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Channeling Ghost Languages of Europe
with Martin Puchner and Peter Constantine, moderated by Tess Lewis
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented Channeling Ghost Languages of Europe livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 28 July 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
What is lost when a language is lost? How can all that the language meant be conveyed to someone outside its community of speakers? Martin Puchner, whose forthcoming book is on Rotwelsch, a secret thieves' cant of the Central European underworld, discusses linguistic hauntings with Peter Constantine, a terminal speaker of Arvanitika, spoken in the Corinthian mountains of southern Greece, with translator Tess Lewis moderating.
Peter Constantine’s recent translations include works by Augustine, Solzhenitsyn, Rousseau, Machiavelli, Gogol and Tolstoy. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov. He is the director of the Program in Literary Translation at the University of Connecticut, the publisher of World Poetry Books, and editor-in-chief of New Poetry in Translation. Among the last speakers of Corinthian Arvanitika, a language of Greece, he is currently involved in documentation and conservation efforts on behalf of this severely endangered language.
Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His prize-winning books and anthologies range from philosophy to the arts, and his best-selling Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX online course have brought 4000 years of literature to students across the globe. His most recent book, The Written World, which tells the story of literature from the invention of writing to the internet, is being translated into twenty languages. He is a member of the European Academy and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library, the Berlin Prize, and the Massachusetts Book Award. His forthcoming book, The Language of Thieves, interweaves family memoir with a reflection on Rotwelsch, the underground language of Central Europe, which he learned from his father and uncle.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations of Walter Benjamin, Maja Haderlap, Philippe Jaccottet, Christine Angot and others have received several awards including the 2016 ACFNY Translation Prize, the 2017 PEN Translation Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has written on European literature for World Literature Today, Partisan Review, The American Scholar, Bookforum, among other journals. She is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and a curator of Festival Neue Literature, New York City’s annual festival of German language literature in English.
Esther Allen: Hello and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a professor at City University of New York, and I'm joined by Allison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature and works with the PEN Translation Committee. She and I are co-organizers of Translating the Future, the conference you're now attending.
Allison Markin Powell: Thank you, Esther. And thank you all for joining us for the 12th installment of our weekly program. Today we are delighted to convene a conversation, or shall we call it a seance, on channeling the ghost languages of Europe with Martin Puchner, Peter Constantine, and moderator Tess Lewis. Martin is a professor of drama and English at Harvard University and author of a forthcoming book on Rotwelsch, a central European thieves cant. Peter directs the program in literary translation at the University of Connecticut, and is a terminal speaker of Arvanitika, a language of Greece, and Tess is a writer and translator from French and German. You can find more about all of them by reading their full bios on The Center for Humanities site.
Esther: As today's conversation will underscore, endangered languages are not some far flung or remote concern, but in fact, a very local and intimate matter. New York City itself is home to hundreds of endangered languages spoken by residents from all over the world. Co-founded by my Queens College CUNY colleague, Daniel Kaufman, the Endangered Language Alliance, which you can find online elalliance.org, works with speakers of endangered languages in New York and other cities to help them document and maintain these fragile and irreplaceable human creations.
Allison: At the moment, the Alliance is working hard to ensure that speakers of all languages are counted in the 2020 U.S. census. Their site offers a number of video and audio messages from speakers of Garifuna, Kichwa, Mixtec, Tlapanec, and many other languages, encouraging all community members to fill out the census forms. As the site states, time after time, immigrant, minority, and indigenous communities in America's cities have been under-counted in all official statistics with disastrous results that the current crisis is once again making clear. For opportunities to volunteer and support the Endangered Language Alliances work, you can visit elalliance.org.
Esther: Translating the Future will continue in its current form throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September several larger scale events will happen. We'll be here every Tuesday until then with the week's hour long conversation. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for Lightning in a Bottle, a case study of publishing literary translation featuring national book award winner Yoko Tawada with Margaret Mitsutani, Susan Bernofsky, Barbara Epler, Jeffrey Yang, and Rivka Galchen, and do keep checking The Center for the Humanities site for future events.
Allison: Translating the Future is convened by PEN America's Translation Committee, which advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Kaiser. For more information, look for translation resources at pen.org. Today's conversation will be followed by a Q and A. Please email your questions for Martin Puchner, Peter Constantine, and Tess Lewis to [email protected] We will keep questions anonymous unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name. And if you know anyone who is unable to join us for the livestream, a recording will be available afterward on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites.
Esther: Before we turn it over to Martin, Peter and Tess, we'd like to offer our utmost gratitude to our partners at The Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Martin E Segal Theatre Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and PEN America, and also to the masters of dark Zoom magic and HowlRound, who make this live stream possible. And now over to you, Martin, Peter, and Tess, welcome.
Tess Lewis: Okay, thank you all for tuning in to listen to us today. I'd also like to thank the participants and the sponsors, but especially Allison and Esther, who have made our pandemic lives so much richer with these weekly conversations. To start off today's conversation, I'd like to ask Martin and Peter to describe your linguistic identities. And by that, I mean, tell us which spoken, written, and read languages have made you who you are, and then describe your projects by situating Rotwelsch and Arvanitika in their historical context and also in your own lives.
