Barbarian Language in a Chinese movie

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From Alex Baumans:

I'm getting more and more interested in Chinese pop culture, so I keep discovering things.
I recently watched Painted Skin 2, which is your typical fantasy action movie, with star crossed lovers, a princess, a fox spirit and a lone outpost of the area surrounded by barbarians.
When these barbarians (and they are truly depicted as barbarians, straight from Hyboria) came on screen, I pricked up my ears. As I said in an earlier mail, my Chinese is next to non existent, but I have watched a lot of reality shows with The9 these last weeks, and this didn't sound like any Chinese I was used to.
Even more bafflingly, I had the impression I could make out some Indian sounding words like 'rajaputra' [VHM: "prince"] and 'deva' [VHM:  "god; deity"] which would be appropriate in the context. These may be mondegreens, as I don't know any Indian languages. I have only watched a fair bit of Bollywood cinema and have a background in Farsi.
So I thought this little enigma (if it is one) would amuse you.

As for the timing, it is some time in. After the princess has reached the outpost, she goes to a lakeside and is spotted by a barbarian scout.

[VHM:  This is at around the 36 minute mark.]

Then there is a scene between the high priest and the queen (apparently cosplaying San from Mononoke Hime). 

There is another bit in the climax when the high priest performs the ritual.
[VHM:  This begins at 1:47:16 / 2:11:32.]

I hear a number of words that sound Sanskritic (deva ["deity, god"]; atma ["soul"]; raja ["king"], tam ["him"]; and many others), plus some verbal endings).

Here's the whole film on YouTube, with English subtitles:

Here's a link to the IMDb page.


The theme of both films is inspired by the famous story, "The Painted Skin" (Huàpí 畫皮), written by the celebrated Qing period author of tales of the supernatural, Pu Songling (1640-1715), and collected in his Liáozhāi zhìyì 聊齋誌異 (Strange Tales from Make-do Studio; 1740).  Like many late imperial writers of vernacular fiction, Pu was from the province of Shandong — home of Confucius and Mencius (the first and second sages of Confucianism) and my wife's family.


Suggested readings


  1. Chas Belov said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 7:03 pm

    Today is not my day for directing comments properly. That's what I get for having >5 Language Log tabs open at once.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 7:12 pm

    I fixed two of them.

  3. Nicky said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 8:27 pm

    There was an Indian fantasy epic "Baahubali" and the producers of a film hired a linguist to develop barbarian language. You can listen to it here:

  4. Peter Erwin said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 3:04 am

    In the 2010 Hong Kong film Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame, there is a scene near the beginning where a visiting Arab ambassador is shown a giant Buddha statue under construction. The ambassador (referred to in the cast list as "Umayyad Ambassador", which would actually be correct for the film's late-7th-Century setting) and his translator talk to each other in Spanish, which I thought was an amusing touch.

    I'm wondering if Sanskrit might function as a plausible-seeming "language of ancient mystery and magic" (for fantasy-historical settings), given that most Buddhist texts in China were originally translated from Sanskrit (or Pali)…

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

    From Deven Patel:

    Yup, lots of Sanskrit — some random words, some sentences. Here's something quick about what I'm hearing.

    Clip at 36 minutes: An invocation to Brahma the Creator (PrapitAmahA Deva) to give me power (me balam yaccha?), heaven (svarga), I have conquered (?) doubt (me saMzayam jiti[?]).

    Clip at 1:47 minutes: O god of gods (devadeva), god of the earth (bhUmideva), in the sky to me (gagane mahyam), svacchandena dharmi (?), rajyavaMzam (?) svayam /svaryan darzayet (one ought to see oneself as the royal lineage). I have gained awareness of myself in my own self (AtmacittaH svasthAnam pratipadyA).

  6. Alex Baumans said,

    September 22, 2020 @ 1:26 am

    Glad to know that I wasn't suffering from auditory hallucinations. Could this actually be Sanskrit, reproduced phonetically by Chinese actors?

    Also would the use of Sanskrit as a language of mystery and magic be similar to the function of bog Latin in modern fantasy, such as Harry Potter and its ilk?

  7. ajay said,

    September 22, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    Bog Latin? Dog Latin I'd heard of ("noli illegitimi te carborundum" for example), but bog Latin?

  8. Alex Baumans said,

    September 22, 2020 @ 11:43 am

    Bog Latin as a parallel to Bog Irish

    If you believe the internet, it was already known in 1811

    Bog Latin (Grose 1811 Dictionary)
    Bog Latin
    Barbarous Latin. Irish.—See Dog Latin, and Apothecaries latin.

    Definition taken from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2020 @ 12:18 pm

    From Varun Khanna:

    Yes! This is totally Sanskrit! How bizarre. He's propitiating the gods to grant someone heaven. He says, "Oh god the great-grandfather, give me the fruit (result of my sacrifice). Grant [me] heaven. Destroy my doubts." He beseeches the queen (princess?) to fight (?) saying, "— watches like Rāhu watches the sun. As you will swallow only the fruit, the (son of the) kingdom will come very close —" Then the woman says something like "oh great god Rāhu! Lift me, this woman, …" I can't quite understand what the priest man says after that, but it's something along the lines of, "— the ruler of the army does not come. Capture her!"

    I could be way off here, but this is just what it sounds like to me. What did you find out about it? How very entertaining!

  10. Rich said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 7:22 pm

    The creepy priest guy at 36" is definitely speaking Sanskrit.

    Prapitāmaha deva me phalam gaccha ehi
    Svarga me samśayam chidi

    Paśya yathā rāhu sūryaṁ graṣiṣyati

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