Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

The underground language of Europe’s outcasts

Locals stare at a beggar in the street in Posen, Prussia - now part of Poland - in a photograph from 1910 - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on a new book telling the story of Rotwelsch, a secret language developed by the thieves, beggars and itinerants of central Europe.

Back in the 1990s I spent several summers working on a travelling music festival. For four months every year a group of us would be on the road, travelling the country with a big top, arriving in a different town or city every fortnight, staging a weekend hootenanny in a park then breaking everything down and moving on to the next destination. The crew, a full-time core of a dozen or so, did everything together, living, working, socialising, the lot. All we saw was each other, our caravans, the parks and the motorways.

At the end of the first summer I returned home displaying that essentially British festival season mixture of sunburn and trenchfoot, brim full of brilliant stories that I was eager to share with my friends. The thing was, for the first couple of days or so, when I tried to tell them what I’d been up to they could barely understand a word I said. My three months as an itinerant had changed the way I spoke. Drastically.

The people with whom I spent the summer were a mixture of circus folk and working class lads from Nottingham. Hothoused as we were and freed from the restrictions of place for several months, by linguistic osmosis we’d all adopted parts of each other’s speech to produce our own dialect. Largely a mixture of showpeople’s cant and Nottingham slang, we’d engage in exchanges like, “Yareet yoth, sin his gills, merch geez wibbig keks?” “In tilt, yoth”, which translates as, “hello old boy, have you seen what’s-his-name, the large fellow from the merchandise stall?” “I believe he’s inside the big top, old chap”.

It took me a couple of days or so to linguistically re-assimilate at the end of the season and friends could stop worrying I’d had some kind of stroke. Then the following year I slipped back seamlessly into my summer argot virtually before the stabilisers had been wound down on my caravan. Even now, half a lifetime on, when I meet with friends from those days we’ve usually slipped back into the lingo in which our friendships were forged by the end of the first pint.

Malleable and constantly evolving yet existing within its own parameters, language is a rich and many-layered subject for analysis, especially in Europe with its wide range of dialects and tongues. Across the continent language can be a fascinating indicator on a hyperlocal level: Liechtensteiners are able to identify which of the tiny Alpine nation’s 11 small communities a person is from purely from the way they speak, for example.

Being from a family of authentic Bow Bells cockneys I’ve been aware for as long as I can remember of how such dialects and slangs can develop specific to place: for my grandparents’ generation even my first name couldn’t escape the rhyming word-grinder, hence from an early age I often found myself answering to ‘oats and barley’.

Cockney is by no means unique in Europe as a slang employed by a particular working class area, either. Mattenenglisch is an old dialect still heard in the poorer parts of Bern, for example, while Latín dos canteiros is an argot specific to the stonecutters of Galicia.

On a wider level language can help to build a tangible sense of nationhood: the Basques, with their highly distinctive tongue forged by centuries of near-isolation in the rugged landscape of their homeland, unite around the consonant-heavy Euskara. The Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, instead of boasting of vanquishing foes and praising monarchs in the traditional manner, focuses instead on landscape and language. “Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwlad tan ei droed,” runs one verse, “mae hen iaith y Cymry mor fyw ag erioed”, which roughly translates as “if the enemy should ravage my land underfoot the old language of the Welsh remains as alive as ever”.

But what of people without a specific homeland or region to call their own, the wanderers and itinerants, some of whom have criss-crossed the continent for as long as Europe has had people? Like it was for our motley band of festival caravan dwellers, language can become a unifier separating one group from the rest of society, identifying the itinerant speaker as a member of a particular community distinct from place of origin.

Sometimes it’s a form of speech developed as a type of protection from those who would seek to oppress them, on other occasions it can be used by groups seeking secret communications to carry out nefarious activities (hence these dialects are often collected under the pejorative banner “thieves’ cant”).