Martin Puchner: Peter, go ahead.
Tess: Peter, why don't you start, yes,
Peter Constantine: Thank you. Well, so I am, I was born in England, but my mother tongue's German. My mother's Austrian, grew up in Greece, and in Greece it was, from a local perspective, I would say it was a bilingual situation, just from a Greek perspective, meaning that we, like many Greeks, but we weren't Greek exactly. I have a Greek grandmother, I should say. So there is some connection, but we had a, our village and then we were in Athens. We would spend half the time there and half the time in Athens. And so in the village, in the Peloponnese, they basically spoke, and this was in the late sixties and early seventies, Arberisht or Arvanitika. Arberisht is the way we call language, Arvanitika is the way it's called in Greece and also in general, by linguists. So Arvanitika was still spoken quite a lot through older generations. Funnily enough, I would say that I didn't really differentiate between the two languages. It was sort of what we spoke there, it was that, and what we spoke in Athens was the other. So it really sort of blended into one, which unfortunately sort of has happened to that language because it died pretty quickly, I think. I mean, in the seventies, by the end of the seventies, almost within a decade, it suddenly sort of disappeared as everybody modernized. Everyone wanted to go to Athens. Everyone wanted to be Athenian, stylish with it, not speak the old village language. So yeah, that's basically it. So at home with my mother, would speak only German or Austrian dialect. In the streets, Greek or Arberisht, Arvanitika. Then, of course, English. And I also went to a high school that had very strong Russian. Practically all the classes were in Russian. So it was a sort of a Russian education sense. So that's my linguistic background. It's a bit of a melting pot, and a bit of a hodgepodge, a mishmash.
Tess: Is there one of those languages where you feel most at home?
Peter: I think I really do feel that Austrian is my mother tongue. Like, you know, if you surprise me, I think my very first reaction is usually in dialect. And I think that's, that probably points to that. On the other hand, I've lived 38 years in America. I am English. And everything I've translated is either into English or into modern Greek, not into German. So that's kind of strange. I would say English is really my language and is a language that I've begun working a lot with recently, like translating into it, which is a new experience.
Tess: And what prompted you to take on the project of noting down Arvanitika and transcribing it, recording it for posterity?
Peter: So my connection to Arvanitika came in two phases. One was the sort of this confused early stage. And then more specifically, my mother married into a family when I was in my late teens. And Yorgos Soukoulis, my new uncle meaning, so my stepfather was also called Yorgos, but Yorgos Soukoulis was the patriarch who spoke the language. And just simply couldn't believe that this teenager from England or Australia, or wherever, but with some kind of Greek background would speak this language, which really had died actually by then. His sons didn't speak it. In other words, my cousins. So, that language became a bond thing, and he would then do something that is somewhat unnatural, which just to speak the language to me, because what's happened is that one of the villagers, that people just speak it for very, very short, they might say a sentence or two, and then go back into Greek. So nobody at this point really speaks sustained, at least as far as I know. And I mean, I've really sort of hung out in Avantika circles I've never heard more than just two or three phrases, and then let's go back to Greek. So, but that was sustained, sustained, sustained. So that was then a very intense connection to the language. And we suddenly realize, well, he didn't even really consider it as a language. It was really like so we just put one word next to the other. It's not a language, but he began to realize it's a language. He began to realize that it's dying, and that he's really the last fluent speaker in the village. And that, and I was saying to him, if we don't do recordings, there are no recordings, at least no sustained recordings, in 50 years the language will be gone. And I thought, and I'm sort of seeing this as well, new generations are beginning to be interested. Like, yes, we are Arvanites. On Facebook you see Arvanitic webpages. So there is this pride that's coming back. We've seen this as well in America with our native languages here, that there was a long period where people really preferred not to speak it, at some point, for very many reasons, external and internal, and people talk of language murder and language suicide, meaning it's murdered by the powerful language all around, and the suicide because people don't wanna talk it. Like you don't want to speak, won't talk it. You wanna speak English, you wanna go to university, you wanna go to high school, you wanna do things, you don't want to stick in that. And that's sort of what happened to us in in Greece, in Corinth. Yeah, so anyway, in short, sorry, I'm going on here, but in short, the idea was to do a language project.
Tess: Well what's interesting is that with those Native American languages that are dying out, it usually takes one charismatic individual who, on a mission, to revive it. Not always, but with several of the languages I've seen, I've read about success stories and doing that. Martin, you have an interesting linguistic background and a project that overlaps in intriguing ways with Peter's in that it was in an underground, insider language, but you had an uncle who was committed to preserving it and revitalizing it. So tell us about your background and your project.
