The World’s Useful Tongues.

I just finished reading a very silly but enjoyable book, Rose Macaulay’s Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings, of which the author’s note says “It has for its setting an imaginary session of the League of Nations Assembly, but it is in no sense a study of, still less a skit on, actual conditions at Geneva, of which indeed I know little, the only connection I have ever had with the League being membership of its Union.” It is set in an alternative early-1920s in which monarchists have retaken Russia and the Bolsheviks are bitter émigrés, and there’s lots of skulduggery in the streets, hotels, and parks of Geneva, which is the sort of geographical specificity that enables me to enjoy silly fiction. At any rate, at one point “the great detective” Cristofero is introduced, along with his linguistic accomplishments:

He spoke the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, the French of Marseilles, the English of New York, the German of Alsace, the Russian of Odessa, the Yiddish of the Roman Ghetto, the Serbian of Dalmatia, the Turkish of the Levant, the Greek of the Dodecanese, and many other of the world’s useful tongues. He addressed the committee in French, speaking rapidly and clearly, illustrating his story with those gestures of the hands which in reality (though it is not commonly admitted) make nothing clearer, but are merely a luxury indulged in by speakers, who thus elucidate and emphasise their meaning to themselves and to no one else. However, Signor Cristofero’s words were so admirably clear that his confusing gestures did not matter.

Now, the French of Marseilles, the English of New York, the Russian of Odessa, and the Turkish of the Levant are all of a piece, the lively bastardized dialects of port cities, but I have no concept of what makes the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, the Yiddish of the Roman Ghetto, the Serbian of Dalmatia, and the Greek of the Dodecanese fit into this company. Is anyone familiar with these useful tongues?

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    I think it’s meant as a diverse set of non-standard varieties, leaving the reader to wonder what the heck he’s been doing in his life to achieve just those (or just be amused by the thought).

  2. AJP Crown says:

    I was disappointed a couple of days ago that the Pontic Greek Dictionary post had no mention of Rose Macaulay, so then I googled the Towers of Trebizond and found that it’s tremendously popular on Language Hat, several people expressed nostalgia about reading it; well, I did and so did noetica. But what about the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, isn’t that worth mentioning? I think Primo Levi had quite a lot to say about it in the Periodic Table, one of my favourite books…no, wait, that was Piedmontese Jews in Turin. Same sort of thing, though. Italian.

  3. But what about the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, isn’t that worth mentioning?

    Woops, it got left out in the cutting and pasting — purely accidentally, I assure you, and I’ll add it back now. I too am a fan of the Towers.

  4. I think it’s meant as a diverse set of non-standard varieties

    Well, sure, but the fact that at least half of them are of a particular sort makes me wonder whether at least some of the rest might fit the pattern.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    AJP: But what about the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, isn’t that worth mentioning?

    Hat: Woops, it got left out in the cutting and pasting

    I’m confused. The Italian of the Lombardy Alps has been there since I read the post.

    Hat: the fact that at least half of them are of a particular sort makes me wonder whether at least some of the rest might fit the pattern

    Right. In that way you may probably add Yiddish of Rome, since that’s also a cosmopolitan variety of sorts. But what I mean is that even the cosmopolitan dialects are quite diverse in their divergence from standard and their place within the socio-linguistic fabric of the larger communities — though generally distinctly sub- at the time — so my guess is that the intended pattern is no pattern except non-standard.

    And I liked it on that premise. I read it out loud to my wife and son before even finishing the paragraph.

  6. I’m confused. The Italian of the Lombardy Alps has been there since I read the post.

    It was in the blockquote, but not in my division of tongues afterwards.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    those gestures of the hands which in reality (though it is not commonly admitted) make nothing clearer, but are merely a luxury indulged in by speakers, who thus elucidate and emphasise their meaning to themselves and to no one else.

    Perfect.

  8. John Cowan says:

    Rubbish. When I am discussing something heatedly, my hands become cleavers, chopping my opponent’s ideas to bits. Nothing unclear about that.

    To the above list, perhaps should be added the Hungarian of Upper Egypt and Sudan and my favorite, the Navajo of Denmark.

  9. I’m sure everyone addicted to hand gestures is convinced theirs are supremely communicative.

  10. Kalmyk of New Jersey is right there too

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    While the Welsh of Argentina is perhaps not quite in the same league, I feel that it ought to be mentioned.

    It is the very absence of gesture which speaks most profoundly in my case. The Null gesture.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    (It conveys, unequivocally and unmistakeably, the quintessentially British traits of sang froid and savoir faire.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    With these two ears I have heard people speak the Vietnamese of Neath.

