In an excellent radio adaptation of Lindsey Davis’ novel, The Iron Hand of Mars, that I listened to today, some of the action takes place in Germania Magna, the area of Germania east of the Rhine that at the time (72 AD) was not part of the Roman Empire. At that time many different tribes lived there speaking Germanic, Celtic, Scythian, Baltic and Slavic languages, or ancestors of those languages. In the radio version of the story the Germanic people encountered in Germania Magna, or Free Germany, speak Welsh – an interesting use of a modern language to stand in for an ancient one. There were Celtic tribes in that region at that time, but the languages they spoke probably weren’t quite like modern Welsh.

Germania, or De Origine et situ Germanorum, by Cornelius Tacitus, which was written in 98 AD, provides more information about that region in the first century AD. He mentions a number of languages, including that of the Aestii, “who have the religion and general customs of the Suebi, but a language approximating to the British.” and who dwelled on the “right shore of the Suebian sea”. However, according to this source, the Aestii were probably Balts, ancestors of the Lithuanians, Latvians and Prussians and spoke a Baltic language.

Have you come across other examples of modern languages standing for ancient ones in this way?

5 thoughts on “Germania

  1. I’m not sure if this counts, exactly, but in the TV show “True Blood,” the flashback to the Old Norse era has Eric Northman speaking modern Swedish. It makes practical sense, as the actor is himself a native Swede. I don’t know enough to say whether they went to the trouble to make it sound “archaic” to someone who would know the difference.

  2. Again, not quite the same, but there are Yiddish-speaking Plains Indians in Blazing Saddles.

  3. Well, just remembered in Borat’s movie the usage of Hebrew and Armenian pretending they were speaking in Kazakh.

    Back in School, we were supposed to document some historical event as if it was a TV-show. Our group took the arrival of first Japanese immigrants in Brazil. We wanted to be ‘realistic’ and interview some ‘immigrants’ but none of us knew Japanese, though there were some students with Japanese family names. The ‘immigrant’ speech was all student’s family names said in sequence. Meaningless, of course but absolutely Japanese-sound-like!

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