Martin: Yes, thank you, Tess. Well, from one perspective, I have a very boring language background, which is just German period. It's just, grew up in southern Germany, speaking both southern dialect and high German. And that was it. Both my parents were Germans. It's very, I mean, I learned other languages in school, but it was just a monolingual, in many senses, upbringing. However, there was this one, maybe interesting thing about it that you mentioned, something that I took sort of for granted at the time, but that I now think, oh, that was unusual. And this is why I'm writing a book about it. And that was that my father and uncle inducted me into this underground language, this thieves language called Rotwelsch, which is a combination of German, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and was the, sort of the language of the road in Central Europe from the late Middle Ages to the 20th century. And especially my uncle was obsessed with this language. He studied it. He was a poet. He incorporated it into his own poetry, started to translate into this language. He really made it his life's mission to resuscitate this language, to study it, to promote it. And he died. So he taught me some and it became sort of a family game, this language. I'm not really a speaker of this language, but I sort of grew up around it. He tried to sort of inject it into our lives, and successfully so. So he died very early and I inherited this archive, this incredible archive he had assembled around this language, hundreds and hundreds of card catalogs, of expressions, like these kinds of things, like a lot of them, boxes and boxes of them. And so, and I've been carrying this archive around with me ever since. And so I decided finally to reckon with it. And then there's this other more disturbing family story connected to it. Because at some point independently, I through, in an archive I realized, I found out the truth about my grandfather, who it turned out was a Nazi historian, a historian of names. And this was shocking to me to find this out. Surprising and strange was the fact that among his objects or obsessions lost this secret language. So he was writing against it. He was trying to eliminate it. And then I realized, okay, so there's a family story buried here. And so this is why this book is not just a book about this underground language in the world it sort of represents, but also this family history, how this Nazi historian writes against this language, how his two sons, without quite knowing that, at least that's the official story, make it their life's mission to rescue it and then teach it to me, who had to discover this whole history sort of on my own. So it's a very, it became sort of a dark history, but I should say, but one of the things that I think both attracted my uncle and my father and me to this language also is it's wit. It's an incredibly funny language. It's a resilient language. It has this kind of, it's world wise. Besides Rotwelsch, the other name for this language is [Martin says the name 16:15]. It's based on Hebrew, meaning language of the wise. Also in the sense of the wise guy, of those in the know, but there is something that I feel like this language really knows. And I think in part I wrote this book trying to find out what it knows.
Tess: Just from reading the book, which is a fabulous portrait of Rotwelsch, of your own family, and also linguistic developments over the 20th century, how certain languages are politicized and denigrated and revived, one fascinating passage, which you've just alluded to, is about your uncle who decided to translate Shakespeare and the Bible and other major works of world literature into Rotwelsch. And funnily enough, I was, I was at a translation conference once and there was an author from, a major author from Macedonia, and the question was put to him, what is the point of translating into a language like Macedonian, which I think there are only 100,000, roughly, speakers at the moment. And he said, "You know, it's vitally important "for our language to have major works of literature "translated into it "because it keeps our language vital, fresh, "and also it raises the level of our language "so that we can express the thoughts and insights "that have been expressed in other languages as well. "So it makes it more flexible." And so obviously your uncle died before he could do that, but what are your thoughts about the success of his translations into Rotwelsch into at least your ability to understand how the language works and what it does?
Martin: Yeah, no, I think it's a great question. And it's so true. So Rotwelsch was a purely, the complication is that Rotwelsch, as many of these minor dialects and language, purely spoken language. There is a written record, but the only people who wrote it down were the police who are trying to record it and decrypt it and understand it and ultimately eliminate it. So part of what what's in my uncle's archive are these police records of this language. So it's a very ambivalent record, a written record, a hostile record, but nevertheless, the only way in which this language sort of survived as a written language, but then you're so right. I think my uncle's project was to create, turn it into, to turn the spoken language into a written language with a literature. And there are many examples of that trajectory and Yiddish as one of them. And of course he studied Yiddish because that is so important for this language. And so translating works of literature into this language is a way of sort of jump-starting a literary tradition, if you will. It's also a matter of prestige, especially this is why you pick figures like Shakespeare or the Bible. And, but you also, in a sense, and this is again, true of, in sense, all literary traditions, of all language traditions that become literary at some point, that you create an artifice. So this language that my uncle translated into Rotwelsch, this written literary Rotwelsch, in some sense was probably, no one ever spoke like that, but it was sort of his attempt to create a kind of written language. And he published one book of translations, and it was very proud of that. There was, in his case, I think a second motivation besides turning Rotwelsch as a part of adding prestige and a permanent record and giving it a literature or trying to imagine what a literature in this language would be like, and that had to do with German and its relation to German. So one of the things that he loved about the relation between Rotwelsch and German is that it, as a German speaker, you would sort of pick out words, you would understand words, but they would have changed their meaning. And so you couldn't quite understand it, but there was something very vivid and mobile and alive about it. And so I think he felt, he hoped, that these Rotwelsch translations, that the speakers would be Germans, the readers would be German speakers, that it would somehow unsettle their sense of language. They would shake something loose about German, that there would be sort of a, a very alive literary ferment that would emerge from that. And he shared that with other modernists. Kafka was someone who had a little bit of an interest in, in Rotwelsch. He came upon it via Yiddish, and he had similar, Kafka used this term, raking up the language, sort of aerating it, turning it upside down, shaking it loose. And so that was, I think, the other point, the other purpose, having less to do with what these translations would do to Rotwelsch, maybe giving it prestige, but what it would do to the readers, the German speaking readers, that it would sort of liven things up for them.