  14. PlasticPaddy says:

    If anyone wants to see longish texts in lombardo alpino try here:
    https://lmo.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialett_valtelin
    But remember: Chi trop stüdia, mat el diventa

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Now, the French of Marseilles, the English of New York, the Russian of Odessa, and the Turkish of the Levant are all of a piece, the lively bastardized dialects of port cities, but I have no concept of what makes the Italian of the Lombardy Alps, the Yiddish of the Roman Ghetto, the Serbian of Dalmatia, and the Greek of the Dodecanese fit into this company. Is anyone familiar with these useful tongues?

    I’ve no idea about your real question, but the French of Marseilles I know well, as I hear it every day. It’s not as different from the French of Paris (and nowhere near as different as the French of Quebec) as the Parisians pretend. Of the people I know, nearly all speak standard French with only the slightest of accents — perhaps a minimal tendency to pronounce “mute” e at the end of a word, but in most cases not even that. The French I hear in buses is, of course, more obviously southern than that, but normally quite intelligible, with a much greater tendency to pronounce mute e, and “in” at the end of a word sounding like like English “-ang”. (One of my colleagues the other day was imitating the way her four year old son (born the same day as my twin grandchildren) had picked up “-ang” at his nursery.)

    I don’t think my daughter has ever been accused of speaking with a Marseillais accent since she moved to Paris. On the other hand an English boy that was visiting the place where she works said that she spoke English like his grandmother. That’s not too surprising as almost her only model when she was a child was me, and as I’m 40 years older than her I’m old enough to be her grandfather.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I was disappointed a couple of days ago that the Pontic Greek Dictionary post had no mention of Rose Macaulay, so then I googled the Towers of Trebizond and found that it’s tremendously popular on Language Hat,

    I don’t remember that, so maybe I’m going to repeat something I’ve said before.

    I enjoyed the first half of the Towers of Trebizond a great deal, but found the second half (after they had left Turkey) tedious.

  17. AJP Crown says:

    The ToT reminds me I read The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it’s ever come up here but it certainly ought to have.

  18. Serbian of Dalmatia? That would be Croatian. And if I read the maps correctly, it should be ikavian štokavian, so different from standard Croatian (jekavian štokavian), but not that different…

  19. Mr. Cowan,

    Hungarian of Upper Egypt and Sudan
    So Magyarab?
    I have made tentative plans to visit the region in question and see if there are any traces of Hungarian left. If at any point hear someone say something along the lines of “wallāhi bazd meg”, my life will be complete.

  20. SFReader says:

    I think Dubrovnik dialect was meant.

    It has lots of cool borrowings from extinct Dalmatian Romance language.

    Some of the Catholic population of Dubrovnik and neighbouring areas of Dalmatia used to claim they were Catholic Serbs, not Croats.

  21. I’ve no idea about your real question, but the French of Marseilles I know well, as I hear it every day. It’s not as different from the French of Paris (and nowhere near as different as the French of Quebec) as the Parisians pretend.

    I’m pretty sure things have changed since the period just after WWI.

    Serbian of Dalmatia? That would be Croatian.

    Are you saying the longstanding Serbian community there (“In some regions of modern-day Croatia, mainly in southern Dalmatia, ethnic Serbs have been present from the Early Middle Ages”) was completely gone by WWI?

  22. David Marjanović says:

    If at any point hear someone say something along the lines of “wallāhi bazd meg”, my life will be complete.

    My day is complete right now!

    Are you saying

    Serbs and Croats living in the same place speak the same dialect. They just make the sign of the cross the other way around.

    All dialects of FYLOSC are “Serbian” when Serbs speak them and “Croatian” when Croats speak them. Cristofero speaks both the Serbian and the Croatian of whichever part of Dalmatia; the wording just tells us he used to hang out with the Serbs.

  23. Ah, OK, that makes sense.

  24. John Cowan says:

    That would make for a great (if blasphemous) localized version of the Marx Brothers mirror scene (YouTube).

  25. I’m no Yiddish scholar, but I wouldn’t have thought that Yiddish was spoken in the ghetto of Rome at all, as Yiddish was the language of Jews first in German-speaking and later in Slavic lands. There was, it turns out, an Italian dialect unique to the Roman ghetto.
    https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/judeo-italian

  26. Interesting! I wonder if Macaulay heard about it but got mixed up.

  27. Rodger C says:

    Languages weren’t Rose Macaulay’s long suit. In Fabled Shore (which a friend of mine described as “one of those books about Spain that are highly regarded by people that don’t know Spain”) she passes from Catalonia to Valencia and expresses disgust that the people there also speak that unintelligible dialect.

