On Rotwelsch, the Central European Language of Beggars, Travelers and Thieves

My aunt Heidi, Günter’s widow, had trouble finding the right boxes, as she moved erratically around the attic, trying to read labels. Then she crouched down in a corner and said, quietly, “Here they are. Take your time.” She briefly looked at me as if to gauge my reaction, and left, eager to go back downstairs. I stood for a moment, disappointed. Just a bunch of boxes. The labels, carelessly scrawled with Magic Marker, were illegible.

I had come to the apartment that used to house the commune to find out more about Rotwelsch, my uncle, and his attitude toward his father. Three people had been around at the time and could tell me more. The first was my mother, but in the aftermath of my father’s death, she was holding things together from one day to the next and was in no condition to delve into the past. I knew that I would have to wait to speak to her.

Then there was my aunt Roswitha. She would have been a teenager when Günter became fascinated by Rotwelsch, but perhaps she would have some insight, an overheard conversation ages ago about her older brother and his new interest, a snide comment about Rotwelsch made by my grandfather. I would have to find an occasion to draw her out. And finally there was Heidi, the person most likely to know things about Günter, Rotwelsch, and the strange family history connected with it, which is why I had come to her first.

I dragged one box into the middle of the attic, where a small window let in some light. It contained folders of correspondence and manuscripts as well as books. The next three boxes were similar, but then I came across one holding 4-×-6 index cards, neatly arranged in wooden drawers. I took one drawer out, surprised by how heavy it was, and started flipping through the entries. The cards—there must have been hundreds of them—bore expressions and idioms, most of them typed, some corrected by hand. The last box, equally heavy, held dictionaries of Romani and Yiddish, pamphlets on hoboes and vagrants. They had seen a lot of use, their spines cracked and their covers coming off the binding. One book, almost torn to shreds, was entitled Rotwelsch. Yes, this was what I had been looking for: my uncle’s fabled Rotwelsch archive.

Combing quickly through the boxes, I saw that this was an archive that, at least superficially, looked similar to archives created by the police against Rotwelsch, complete with vocabulary lists, names of vagrants, and police records. I was fascinated by the figures that emerged from this extensive collection. Here were the ancestors of the people who had come to our house when I was growing up—escaped convicts, runaway apprentices, deserters, itinerant peddlers, tramps, professional thieves, beggars, hoboes, journeymen, knife grinders, tinkers, migrants, and anyone at odds with the authorities and without a fixed address.

Some members of the underground were organized into large gangs of robbers, especially in the eighteenth century. They would send a messenger, a baldower, to scout out a promising target (in Hebrew, baal means possessor, owner, and davar, word; in Yiddish, bal-dover means the person in question). Once the leader had received enough information to proceed, he (almost always men) would call for a gathering of his associates, the kochemer, or wise ones, to plan the robbery.

Read more: CrimeReads

Deciphering The Mysterious Minoan Language Of Ancient Crete

The mythological history of the Greek island Crete goes back pretty far — one of its earliest kings was supposedly the son of the gods Zeus and Europa. King Minos was no benevolent ruler as far as the stories go, demanding a tribute of 14 children from Athens every nine years to feed to the Minotaur (a bull-headed creature with the body of a man).

While we can deduce some things about the building techniques and artwork of the five-millennia-old Minoan civilization on Crete, we know very little about the language they spoke. As a result, it’s unclear where the Minoans arrived from at the dawn of their civilization in roughly 3000 B.C.  

“Getting to know the language behind Linear A — the Minoan language — could also give us an idea about population movements,” says Ester Salgarella, a linguist and archaeologist who studies the ancient language of the Minoans at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. “Who were the settlers of Crete? Where did they come from?” 

Read more: Discover Magazine

Europe’s language that few speak

With a population estimated at just around 200, Europe’s smallest ethnic group is fighting to save its language and culture from extinction.

When Davis Stalts spoke of his seafaring grandfather, it was with the reverence accorded to a mythical hero. “He had hands this big,” he gestured, capping off a large space with his palms. “He said he was made of steel.”