Tess: Well, Peter, this overlaps with your comment just a few minutes ago that younger generations are rediscovering Arvanitika, and finding a certain amount of pride in speaking it, do you see this also as part of your project, too? It's primarily spoken the, I imagine the, because you're working from recordings of your uncle. How do you see your project of preservation, revitalization overlapping with this rediscovery of linguistic identity among younger generations?
Peter: Well, actually I should say that it's, so we have quite a few indigenous languages in Greece. [Peter lists Slavic languages 22:25] lots of Slavic languages, [Peter lists more languages], which nobody really ever talks about. Everyone in Europe assigned the charts or the protection of regional and endangered languages except for Greece, but we don't have any regional languages in Greece, is basically really. So I'm being a little bit polemic, I guess here, but it is a problem, I think. Because Greece is Greece and we speak Greek, and we're all Greek and that's how it is. And that's caused a problem, I think it's a necessary one, not have linguistic diversity. Now what that has meant is that there has really been a sort of an oppression of these languages, really. I mean, I have to say it, that's what it is. So what really, what is happening is that people are, maybe beginning to embrace the we are Arvanites, but not necessarily the language, so that hasn't quite happened yet. At least I haven't seen it. I'm hoping that it's happening. It could be sparked at any moment, but what the uncle wanted to do, and well, what, what he wanted to do was to create a Rosetta Stone, in a sense, because my prediction is that there's gonna be an interest in about one or two generations, when it's really too late. And at that point, because we've seen that happen with many other endangered languages, where there is an interest when it's almost too late. Esther mentioned New York. I mean, we have indigenous languages in New York, also in Connecticut, let's say, Long Island, Shinnecock, Montauket, then Mohican. Now those are languages that died several centuries ago, well, died, let's say they fell out of use. The last speakers just maybe knew a few words, but these are now being revived. People are looking into, well, one of the dictionaries that Thomas Jefferson had made, for instance, and they're using those word lists in order to recreate the language with linguists. Anyway, so what I mean is one sees all these paradigms worldwide, and we just thought, well, we need the sound of the language and what the uncle did is started talking about everything that had to do with village life, every aspect with the ideas is if I don't mention it, it's not gonna be remembered. And, in order to really give one a panoramic, an encyclopedic sound recording that will really touch on everything that you need in order to be able to speak the language. One thing, though, is of course, that everything that was discussed was the way it was, as often happens, I think as well with languages that fall out of use. So in other words, we would know the different parts of a hand plow, which we don't use anymore, but there's no way, well, there's not even a word for electricity, in fact, let alone computer, iPhone, Bluetooth, whatever. So, that also means that, and this is something that professor La Luna, who's an Arberisht speaker, meaning a speaker of a language that's very close to ours, spoken in Italy, in southern Italy, that when they speak about home things at home and the language there is more vital than ours, when the various generations speak at home, they might talk about everyday things. But when it comes to talking about modern life, they really do slip into Italian because that's the only way you can discuss who's doing the dissertation and who's going to be doing the defense, when, I mean, we can't say we can't discuss that in Arberisht and Arvanitika or in Arberesh. Actually, did that answer your question?
Tess: It does, I mean, when I was Googling Arvanitika in preparation and it's actually quite fascinating. They had a very feminist culture. Women were allowed to carry arms and to fight in the army. They had a great, important commander who was a woman. Widows inherited not only the family wealth, but the prestige and honor and social status of their husbands, which probably didn't make it into your uncle's renditions of daily life.
Peter: Well, no I think so. Like my was the matriarch of the family, who I remember as well. And we would have these enormous cauldrons and cook for the whole family. And she'd rule the family. She was a frightening person, in a sense, but also rather endearing. Hard, hard, you know? As everyone was, really. I mean, it was hard life, very, very, very hard, difficult life. What also happened, though, was that the, when a young woman entered into a family, it was a very difficult situation for her because she would be the, pretty much the slave of the man and of everyone else. At least this is how I see it, but then would, if she survives all the births, and if she survives all that, once she reaches, once she is the grandmother and she's the matriarch, then there's an incredible power there. That's how I saw it. There might be anthropological studies that go more specifically, but that seemed to me how things were.
Tess: Well, this segues very neatly into the title question of this, of our conversation, and that is what is lost when a language is lost? And Martin addresses linguistic relativism in his book about some people believe that each language encapsulates and carries this very specific way of looking at the world. Others say that languages arise from particular [inaudible 28:50]. So, Peter, what is lost, what would be lost, say, if Arvanitika is lost? Or any of the other endangered languages that you mentioned already today?
Peter: But I think the, so the European Center for Languages, I think, counted 125 languages in Europe that are on the brink of extinction alone. We don't think of Europe, we think of Europe as a very straightforward linguistic place, German in Germany. But of course, in Germany, there's also Sorbish and and Frisish, Sater Frisish, this, that, the other, all these different languages, Plautdietsch, Plautdanish, which were actually real languages that then got relexified and became a little bit more German, but still sound quite different. So it was a very, very rich tapestry. So, well, one of the simple answers would be, really, linguistic ecology. I mean, so, roses are beautiful, but if that's all we have in the world, meaning if English is the rose, and English is the only language that's left, which could happen, I don't know. People seem to be very worried. Well, maybe that's fine. I mean, English is a beautiful, strong, wonderful language. So the whole world speaks nothing but, but that would be, I think, catastrophic from a linguistic ecological perspective, because the diversity is then gone. The different that languages do bring, different worlds that they capture the different knowledges. Yeah, all of that, the way of using verbs and not using them. I mean, some of our languages here that people say are only verbs and nothing else. So, I mean, these ways of approaching or the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth person in Navajo, are here. I don't know. I don't speak Navajo, but I think that's fascinating that there might be more persons. Anyway, all that's gone then. So, I think that's a catastrophe.
