Rhaetian language

Native to Ancient Rhaetia
Region Eastern Alps
Era Early 1st millennium BC to 3rd century AD[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xrr
Glottolog raet1238[2]
Tyrsenian languages.svg

Rhaetian /ˈrʃən/ or Rhaetic (Raetic) /ˈrtɪk/ was a language spoken in the ancient region of Rhaetia in the Eastern Alps in pre-Roman and Roman times. It is documented by three hundred inscriptions, found through Northern Italy, Southern Germany, Eastern Switzerland, Slovenia and Western Austria,[3] in two variants of the Etruscan alphabet.

The ancient Rhaetic language is not the same as one of the modern Romance languages of the same Alpine region, known as Rhaeto-Romance, but both are sometimes referred to as "Rhaetian".


Tyrrhenian language family tree as proposed by de Simone and Marchesini (2013) [4]

The German linguist Helmut Rix proposed in 1998 that Rhaetic, along with Etruscan, was a member of a proposed Tyrrhenian language family possibly influenced by neighboring Indo-European languages.[5][6] Robert S. P. Beekes also does not consider it Indo-European.[7] Scullard (1967), on the contrary, suggests it to be an Indo-European language, with links to Illyrian and Celtic.[8] Nevertheless, most scholars now think that Rhaetic is closely related to Etruscan within the Tyrrhenian grouping.[9]

Rix's Tyrsenian family has been confirmed by Stefan Schumacher,[10][11][12][13] Norbert Oettinger,[14] Carlo De Simone,[15] Simona Marchesini,[16] or Rex E. Wallace.[17] Common features between Etruscan, Rhaetian, and Lemnian have been found in morphology, phonology, and syntax. On the other hand, few lexical correspondences are documented, at least partly due to the scanty number of Rhaetian and Lemnian texts.[18][19] The Tyrsenian family, or Common Tyrrhenic, in this case is often considered to be Paleo-European and to predate the arrival of Indo-European languages in southern Europe.[20]

According to L. Bouke van der Meer, Rhaetic could have developed from Etruscan from around 900 BC or even earlier, and no later than 700 BC, when divergences are already present in inscriptions, such as in the grammatical voices of past tenses or in the endings of male gentilicia. Around 600 BC, the Rhaeti became isolated from the Etruscan area, probably by the Celts, thus limiting contacts between the two languages. However, van der Meer rejects the inclusion of Lemnian into the Tyrrhenian family.[9]


Retic culture and inscriptions

It is clear that in the centuries leading up to Roman imperial times, the Rhaetians had at least come under Etruscan influence, as the Rhaetic inscriptions are written in what appears to be a northern variant of the Etruscan alphabet. The ancient Roman sources mention the Rhaetic people as being reputedly of Etruscan origin, so there may at least have been some ethnic Etruscans who had settled in the region by that time.

In his Natural History (1st century AD), Pliny wrote about Alpine peoples:

adjoining these (the Noricans) are the Rhaeti and Vindelici. All are divided into a number of states.[a] The Rhaeti are believed to be people of Tuscan race[b] driven out by the Gauls; their leader was named Rhaetus.[21]

Pliny's comment on a leader named Rhaetus is typical of mythologized origins of ancient peoples, and not necessarily reliable. The name of the Venetic goddess Reitia has commonly been discerned in the Rhaetic finds, but the two names do not seem to be linked. The spelling as Raet- is found in inscriptions, while Rhaet- was used in Roman manuscripts; whether this Rh represents an accurate transcription of an aspirated R in Rhaetic or is an error is uncertain.

Many inscriptions are known, but most of them are only short and fairly repetitive, probably mostly votive texts. Rhaetic became extinct by the 3rd century AD, with its speakers eventually adopting Vulgar Latin in the south and Germanic in the north, and possibly Celtic prior to that.[22]

An altered variety of Rhaetian is "spoken" in Felix Randau's 2017 film Iceman.[23]

See also