  28. Heh. Well, I guess I can quit looking for a subtle commonality, then.

  29. Rodger C says:

    Oh, and when she got to Gibraltar she described the L2 English of the locals as being “chi-chi.”

  30. John Cowan says:

    For my hands above read my forearms.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Some of the Catholic population of Dubrovnik and neighbouring areas of Dalmatia used to claim they were Catholic Serbs, not Croats.

    As Croatia is shaped like a boomerang it’s not too surprising that the Dalmatians don’t have much use for the Croats of Zagreb. We have a friend in Chile of Dalmatian origin, and he emphasized that the Dalmatians who went to Chile in the late 19th or early 20th century were not at all like the Croats who arrived in the late 1940s, implying that he had nothing to do with the latter.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    The Croats who arrived in the late 1940s probably arrived for the same reason as the Germans who arrived in the late 1940s, so no surprise there.

  33. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    How did you guess?

    I read once that even Heinrich Himmler — not an easy man to shock — was shocked at some of the things the Ustaša got up to.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve heard that too, and also of the Ukrainian collaborators. It seems that many of those involved in the war crimes and genocide maintained elaborate moral and philosophical distinctions between their own humanitarian, pragmatic or lawful practices in an extreme situation and the barbarian ways of others.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    From the novel:

    Calvinists are, in my experience, capable of any malicious crime. A dour, jealous, unpleasant people. They might (and often have they done so) perpetrate any wickedness …

    Caught my attention, for some reason. An alternative universe in which Calvinists are dour. Intriguing …

  36. Well, the narrator is both Catholic and highly unreliable.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah, don’t spoil the romance …

  38. Rose Macaulay is writing in the early 1920s when the Adriatic Question was still a live issue, and Italy threatened to take over most of the former Austrian Crownland of Dalmatia., I would guess that she is using “Dalmatia” and “Serbs” in a sense that would seem familiar to a casual English reader of the time, who would not be too interested about these intricacies. After all, it was being proclaimed at the time by both the Serbians and the Croatians that the Serb army liberated Dalmatia from the Austrian yoke, and stood ready to defend it from the Italian threat.

    “Are you saying the longstanding Serbian community there ”

    Both Dalmatia and Serbs are very rubbery terms.

    For hundreds of years, “Dalmatia” referred to the territory that was occupied by the former Roman province. That territory extended from the Adriatic over a large part of the present-day Republic of Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and small parts of Serbia and Albania. It was only after the Treaty of Požarevac (Passarowitz) in 1718 that Venice obtained enough territory in the Adriatic hinterland to constitute the province of Dalmatia. When it passed to Austria, Dalmatia was recognised as a separate Crownland within its 1718 borders, and remained a separate administrative unit until the downfall of the Habsburgs in 1918. Ever since, Dalmatia has not been a separate administrative unit, but the name has lived on as a historical name for the region.

    As for Serbs: There have been records of the name Serb in present-day Republic of Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina (and Hungary for that matter) in the middle ages, just as there are records of the name Croat in present-day Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. With all due respect to Wikipedia, this does not mean that there were large and permanent populations in those places. A good comparison is that there were records of the name Fleming in medieval England. It is only after the Turkish invasions, particularly in 15th and 16th centuries, that larger numbers of Orthodox people start moving westwards into Bosnia, Hercegovina and Croatia, including Dalmatia as refugees. These populations were largely Vlachs – Romance-speaking pastoralists. At some point the Ottoman regime gave the Serbian Orthodox Church the right to administer the Orthodox population of this region. After that point, the Orthodox inhabitants started referring to themselves as “Serbs” of the Serbian faith to differentiate themselves from the “Latins” of the Catholic faith. They also started to refer to their language as Serbian (formerly Illyrian or Slavonic), and their Cyrillic writing system as Serbian.

    “All dialects of FYLOSC are “Serbian” when Serbs speak them and “Croatian” when Croats speak them. ”

    Does this mean that Serbs claim chakavian and kajkavian as dialects of Serbian?

  39. Thanks, I love that kind of historical detail.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Croatian cavalry were used in low-intensity warfare during the 30 Years War because of their extreme reputation for barbarity. (The other side used Finns and Saami.)

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    And their cravats, of course. Nothing like a cravat to strike fear into the enemy.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    Does this mean that Serbs claim chakavian and kajkavian as dialects of Serbian?

    I haven’t seen it happen myself, but I’m sure you can find some.

    (But then, you can also find some who claim Serbian is the original language from which all others have degenerated, so.)

  43. John Cowan says:

    A dour, jealous, unpleasant people

    All English dictionaries except the OED3 agree that dour is a borrowing from Scots, which suggests that the English needed to acquire a word from their neighbors to the North in order to describe them properly.