Tess: Martin, I think this catastrophic vision is very clear in the case of Rotwelsch, because Rotwelsch, regardless of where you stand on the scale of linguistic relativism, Rotwelsch is a product of, or perhaps determines, or both, a way of life for which there is increasingly no room. And there's always been suspicion, and because it overlaps, say, with the travelers or gypsies, Roma, Sinti, what do you see as the service that Rotwelsch can provide in encapsulating and preserving a way of living in the world?
Martin: Yeah, so, right. So, I mean, Rotwelsch was always persecuted, as I mentioned, from the beginning, by the police, it got a lot of antisemitic, even though most of the speakers were probably not Jewish. It was not an ethnically defined language, but a language, as you put it, is based on a form of life, as Wittgenstein would say, whose theory of language I think really fits well, strangely well to this thieves' language, I think he would like this idea, namely that a language is sort of really part and parcel of a way of life. You eliminate the way of life, the ecosystem, to pick up a term Peter just used, you change the language, or ultimately it dies. And I think that ultimately what killed Rotwelsch, even though it's still alive here and there, and I had fascinating encounters and knowledge of speakers here, and there, was not just the persecution, above all by the Nazis and the basically the more or less elimination of Yiddish from Europe, but also the change of modernization. The fact that this life of the itinerant underground has changed it. It changed in the course of the 19th century from the road into the underground of the big cities, but it survived some of these changes. So, who knows. I mean, it's also, it's sort of hard to kill languages, and they have a way sometimes coming back in unexpected places. But yes, I think, I think that's the answer that I would give to your question that, and it's, in many ways, similar to what Peter said, is that a language captures a way of life. So in the case of Avanitika, that way of life didn't include Bluetooth and computers, but it included all these other things. In the case of Rotwelsch when you look at the language, you really got a picture of the life. All the words for police, different kinds of police, different kinds of prisons, getting arrested, foods, many words for lice. I mean, all the, but also fun, lots of words for food and alcohol and sex. And so you get sort of a, because I should say in technically Rotwelsch is what linguists would call a sociolect, so it's mostly a lexicon that is words, for nouns and verbs. The grammatical structure is not that unusual here. It's mostly provided by German, but so you picture of that life. So in a sense, it's a record of this life. And for me, I have very few illusions that I would, that I could revive this language. I'd seen that project fail in my uncle's case. And it's fascinating, by the way, that in both, Peter, in both of our cases, it's an uncle. So maybe we should coin a term, not for a father tongue. I sometimes thought because mostly this language was transmitted to me by my uncle and father, and then this weird opposition from my grandfather, as a father tongue. But no, it's an uncle tongue, an uncle language, perhaps. But that it is a record of that language. And for me, it's a way of preserving that, and not just a record in a kind of clinical or purely scholarly way, but also a record of what life off the road looked like. And what kind of view of the world it brought with it.
Tess: Well, what I find fascinating about that very topic, the Rotwelsch as a view of the world is, as you mentioned earlier, terms shifted and changed according to the level of secrecy that was necessary. In last week's fascinating conversation about motherless tongues, Eric Tsimi talked about Camfranglais, the Cameroonian mixture of the native language, French and English, as a vernacular, that was, in a sense, a resistance to the colonizers. And part of the mechanism of creating Camfranglais and using it against the occupying or controlling forces was adopting terms, changing them, in fact, recycling them. And you, Martin, talk about recycling, Rotwelsch as a language that recycles based on a way of life that is heavily focused on recycling. So I'd like to actually hear both of your thoughts on language, as resistance, minor languages, subversive languages. And also, it's sort of the one thing that gives me hope that we won't be stuck with the one very beautiful rose of English, but perhaps, Martin, you could talk about the idea of recycling within language.
Martin: Yeah, and I love this idea of recycling. It was actually given to me by a Yenish speaker, sort of a modern variant of Rotwelsch, who said "We nomadic peoples, "we have to recycle everything, "including our language." But so recycling is one thing, but you also mentioned this kind of secrecy and resistance from Camfranglais, and I would say in Rotwelsch that's very, very similar. It's not so much, so it's complicated. Because on the one hand, there is this one, the view of the police, which is that these Rotwelsch speakers deliberately created a secret language in order to sort of plot the next heist and so on and so forth. So there's a large amount of paranoia, I think, also part of it. And so everyone says, oh, it's a secret language. And they sort of made it up. They made it secret. And that occasionally happens, but we know that's not really how a language emerges, a bunch of people getting together and saying, we're gonna come up with a secret language. I mean, I talk a little bit about Esperanto. I mean, there's something slightly, maybe artificial about creating an artificial lingua franca, but in any case, but I think more plausible is what you describe as an analogy to Camfranglais, Tess, namely that it is, you take languages from the, words from the major languages. You mix them. Sometimes you take them from minor languages, too. So these speakers took a lot of words from German, but also from Yiddish, which is sort of a, also a language, to some extent, of migration and the road in Central Europe. And also from, from Romani, the language of the Sinti and Roma, who were sort of more linguistically defined as separate, but to some extent, occupied an overlapping milieu. And so you take words, you recycle them, you change them. And that is a form of resistance. And I think, to that extent, there is something to the secrecy because part of the tool that this language provided was to create a community in the face of incredible amount of opposition and persecution. I think that's true.
