Saturday 13 March 2021

The Language of Thieves

London's Jewish Book Week (JBW) is one of the highlights of the literary calendar. Every year it attracts huge audiences who come to hear authors talking about their latest books and current issues of Jewish (and wider) interest. This year, for the first time, and for obvious reasons JBW took place online before a virtual audience. Whilst I missed the excitement of the live appearances and the chance to browse in the pop-up book shop I welcomed the chance to attend the festival from the comfort of my armchair whilst enjoying coffee and cake!

I watched several sessions but was so interested in Martin Puchner's book The Language of Thieves that I ordered a copy online whilst listening to him speak and then read it within two days of receipt. It tells two stories. Primarily a history and examination of Rotwelsch, a language spoken in Europe from the Middle Ages to the mid twentieth century, mainly by vagrants and members of the criminal class, it also tells a parallel story of his uncovering an uncomfortable truth about his family.

The author describes Rotwelsch as more of a sociolect than a language, that is a variety of language used by a distinct social group, in this case mainly homeless people. It enabled communication between its users who cam from different parts of Europe and also allowed its speakers to disguise their conversation and on occasion to evade the police. Puchner relates early childhood memories of men coming to the door of his family home, his mother giving them food and his being unable to understand much of what they said. His parents explained that these people lived on the road and spoke their own language. More than this, his father was able to explain some of the words to him, sparking a lifelong interest and eventual academic research into the subject. 

Although Rotwelsch was primarily a spoken and not a written language, its speakers left pictoral codes, carved into the foundation stones, fences and gateposts of houses. These signs, known as zinken, provided information for other people of the road about the possibility of receiving food from a particular house, places to avoid or advice on the kind of behaviour that might secure some help, such as religious piety or offering to work for food. Others can best be described as tags, symbols identifying particular characters a bit like those used by modern graffiti artists. I especially liked the idea of an image of a parrot being used by a man able to speak several languages. 

Rotwelsch borrows words from various sources, primarily Yiddish and Hebrew but also Romani, Czech and elsewhere. Hebrew speakers will recognise the words lechem (bread) ganeff (ganav in Hebrew meaning thief) and mackum (makom in Hebrew, meaning place) as well as many others. Examples of this are given throughout the book and there is a nice touch at the end of each chapter where the author gives a short lesson on different themes, enabling us to talk about the police, prison, making an escape or to take the American Oath of Allegiance in Rotwelsch. Through detailed research he discovers that although the language has almost disappeared today, there is perhaps a successor version called Yenish which is spoken in Switzerland and has a degree of official recognition there. 

Puchner is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was born and grew up in Nuremburg, the site of the enactment of the notorious Nuremburg Laws, Nazi rallies and of course the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War. It may come as no surprise that the Nazis were not big fans of either Rotwelsch or the people who spoke it. This was partly because of its use of Yiddish and Hebrew words but also because of the lifestyle and non-conformist behaviour of its speakers. What did come as a surprise to the author was finding out about his paternal grandfather's had involvement with the Nazi Party and his authoring of an anti-semitic tract about the use of names as racial markers. This unwelcome surprise, which turns out to have direct links to Rotwelsch instigates a painful search for more details of his grandfather's story and its impact on the family. 

Whilst listening to the author speak, I was reminded of other languages or sociolects that have served similar purposes. Both Polari, a kind of slang spoken mainly by gay men (but also by others) until at least the 1970's and Cockney rhyming slang have been used to disguise the conversation of its speakers and on occasion to evade the police. Both are in danger of disappearing.  

The Language of Thieves is a fascinating work that not only tells the story of the language and its speakers but also the context in which it grew, developed and eventually disappeared. The book is an important and eminently readable work of social history. It deserves a wide audience.

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One Indian Contemporary Fiction   Best Reads of 2020 Part Two

1 comment:

  1. You noted that Rotwelsch borrows words primarily from Yiddish and Hebrew but also Romani and Czech. It is interesting that educated, cultivated Jews spoke German or Russian etc in public.. and Yiddish when speaking to the children or shop keepers.

    Clearly an even more basic language was needed. Thus Rotwelsch, which I have never heard of, filled the slot.