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The Secret Code That Threatened Nazi Fantasies of Racial Purity

Rotwelsch developed in the High Middle Ages and spread across Central Europe in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. “Welsch” meant “incomprehensible”; “rot” was derived from a word for “beggar.” Rotwelsch was thus the incomprehensible language of beggars.

Technically, Rotwelsch is not a language (because it doesn’t have its own grammar) but a sociolect — a system of communication that binds members of a community together and keeps outsiders in the dark. Among the many Rotwelsch terms for police are the German words for bull, lantern and moonlight. But a substantial amount of Rotwelsch is derived from Hebrew and Yiddish, such as gannef, for thief. This infusion probably reflects the large number of Jews forced into itinerant professions in the Early Modern period because of laws banning them from landownership and many trades. According to Puchner’s research, however, the great majority of Rotwelsch speakers were in fact not Jews.

That didn’t stop anti-Semites from associating Rotwelsch with Jews and crime. The most influential example was Martin Luther, who nourished a zealous hatred of Jews as well as of fraudulent itinerant monks who preyed on the gullible and the pious. In 1528 he republished an earlier anonymous screed against false beggars, the “Liber Vagatorum,” adding a glossary of words in Rotwelsch, a language Luther said “comes from the Jews.” The list included the words sefel, for dirt; and molsamer, for traitor.

The intended message was clear: Rotwelsch was a thieves’ cant peppered with “Jewish” words because the Jews were by nature deceitful. Puchner shows how Luther’s screed set the tone not only for his own grandfather’s portrayal of Rotwelsch as a language polluted by Yiddish that threatened German racial purity. It also laid the groundwork for centuries of linguistic engagement with Rotwelsch by people intent on eradicating it. His research is complicated by the fact that most historical sources on Rotwelsch come from police archives. Often, such records contain translations of words and phrases extracted under interrogation, in an effort to understand how a gang might have planned a heist or defrauded a villager. The speakers of the language were frequently illiterate, and in any case had no inclination to teach it to outsiders.

“No one felt that it was a problem that Rotwelsch was not written down,” Puchner writes, “except for the unintended consequence that the entire written record on Rotwelsch was therefore written by its enemies, people like Luther and my grandfather who wanted it eliminated. And producing a record of this language, for most of them, was precisely the way in which they wanted to eliminate it.”

Even so, Puchner finds distant allies who share his fascination with Rotwelsch. A 19th-century jurist and policeman named Friedrich Avé-Lallemant studied its sociological context. Kafka saw the literary potential of a language predicated on estrangement and mobility of meaning. In this respect, he found Rotwelsch similar to Yiddish, an invigorating force that could “rake up” German — “as if the language were a lawn that needed to be aerated,” in Puchner’s astute phrase.

That seems to have been the motivation that drove Puchner’s uncle, Günter Puchner, to study Rotwelsch and lobby for its literary rehabilitation. Having taught himself as much as possible through records and by befriending vagrants who spoke it, he published a primer, wrote poetry in Rotwelsch and even translated literary works into the language, including a synoptic Bible, passages from “Romeo and Juliet” and the text of the German national anthem.

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