Peter: And for Avanitika it was quite different because Avanites, so my uncle would always say, So real true in fact, which is Italian, right? The true, which actually I would say comes from Greek, Italian. Anyway, I'm walking down linguistic memory lanes here, but okay, so true Greek, true Avanites, the Avanites were at the forefront of the 1821 War of Independence against Ottoman occupation. So when Greece was a province of the Ottoman empire. So, what happens there is that the Avanites, in Greek history, have a strong position, in a way, as the heroes of the Greek War of independence. But on the other hand, there is also the problem of, you hear things meaning a sort of a villager who doesn't understand, or for the Blacks who are a Latinette group of speakers in Central Greece, means, is also sort of a swear word. I mean, so it is a problem, that identity issue, but it was not, the language wasn't, I don't know that one, I never experience it, one would slip into Avanitika so that Greek speakers wouldn't understand. It was more that if there are Greek speakers around you won't really speak it. At least that's in my experience, that way. So it was never a secret language. Maybe it was secret in the sense that Avanites trying to blend into Greek society and to really be part of it might really prefer not to discuss that, not to mention that they're Avanites and not to speak the language, initially not in front of non speakers, but then maybe also less and less at home. I mean, in our case, also my uncles in Chania and in Corinth and would speak to grandmother who really didn't speak, her Greek was a problem. So that everyone would talk to her in Avanitika, but then among themselves really more and more modern Greek.
Tess: Well, I wanted to turn a bit to your Russian background, your Russian personality, linguistic identity, and talk about, compare the Rotwelsch to the language in the Gulags of the zeks, the political and criminal prisoners, because in a previous discussion, you had talked about, mentioned that it was called Fenya, which comes from Ofen, so that it wasn't actually spoken openly. It was their secret, underground language.
Peter: But you can speak Ofen. You can speak, when you speak Fenya, the Russian, then you can speak openly with the zeks and in the prison. That was what that came from. Well, there is a big tradition, Dostoevsky, for instance, was very, very interested. When he ended up in Siberia, he would cut pieces of, he was very ill, he was in, I wanna say hospital, but it wasn't really a hospital. It was God knows what it was. But anyway, he was in hospital, let's say, and he would cut pieces of crude sackcloth, with which he was covered, and write things that he heard, which then became a Siberian notebook, but which he also then used in his novels. Like when you hear, when you hear, well, particularly in "The House of the Dead," there's a lot of dialogue that doesn't really make sense, but that is from that Fenya. And then later on writers, like Solzhenitsyn "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," or many of the Gulag works that he did, did also acknowledge and really sort of, well brought the plight of that. And Ofen yeah, Fenya, Ofen, I don't know that in Russia, actually, I don't know that speakers of Fenya would know that it comes from Yiddish and Ofen, but that's where it comes from, yeah.
Tess: Okay. And do you, how versed are you in that variant of Russian?
Peter: Oh, myself?
Tess: Yeah, is it clear to a Russian speaker, what it means, or is it sort of like the, the hodgepodge of language that was spoken in the Gulag where you recognize certain words from different languages?
Peter: Well, I think that something that Martin's also brought up, is I think that as words become popular, maybe the two speakers have brought Rotwelsch or Fenya or ingo in Japanese and in Japan, the hidden language there, have to reinvent new things in order to remain. As the police learns, well it becomes a police jargon, you know, spill the beans, whatever. I dunno, I mean, that sounds corny now, but that probably was the American version of Rotwelsch all those years ago. So now we know what spill the beans might mean. So now we might need to use something else. And so it developed and it developed, and it changes that way in order to, to keep avoiding the fact that the public knows. And as we said, and I talked about up in Austria, we have lots of Rotwelsch, traditional Rotwelsch, some street slang, when we, well, maybe my generation. I tried some of those Rotwelsch words on my cousin's kids. And it was interesting 'cause my cousin understood many things from our generation, but the kids hand over the cash, otherwise we're not gonna do anything kind of thing which was Rotwelsch. So my cousin and I, we understand that. We're in our fifties. Kids are were in their twenties and thirties don't, actually no, they understand that, but not other things for money and things like that, right?
Esther: I have a quick question for Martin, actually, two-part question. First of all, we've heard a lot about women and Arvanitika and the roles set out for women, but Rotwelsch, the impression I have from listening to you speak so far, Martin, is that it was almost entirely a male language. So were there female speakers of Rotwelsch? Female users of Rotwelsch? And then based on what Peter just said, were the speakers of Rotwelsch aware of how strongly Jewish it was, how Yiddish and how Hebrew it was? Or were they like the inhabitants of the Gulag that Peter has mentioned, who might not even have known the basis of the language that they considered their own secret language.