In the US there is a system of ‘hobo signs’, mysterious symbols carved on fence posts and walls indicating whether the wanderer is likely to be given food or work by the occupants, or whether they can expect a hostile reception and should pass by.

Harvard professor of English Martin Puchner would have found these symbols familiar from his childhood in Nuremberg during the 1960s and 1970s, when his mother would answer the door to shabbily dressed men and rush to give them food and something to drink. Carved into the stonework of their farmhouse was a zinken, a symbol indicating that passers-by in need would receive sustenance and a friendly welcome.

What really stayed with Puchner however was the language in which these pedlars, knife-grinders and itinerant labourers – “people eternally on the road, escaping to nowhere,” as his father put it – would converse. It sounded like German yet he could barely understand a word. It was a language unique to the peripatetic of Central Europe, a tongue that dated back centuries, called Rotwelsch.

Those childhood encounters have produced a book, The Language of Thieves: The Story of Rotwelsch and One Family’s Secret History, published in the UK this month by Granta. In it Puchner discovers more of a family connection to the language than a few gentlemen of the road rat-tatting on the door with their hats in their hands hoping for some bread and cheese.

The author’s father and uncle had both shown a vigorous interest in the language, Uncle Günther in particular conducting in-depth research that even saw him translating biblical passages into the mysterious tongue. But the family’s connection to the language, and the core of this absorbing book, runs far deeper than mere curiosity.

Rotwelsch combines features of Yiddish and Hebrew, with occasional sprinklings of French, Latin and Romany, but is mostly Germanic in origin. “This was why Rotwelsch drove so many people crazy,” writes Puchner, “it sounded like German but was incomprehensible to an outsider”.

And drive people crazy it certainly did. For half a millennium, from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, Rotwelsch and the people who speak it have been ostracised by those threatened by the rootless, who fear a group of people who operate on the margins bound by neither convention nor borders.

As he conducts his research Puchner realises that most of the historical transcriptions and analyses of the tongue – strictly speaking it’s a sociolect rather than a language, a spoken dialect without a grammar structure that binds a particular group of people – have been hostile ones, made by police and lawmakers trying to crack what they regarded as a criminal code rather than the representative argot of a particular group of people.

Dating back as far back as the 13th century, Rotwelsch spread in the aftermath of the traumatic Thirty Years War that devastated most of central Europe during the 17th century, displacing countless former combatants and people whose homes and villages had been destroyed, sending them out onto the roads.

At the same time many Jews were also wandering, banned from owning land across the continent and forced into itinerancy by anti-Semitism, hence the language picked up its Yiddish and Hebrew inflections and by extension the distaste of anti-Semites even though, as Puchner demonstrates, only a minority of Rotwelsch speakers were Jewish.

Hence just as Nordic languages have many different names for snow, Rotwelsch developed various words for prisons and the police. It was certainly a language that appealed to criminals as so few people understood it.

Puchner tells the story of an 18th century Rotwelsch speaker named Grinder Berbel, a notorious itinerant thief and matriarch of thieves, who took on a protégé and lover known as Konstanzer Hans.

Taken in to custody and then betrayed by his father at his trial in Württemberg, a furious Hans broke the omerta of Rotwelsch’s criminal element and not only ratted out a host of fellow thieves but gave up many of the dialect’s secrets too.

The transcripts taken from Konstanzer Hans by the police represented the first in-depth written record of Rotwelsch, establishing something of a tradition.

“No-one felt that it was a problem that Rotwelsch was not written down,” says Puchner, “except for the unintended consequence that the entire written record on Rotwelsch was therefore written by its enemies… producing a record of this language, for most of them, was precisely the way in which they wanted to eliminate it.”

Even the name of the dialect seemed to represent the threat posed to the established order by these outriders of society: although Rotwelsch looks to derive from the German words for ‘red’ and ‘Welsh’, it’s actually from words meaning ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘beggar’.

Puchner’s book is much more than the history of an obscure dialect, however, even if that’s a fascinating story in itself that encompasses Franz Kafka, The Golem and an international brotherhood of vagrants that gathered in southern Germany in 1929.

The Language of Thieves also explores the Puchner family’s complex and intricate ties to the language, from an ancestor who one day left his family to take to the roads as an itinerant musician to Puchner’s grandfather, a historian of language and names whose shocking anti-Semitism Puchner discovers by chance in a document from the 1930s held in a Harvard archive and causes him to revaluate his relationships with his grandfather, father and his uncle. All the Puchner men were flawed in their own ways, all of them were curiously united by Rotwelsch.

“History, even when it deals with the actions of people, tends to be distant and can therefore be absorbed without putting yourself, your own person, on the line,” he writes. “Family history is different. It challenges the instinct within families to keep things hidden, the desire to spare children from harmful knowledge about their parents or grandparents, the desire of children to love their parents no matter what they might have done.”

Family history is like a layer of the past placed over the wider historical narrative. Sometimes they mix together comfortably, other times they drift along separately but in confluence. Occasionally there’s a serious damming, an unexpected, unwelcome jolt that affects the flow of all that comes after it. Languages, dialects and slangs can operate in the same way, a mixing of tongues among those destined either to be confined by circumstances or fated to keep moving, a community tightly knit by its very itinerance, be they Swabian knife-grinders or a train of trucks and caravans bringing music to muddy municipal recreation grounds. Rain or shine, the atching were reet, yoth.

The Language of Thieves: The Story of Rotwelsch and One Family’s Secret History, by Martin Puchner, is published by Granta, price £16.99.

FIVE GREAT BOOKS ABOUT LANGUAGE

IN THE LAND OF INVENTED LANGUAGES

Arika Okrent (Random House, £13.99)

While most languages tend to evolve organically or at least by consensus, there has been a range of geniuses, dreamers and crackpots who have tried to invent their own. Esperanto is the most famous example, but in this fascinating book Okrent introduces us to others including Babm, Blissymbolics and Loglan.

MOTHER TONGUES: TRAVELS THROUGH TRIBAL EUROPE

Helena Drysdale (Picador, o/p)

Drysdale’s account of a motorhome journey through Europe’s nations without borders is a wonderful travelogue and a fascinating insight into the importance of language to community identity. From the Frisian Islands to the Basque Country, Corsica to Provence, this is a fascinating journey into the small and threatened cultures of our continent. Out of print but easy to source second hand.

LINGO: A LANGUAGE SPOTTER’S GUIDE TO EUROPE

Gaston Dorren (Profile, £9.99)

If The Language of Thieves whets your appetite for Europe’s lesser known tongues then Lingo may be the next on your list. As well as the major languages Dorren’s whistle-stop tour of the continent doesn’t miss a single linguistic nook or cranny as it introduces dialects you won’t find anywhere on Duilingo, from Ossetian to Sorbian to Channel Islands Norman.

HOLY SH*T: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SWEARING

Melissa Mohr (Oxford University Press, £10.99)

Even in the age of the unfettered internet certain words can be taboo enough for e-mails to vanish into the ether if they contain certain combinations of letters, which is a problem if your name is Dick and you come from Scunthorpe. In this lively, engaging, iconoclastic and surprisingly far-reaching history of swearing, from oaths to Irvine Welsh, Mohr presents arguably the definitive history of the subject.

THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS: WHY THE WORLD LOOKS DIFFERENT IN OTHER LANGUAGES

Guy Deutscher (Arrow, £9.99)

Described by Stephen Fry as “jaw-droppingly wonderful”, Through the Language Glass argues that our mother tongue can influence the way we view the world. From assertions that the ancient Greeks didn’t have our level of colour perception because it wasn’t reflected linguistically to Guugu Yimithirr speakers in Queensland who give directions only in compass points, this is a book rich in anecdote and wisdom.