridiculous when in a movie about ancient Rome, people speak BBC English. So I contacted a linguist who reconstructed the language that could have been spoken in south Tyrol 5000 years ago. He took Rhaetic [a language spoken in the eastern Alps in pre-Roman and Roman times] and reconstructed it back to some ancient form. It’s not a real language and there are no subtitles in the movie, but you don’t have to understand the language because there isn’t much talking.

There’s some interesting things going on here. Randau sort of admits that you can get away with reconstructing a poorly-known ancient language and not subtitling it only if there isn’t much talking. Does this give the impression that Ötzi and his companions didn’t speak much? I’d have to see the whole film to be sure. But from the trailer, it does seem that speech is being used in plausible ways. And it’s good that it’s clear that the language is reconstructed.

So what are the actors actually speaking? As Randau hints, we have no evidence for what was being spoken in the Alps in 3100 BC. The use of the alphabet did not reach Italy until around 900 BC, and all our evidence of Rhaetic necessarily dates from later than that. Probably most of it is from after 500 BC. So, Ötzi is chronologically as far, or futher, from the surviving written evidence of Rhaetic as we are. (Or, alternatively, we might say that Ötzi is further from Rhaetic than the Romans are from BBC English…)

There’s no particular reason Ötzi would have been speaking anything even remotely similar to Rhaetic. Rhaetic is (probably) in a language family with Etruscan and Lemnian, sometimes called the Tyrrhenian language family, and we know little to nothing about their history before the first millennium BC. As this old comments thread discusses (several years before the film) , we’re getting into too many hypotheticals to be sure of anything about the languages that were spoken in this period. It’s possible that Indo-European languages were spoken in the region; but it’s possible they hadn’t spread this far yet. It’s possible that some proto-Tyrrhenian language was spoken, but who knows? It’s possible that people were still speaking some ‘Old European’ language that predates both PIE and Tyrrhenian languages in the area – but we know little to nothing about these, barring possibly survivals of place names. Certainly we have no evidence that allows us to project any kind of language situation back to 3100 BC.

Still, it’s a fun and interesting idea to try to reconstruct a kind of proto-Rhaetic and use it in a film, and I like that this kind of experiment comes around periodically. So what would this language have been like? A few words from the film are transcribed in this article in Nature (I assume by the reviewer). I don’t know how the linguist on the film went about his reconstruction, but if it were me I might use some Etruscan vocabulary in the mix as well. (Some people link Rhaetic to the Celtic languages, though, so they might have gone down that route instead.)

From the trailer, it seems like ceremonial, religious language is well-represented in the film, and that’s probably the only kind of Rhaetic vocabulary we can be sure of. Here’s a typical Rhaetic text: an inscribed antler, used as a votive dedication. (Image from this site.)


pitale lemais zinake ‘Pitale dedicated to Lemai’ (?)

We can’t be sure of the translation of a text like this, but the intention seems fairly clear. In this case, the verb zinake is almost identical to an Etruscan verb which means ‘made, established’, here maybe used as a verb of dedication. I hope this verb (and perhaps some carved votive antlers) have made it into the film somewhere.

I’m looking forward to seeing the film when I can get hold of a DVD – if you’ve seen it and noticed anything about the language, let me know!

One thought on “Rhaetic on screen

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  1. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s available to rent on Vudu, which isn’t a subscription, just online rental. Pretty good movie, but not much dialog.


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