Martin: Thank you for both these questions. Fascinating the second. I have to admit, I hadn't even thought of it that much, but I think you're right, because I think, that is, that they may not have been that aware of it, because I think where the Yiddish identity of this, where I see it most strongly in the archive is on the part of the often antisemitic enemies of this language. So they will be saying, in a sense, you could say the language is perfect for an anti-Semite because it associates somehow through the Yiddish influence, Jewishness, and underground and thievery. And so this is what we've been saying all along, all Jews are thieves, so this is in a sense what antisemites made of it. So they really, they spoke of it as a Jewish language, the antisemites, and used that as to prosecute the language. Whereas in fact, I mean, it has this very interesting and fascinating complicated relationship to Yiddish and Hebrew, as spoken in Central Europe, but the speakers were not ethnically identified. So I, and I think that they were probably, therefore, not as aware of that, though, some may have been, and I've somehow lost track of your first question, I'm sorry.
Esther: About women, did women—
Martin: Oh yes, so no, it's very hard to actually pinpoint who spoke it when and it at what, because it was only, it was only a spoken language, but absolutely, even in the scant record, there are women. It is basically, it represents who was on the, who was in the itinerant underground. And there were, yes, there is sort of the figure of the, the male hobo or the male apprentice or the male discerner who sort of strikes out and wanders the road and sort of makes due. So there's that figure. And in some sense, that's maybe a dominant figure, but I also came across it, I write about that because I did, that is something I did think about, is this an entirely male thing, and no, not at all. So there are some times you had whole families who were on the road together speaking, and I have records of that. And there are also times, the more, it's many, the speaker, it's this language that existed for like five, 600 years. So, and it particularly thrives during times of upheaval. So for example, in the aftermath of the 30 Years War, there were lots of, there's a lot of displacements and a lot of refugees, internal refugees, because Central Europe had been the center of this 30 Years War. And so you have groups of 50, even a hundred people living together, men, women, children, speaking this language. So absolutely, it's also, and then when it goes into the underground, the underground milieus of the big cities like Vienna or Prague, or Berlin, you have women associated with, with sex workers, speaking that, the language trickling into that milieu, so yes, absolutely. It's not a male language, even though I through these family accidents, learned it from an uncle, and I'm joking that it's an uncle language. It's in fact, there are, there are women who spoke it, and that became important for me that I looked for that.
Tess: And in fact, Peter, there's a wonderful woman character in your book, who's Gertie, I think her name is? There was a prominent woman in the underground. I'll have to, I'll have to look up that, but I'll just put it, I'll put a pitch in for Martin's book. It's a fabulous story. And you get a number of characters in the itinerant underground who come to life.
Allison: Here’s a question that we have. In light of Martin's answer to that, I think this is kind of, this is an interesting transition. One of our viewers has sent in, this conversation about disappearing deeply rooted languages is particularly compelling in light of the fact that younger generations are starting to renew interest in these languages and breathe new lives into these components of their cultural or communal past. I'm reminded, however, of how attempts to revive or reshape languages can sometimes be directly connected to nationalist or separatist movements, to take a very obvious example, the splintering of Yugoslavian languages in the 1990s, does the revival of a language always entail the revival of a nationalist or sectarian identity? Are there ways for the two trends to be unyolked from one another?
Peter: If I could say something about that, because that is one of the problems perceived in Greece, and I'm upset about it because first of all, I think all the communities, the Arvanites, the the the Pomaks, anyway, people who live in Greece and identify as Greeks, but speak this language, would not see that the language is a reason to break away, but it has happened. It happened with the greater Vlach, I mean, there have been plots to create separate states with these languages. And I think that's what makes, what makes certain countries nervous. Although this is 2020. I mean, we are, in Greece we are part of the European Union. I do not think that there would be, that the north might break away and that all the Slavic languages, and so on that are spoken in Greece will unite to become a sort of a, create a pan-Slavic. So, yeah, but it is a very good question because that is what people are often frightened of in countries that it could lead to a breakup, breakup of a nation. So it's easy to say, this is Germany, we speak German. This is Greece, we speak Greek. It's a simpler solution. Let's stamp out these other little problems.
Esther: Martin, do you want to speak to Rotwelsch as a sort of stateless language?
Martin: Yeah, just very briefly, because as you say, it is, from the beginning, a stateless language. A language spoken by sort of internal migrants, an anti-nationalist language. So it's interesting that, so in that sense, there's no danger, if you will, of nationalism attached to it, but that may be also the reason why the attempt to revive it as undertaken by my uncle and now by myself is absolutely futile.
Esther: We have a couple of questions that I wanna kind of join into one. Someone would like each of you to comment on specific phrases, specific turns of phrase within the languages that you're speaking about that will give us more of a sense of the language. And in your case, in particular, Martin, can you talk about the written aspect of Rotwelsch? Which apparently used symbols, it was sort of pictorial. So we have someone wants to know more about that.