We were sitting in Hāgenskalna Komūna, a now-closed bar and cultural centre that Stalts set up in Riga, the Latvian capital. Hidden away in a dimly lit neighbourhood on the left bank of the Daugava river, it was a world away from the brash sports bars and stag-party haunts of Riga’s old town.

The grey-eyed, barrel-chested Stalts was a man of imposing build himself, so it was not hard to imagine the impressionable young boy being awed by his grandfather – a giant sea captain who had endured more than his fair share of hardship. Then there were his tales, thrilling accounts of adventure at sea that captivated the young Stalts. But the old captain seldom spoke in Latvian to his grandson: he would relate his stories in a language full of extended vowels, dipthongs and tripthongs.

It was only when Stalts reached the age of nine or 10 that he started to understand that aside from a few relatives, nobody else around him spoke like this. “I remember thinking, what’s going on? Why does nobody speak this language? Only some very old people.”

In fact, Stalts’ grandfather was one of the last native speakers of Livonian, a language now considered by linguists to be on the verge of extinction. Unlike Latvian, which is an Indo-European language from the Baltic group, Livonian belongs to the group of Finno-Ugric tongues, most of which are spoken by ethnic minorities in modern-day Russia. Like its cousins Finnish and Estonian, it has a complex grammar: there are 17 cases; nouns have no gender; and there is no future tense.

Today’s Livonian population is estimated at just around 200, making them Europe’s smallest ethnic minority. But it wasn’t always this way. For centuries this Finno-Ugric race of fishermen thrived on Latvia’s remote western shores, with as many as 30,000 people speaking the language in medieval times. The Livonians carefully preserved their distinct heritage as the region passed from German to Russian hands, and eventually, in the early 20th Century, became part of an independent Latvian republic.

Read more: BBC Travel

The language the French forbade

On a cold night winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another reason altogether. This was to be my first session of Café Oc, a monthly conversation circle at the Café La Lune Poivre, where locals gather to practice the regional Occitan language.

Although many people have not heard of Occitan, also known as Langue d’Oc, it’s one of several Romance languages that evolved from vernacular Latin, and is still spoken in six major dialects across southern France as well as parts of north-western Italy and northern Spain. Anxious about being accepted as an outsider – but fascinated by the language and culture and hoping to learn more – I pushed open the door and prepared to make my case. Warm air scented with spicy mulled wine rushed at me, as did a collective greeting.

Benvenguda a Café Oc,”exclaimed 10 people, all age 60 or older, in Occitan. I introduced myself in French, and they assured me that I was welcome. One woman made a point to sit to my left and in soft whispers translated the conversation into French for me. Their warmth, her kindness, and the conversation that night deepened my affection for this ancient land of the Périgord, the older name of the Dordogne, which also included a section of the Lot-et-Garonne region to the Dordogne’s south. It is a region that has drawn humans to it for some 400,000 years.

That night at Café Oc, participants spoke of many things, all wedded to the land and traditions. They described growing up cultivating and producing all that their family needed to eat; how to hunt for cepes (porcini); the medieval pilgrimage route that passes through their region toward Santiago de Compostela; gathering and selling truffles at Christmas; and colourful folkloric characters, the most memorable being the lébérou, Périgord’s version of a werewolf-like creature.

I learned that Occitan was once the lingua franca of the south of France, and is best known as the language in which the troubadours sang. But in 1539, King François I signed into law an edict, the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts, which made Francien, the northern French dialect of Paris and the Île-de-France, the entire county’s official language.

However, outside of official business and written documents (such as marriage, death and birth certificates), much of daily life continued to be conducted far away from officialdom, and Occitan remained the language of the home, field and family. Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of France, noted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking.

Read more: BBC Travel

The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language

From my car window, I watched Spain transform. From Madrid in the country’s centre to the coastal north, empty land and grazing cows turned to misty green mountains and a shimmering harbour full of boats. I had driven north before, but this was the first time I’d stopped in Getaria, a medieval fishing village with beaches, vineyards and the 15th-Century baptismal church of native son Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first person to sail around the world.

