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SPRECHEN SIE/PARLEZ-VOUS/HABLA USTED ROTWELSCH?

I HADN’T HEARD of Rotwelsch until I read Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s “The Secret Code That Threatened Nazi Fantasies of Racial Purity,” her review in The New York Times, October 13, 2020, of Martin Puchner’s The Language of Thieves

The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate, by Martin Puchner, W.W. Norton, 2020.

Street Talk. Rotwelsch has been around for some 900 years: Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes that it developed in the High Middle Ages, 1000 A.D-1250 A.D. “Welsch” meant “incomprehensible;” “rot,” from a word meaning “beggar.” It was street talk for tinkers, knife grinders, peddlers, and other itinerants working the populace.

Fonseca-Wollheim says that “a substantial amount of Rotwelsch is derived from Hebrew and Yiddish, such as gannef, for thief. This infusion probably reflects the large number of Jews forced into itinerant professions in the Early Modern period because of laws banning them from landownership and many trades. According to Puchner’s research, however, the great majority of Rotwelsch speakers were in fact not Jews.”

A German Boyhood. Martin Puchner is Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, where both his father and uncle were familiar with Rotwelsch. Fonseca-Wollheim writes, “As a boy, Puchner delighted in zesty phrases like ‘making a rabbit,’ which meant making a quick escape. On hikes, his father taught him to spot zinken on roadsides and farmhouses.

Street hieroglyphics. Zinken derives from the Latin signum, or sign. Even today, these pictograms carved on fence posts or chalked on buildings are coded street cred announcing free food, hostile constabulary, even local women of easy virtue. In his book, Puchner writes, “Their words for police, for being arrested, their zinken about begging and stealing, the rich vocabulary of food, drink, sex, and lice, all this spoke volumes about their lived experience.” 

These zinken describe that a thief known for speaking many languages (parrot) plans a robbery (key) of a church on St. Stephanus Day (three stones; St. Stephanus was martyred by stoning). Image via Martin Puchner from The New York Times.

Zinken are a kin of hobo signs, as mentioned in “Wha’Cha’M’Call It,” here at SimanaitisSays.

Here’s a Rosetta Stone of sorts, to those familiar with the German language. Image from westfalium.de.

Not Strictly a Language. Fonseca-Wollheim writes, “Technically, Rotwelsch is not a language (because it doesn’t have its own grammar).” Rather, it’s a sociolect, a dialect linking members of a community while keeping others in the dark.

Ironically, Rotwelsch’s rare appearances in written form came in response to police interrogations. Fonseca-Wollheim writes, “The speakers of the language were frequently illiterate, and in any case had no inclination to teach it to outsiders.”  

A Puchner Family Contrast. Puchner’s Uncle Günther took an interest in Rotwelsch. Fonseca-Wollheim writes, “Having taught himself as much as possible through records and by befriending vagrants who spoke it, he published a primer, wrote poetry in Rotwelsch, and even translated literary works into the language, including a synoptic Bible, passages from Romeo and Juliet, and the text of the German national anthem.”

By contrast, one of Puchner’s grandfathers, Karl, represented the family’s dark side: Karl’s 1937 doctoral dissertation embraced Nazism, German racial purity, and an abhorrence for linguistic mixing.  

 Rotwelsch’s Hebrew and Yiddish structure made it anathema to the Nazis. Nor was this the first time that Rotwelsch’s Hebrew and Yiddish roots aroused ire: Fonseca-Wollheim notes, “The most influential example was Martin Luther, who nourished a zealous hatred of Jews as well as of fraudulent itinerant monks who preyed on the gullible and the pious. In 1528 he republished an earlier anonymous screed against false beggars, the Liber Vagatorum, adding a glossary of words in Rotwelsch, a language Luther said ‘comes from the Jews.’ The list included the words sefel, for dirt; and molsamer, for traitor.”

Woodcut from Liber Vagatorum (The Book of Vagabonds), an early 16th-century manuscript. Image from zocalopublicsquare.org.

For more details, see Puchner’s article “Is a Secret Ancient Language of Wanderers a Harbinger of Our Future?” in zocalopublicsquare.org.

He writes, “No one felt that it was a problem that Rotwelsch was not written down, except for the unintended consequence that the entire written record on Rotwelsch was therefore written by its enemies, people like Luther and my grandfather who wanted it eliminated.”

Puchner’s book provides a welcomed contrast to this lamentable state of linguistics. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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