Martin: Yeah, so that's, so I keep saying that it is a purely spoken language, but you're absolutely right. That's not entirely true. There are these signs, like written hobo signs. So this is the one book my uncle published, and on the cover are some of these signs. They're like hobo, very simple hobo signs, about 50 signs. So they are not, these signs are not a phonetic representation of the language, but they're sort of pictographic ways of, so for example, go here and go begging, and you will get something. Or there's a sign of a cross, if you act piously, they will give you bread, or this kind of thing. So to make the road navigable. So that's the written, so there is this written component, though, it's not a written version of the spoken language.
Esther: Sort of like emoji or icons.
Martin: Yes, exactly. Iconographs.
Esther: And are there any specific Rotwelsch or Arvanitika phrases that the two of you'd like to share?
Martin: So, I mean, some of my favorite, there are many favorite phrases, and my love for these phrases since childhood is really the deep, I think, driver in part of the book. So one phrase I love is to [Martin speaks in Rotwelsch 55:20] which is “to make a rabbit,” which is to escape. I love that, to make a rabbit, to escape really quickly. I love the phrase there's a phrase that's also trickled into German, actually even into English, to be “in a pickle.” So there's no logical reason why, if you're in a difficult situation, why it would make sense to say you were in a pickle. And so this is one of the examples where a Hebrew and Yiddish derived phrase that sounded to German speakers like [Martin speaks in German 55:50], the “time of pickles” in English, sounded like that phrase, so they adopted it without understanding its meaning, and then it even trickled into English. So those are the, and Peter mentioned another phrase like [Martin speaks in another language] for money and so on and so forth. So there are these phrases that are sometimes absorbed into the dominant language, or sometimes they're sort of misappropriated and sort of sit as these unexplained idioms, like being in a pickle. And so those are some of my favorite phrases in the language.
Esther: Peter, do you have any?
Peter: Oh, yes, I mean, lots of things that I find very, very, very interesting objectively, like you don't think about it when you're there, but for instance, greeting rituals, I think, are always quite indicative of a culture. So, one thing that we do is, so, as you walk up the slope you'd say something like [Peter speaks in another language 56:50] “how are the olives?” Is a way of saying hello. And then the olives are fine. So you talk about the olives what you're gonna do there. And then you say, so, and how like [Peter speaks in another language] how are the animals? You might get down to the family and ask how the wife is, something like that. But so that's one thing. Oh, and speaking of animals, actually, that's something else that I found interesting is that there's different taxonomy, if that's the word, I'm not quite sure if that's the right way to put it, but let's say, and this is something that I always come back to that when you look out into, when you have hundreds and hundreds of goats or sheep, you have different words for the different kinds. You don't see them as one animal. I think that's another interesting thing. Yeah, so, [Peter says one of these animal names] have short, short… [Peter mimes horns on his head.] They have short… Yeah, whatever, they're just different colors, different, so there's a whole thing, there's a whole group of animals there that's something that we do as well.
Allison: I am gonna try and sneak in one last question from a viewer. Something is lost when the language is lost and something is saved when it is saved. So the question is, if this is something that can be, let's see, could something lost in, I'm sorry, let me just find the best part of the question. Do the something lost and something saved function in the same way, for instance, for social psychology or for people's literary imaginations? Are there aspects of each of these languages that could influence the social psychology or literary imagination do you think? Into or out of any other language?
Martin: Well, I can speak, I mean, I think that, one reason my uncle was so interested it was for the literary imagination. I think he had a sort of social project behind it. He had a project of criticizing antisemitism in Germany behind it, but he also had a literary, the literary promise of this language. So I think for him, it was both. So I would say it's a great question, and I agree these are two separate things. And I think in the case of my uncle, they were both very strongly there. And I would say speaking for myself as well.
Peter: Yeah, and if I can quickly say actually, so Avanitika is not a written language, so it doesn't have a literature in that sense, but what this project with the uncle did is turned out that he, not only in recounting the village legends and reciting them, but in other words, the oral literature, but he also created much of, when he was talking about, for instance, how we killed Anshatafia, who they had to kill because she got rabies. I mean, it was a terrible story, but that's a harrowing piece that we just pick out and it's this powerful, powerful point, because it just says it. So there's a lot of that, lots of moments in his narrative that suddenly creates a, the collected works of Yorgos Soukoulis So I'm not sure if I fully understood the question, but it definitely, this language, it's death, and our trying to capture it created a literary moment, a very powerful one, and discovered, well, a major Arvanitic, first and last, Arvanite writer and poet.
Allison: Thank you. We are unfortunately out of time now, but thank you to Martin and Peter, and Tess for moderating. This was a wonderful conversation. We have, it's a sort of, it's been touched upon in today's conference and today's conversation, but later, next month on August 25th, we will be talking about the effects of and sustaining stateless languages. So we'll be talking about Catalan, Yiddish, in and of itself, and Frisian. So stay tuned and check out the Center for The Humanities site for updated listings. So once again, we would like to thank our partners, HowlRound, PEN America, The Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. Thank you, hope to see you next week.
Tess: Thank you.
Peter: Thank you.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen & Allison Markin Powell.
About HowlRound TV
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