In the early afternoon, on a narrow street, hot smoke rose from seabream sizzling on an outdoor charcoal grill. Two men standing behind a seafood delivery truck were speaking a language I’d never heard before. The staccato sounds they exchanged mingled with the light drips of rain on the pavement that March day. Later, I realised they were speaking an ancient language that has teetered on the brink of extinction.

Euskara, spoken in the autonomous communities of Navarre in northern Spain and the Basque Country across northern Spain and south-western France, is a mystery: it has no known origin or relation to any other language, an anomaly that has stumped linguistic experts for ages.

“Nobody is able to say where [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the language] comes from,” according to Pello Salaburu, professor and director at the Basque Language Institute at The University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. “Scholars used to research this problem many years ago, but there are no clear conclusions.”

Read more: BBC[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

How music is keeping one southern Italian dialect alive

The historic dialect of Southern Italy, spoken by the Griko people, is on the verge of extinction.

However, it’s still alive – largely thanks to the music associated with it.

Also known as Salentino-Calabrian Greek, Griko or Italiot Greek is an umbrella-term for two distinctive dialects: Griko, spoken in Salento, and Calabrian Greek, still present in Southern Calabria. Both dialects are usually referred to simply as ‘Griko’.

Partially intelligible with Modern Greek, its exact origins are unclear even to academics with expertise in the area.

Historians and linguists have put forward several hypotheses, linking the dialects with Ancient Greece and Magna Grecia or with the Byzantine Empire, but none of these theories has been proven.

But wherever its Greek-ness came from, Griko has also been heavily influenced by the Italian Language, and speakers use both the Greek and Latin alphabets.

Read more: The Local

Census shows we must rethink our approach to Irish and the Gaeltacht

The 2016 Census returns, published this week, contain bad news for the Irish language, with a decline across all significant categories: daily speakers of Irish outside the education system and knowledge of and use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. The fall in the Gaeltacht is particularly dramatic – an 11 per cent drop in daily speakers outside the education system within the past five years – and provides further confirmation of the decline of Irish in its traditional heartland, a change which has been documented extensively in recent years.

Although the latest Census figures also illustrate a fall in daily speakers outside the Gaeltacht, that reduction, from 54,010 to 53,217 people, is very small (just over 1 per cent). There has also been an 0.8 per cent increase in the numbers of weekly speakers outside the education system, which probably include those who speak Irish well but lack opportunities to do so. This confirms another existing trend: that the numbers speaking Irish regularly outside the Gaeltacht, although small, are more stable than the equivalent figures from the Gaeltacht.

Research on these “new speakers” of Irish – fluent and committed speakers who were not raised with the language in the Gaeltacht – shows that some look to the Gaeltacht as the model, although it is declining, while others are attempting to create new models such as the recent Pop-Up Gaeltacht events around the country. This is a European-wide trend and is being explored by a European research network on “new speakers in a multilingual Europe”.

Read more: The Irish Times

Why Italians are Giving up Italian

As I stroll under the scorching sun in Nardò, a town in Puglia on the heel of Italy’s boot, I hear music from an open window. The melody sounds like the Lennon–McCartney classic “Yesterday,” but the lyrics are not in English — or Italian. Then I see a leaflet announcing courses in Neretino, a dialect spoken only in Nardò. But that’s not unusual: Each whitewashed village in this gorgeous region of olive groves and Baroque churches has its own tongue.

And it’s not just in the deep, primitive Italian south where ancient languages are lovingly preserved and promoted. All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.”

According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options.

Read more: Ozy

Italian is under assault from rising number of Anglicisms, sloppy use of verbs and shrinking vocabulary, guardians of the language warn

The Italian language is under assault from a growing tide of English words, the abandoning of verb tenses and a shrinking vocabulary, and could be driven to extinction altogether, the head of the country’s most illustrious language institute has warned.

The language of Dante and Petrarch is becoming vulgarised and made more simplistic as young people dispense with the subjunctive and future tenses and sprinkle their day-to-day language with Anglicisms, even where there are perfectly adequate Italian alternatives, according to the Accademia della Crusca, an academy that guards the purity of Italian, said.

“There’s been a big increase in the number of foreign words and expressions and the trend will continue, above all with English words,” said Prof Claudio Marazzini, the president of the academy, which was founded in Florence in 1582. “We are heading towards a more meagre Italian.”

Thousands of words are at risk of extinction through not being used anymore in daily discourse, he said. They include “accolito” (acolyte, henchman), “maliardo” (bewitching), “tremebondo” (tremulous, trembling), “zufolare” (to whistle), and “abbindolare” (to be taken for a ride, to be led by the nose).

Read more: The Telegraph

Milan’s beloved but endangered dialect

The 2015 World’s Fair, held in Milan, was an unexpected success. It showcased a sleek, self-confident city, all trendy architecture and eco-friendly design. How things have changed. In the 1960s, Milan was a grubby, electrifying place. Industry choked the streets, and petty crime was rife. Milan was also different linguistically. Singers belted out folk songs in milanes, the city’s distinctive dialect. This tradition is all but dead now. But recalling it conjures another Milan, charting its transformation into a modern city.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Milanese folk music was hugely popular. From legendary joints like the Derby Club, singers like Enzo Jannacci (pictured) and Nanni Svampa composed or reinterpreted dozens of songs covering all parts of Milanese life. Some bands, like I Gufi (The Owls), were famous enough to be shown on television. These chroniclers had a lot of material to work with. The post-war “economic miracle” was turning Milanese society on its head. Hundreds of thousands of poor southerners came north to work in new Milanese factories. Cheap apartment blocks sprouted up to house them. Class tensions were common: one industrial suburb was known as the Italian Stalingrad. In one song, Mr Svampa remarked that he would never stop being jealous of those who can afford to “marry for love”.

It is unsurprising that some resorted to crime. Jannacci (who died in 2013) and Mr Svampa sang at length about la mala, the now defunct Milanese underworld. Friends are betrayed and lives wasted, all for the price of a risotto and a carafe of wine. In one poignant song, the protagonist—now in jail—muses that everyone has “three things at the depth of their heart: their youth, their mother and their first love”. Now that his youth is spent, and his mother dead, the narrator concludes that he’s “stuck like a pirla (prick) with his first love”.

Read more: The Economist

Venetians push for their dialect to be recognised as a language ahead of referendum on autonomy from Rome

Once a formidable trading power in the Mediterranean and beyond, Venice is seeking to regain some of its long-lost autonomy by having its distinctive dialect recognised as an official language.

Known in its heyday as La Serenissima Repubblica- The Most Serene Republic – Venice and its surrounding region was independent for nearly 1,000 years, until it was overrun by Napoleonic troops and ceded to Austria at the end of the 18th century.

Venice only became part of Italy in 1866 – five years after the kingdom was created out of a patchwork of independent states and territories.

A century and a half on, there are increasingly strident calls for greater autonomy from the government in Rome. A small but vocal minority are even calling for independence from Italy altogether, dubbed “Venexit”, with some Venetians drawing inspiration from Scotland and Catalonia’s drive for independence and Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

On Tuesday the regional government of Veneto, which encompasses Venice, will debate a motion to make the Venetian dialect an official language, giving it similar status to that of German in the Italian mountain province of South Tyrol.

Read more: Telegraph

Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan Language Struggles to Keep It Alive

ALGHERO, Italy — The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of an expansion into the Mediterranean.

After an uprising slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In their place, he populated Alghero mostly with convicts, prostitutes and other undesirables, many of them Catalans.

Today, Alghero is a linguistic anomaly. This walled and picturesque city is, quite literally, the last bastion of Catalan in Italy.

In an age when people cling ever more tightly to national identity, the lingering use of Catalan in Alghero is a reminder of the ways Mediterranean cultures have blended for centuries, rendering identity a fluid thing.

But while the traditional insularity of Alghero has helped to preserve Catalan, the language is struggling to survive even here.

Read more: NY Times