    The further etymology, however, is a question. All agree that Latin durus is the ultimate source, but whether it came in through French dur or Middle Irish dúr ModScG dùr is a question. On the one hand, dur would have become duir or (possibly deer, dire) in Scots; on the other, there is one instance of Anglonormand dour. Perhaps English or Scots or both have a merger of the two lines. What is definite is that /daʊ(ə)r/ is a 20C spelling pronunciation, and so has nothing to do with the GVS.

  44. “because of their extreme reputation for barbarity’

    Wasn’t that Baron Trenk’s Pandurs in the War of the Austrian Succession?

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Bloix: I’m no Yiddish scholar, but I wouldn’t have thought that Yiddish was spoken in the ghetto of Rome at all, as Yiddish was the language of Jews first in German-speaking and later in Slavic lands. There was, it turns out, an Italian dialect unique to the Roman ghetto.

    Hat: Interesting! I wonder if Macaulay heard about it but got mixed up.

    Having found no description of the Yiddish of Rome, I assumed it must have been spoken by a community of refugees around the turn of the century, or have been imagined as such by the author for the purpose of the novel, but it does seem more likely that she just used “Yiddish” for “The distinct dialect of local Jews”.

  46. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: Croatian cavalry were used in low-intensity warfare during the 30 Years War because of their extreme reputation for barbarity. (The other side used Finns and Saami.)

    The Swedes drafted many Finns and Northerners, quite likely also Sami, but did they have a special reputation for barbarity? What the Swedish had was a vast pool of soldiers from a humble background with a unique (for its day) discipline, due to the streamlining of the army and the whole country as a centralized and homogenous military organization.

    If the Finns and Northerners did have a reputation similar to the Croats, then I may add the Scottish Highlanders in the British forces and suggest that they are all examples of broad recruitment from the class of small farmers — relatively healthy, physically fit and with practical skills to manage life on a long campaign — and it scared the daylights out of those recruited through the nepotic feudal systems of the past.

  47. AJP Crown says:

    I don’t understand nepotic feudal systems of the past but anyhow, scary or no, the only Highland regiment that I know of in the 17C is the Garde Écossaise and it was emphatically not British.* The Hanovers didn’t trust highlanders, especially after Culloden, but Victoria was quite keen on Scotland. Highland regiments like the Black Watch gained their reputation for bravery first in the colonies and then during WW1.

    *See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Herrings

  48. I only ever heard about Sweden drafting farmers / settled population, which would pretty much rule out the Sami (at least by the 17th century).

  49. Trond Engen says:

    I thought of settled Sami in the northern provinces, but I agree that it seems unlikely, and they would have been too few to have a reputation for fierceness of their own.

    But I do find mentions of a reputation for witchcraft. Apparently the successes of the Swedish forces in the 17th century were rumoured to be the work of Sami sorcerors in the Swedish army. This doesn’t mean that there were Sami in the army at all, just that their reputation for sorcery was known also south of the Baltic.

  50. John Cowan says:

    The regiments of Hakkapeliitta from Gustavus Adolphus’s army were known for (per the linked WP article) their “sudden and savage attacks”, for which they were trained. They were a major factor in Gustav’s early successes. I don’t know that there were Saami in those Finnish regiments, but it seems quite probable.

    The name is a 19C re-Finnicization of various phonetically similar terms used by foreigners at the time, and plainly refers to the Finnish war cry hakkaa päälle ‘strike upon them’.

  51. SFReader,

    I think Dubrovnik dialect was meant.
    It would appear so. I just happened across a dictionary of said variety of Serbian (Mihajlo Bojanić & Rastislava Trivuna. Rječnik dubrovačkog govora. Belgrade 2002) and it is chock-full of Romance borrowings. Literally the third word under A is “abandunavat = leave, abandon” with an example “Abandunavo je i kuću i ženu… = He left (his) home and wife.”

  52. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Encouraged by the earlier discussion I decided to read The Towers of Trebizond again. Initially couldn’t find the book, but a couple of days later I did. I bought it in Toronto in April 1968, and I don’t think I read it more than once before now, so that makes more than half a century. My response was very different this time. Whatever my thoughts in 1968 I certainly don’t find it one of great novels of the 20th century (despite one of the best opening sentences of all time: “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. Not a serious contender for the Bulwer Lytton Prize.)

    Curiously, though, I enjoyed the second half more than the first half.

    I was initially attracted by the fact that I had tried to get to Trebizond in 1965, but I didn’t succeed, as we didn’t arrive at the port in time and didn’t want to wait another 24 hours in Istanbul.

  53. The concepts of “Serb” and “Croat” were pretty vague and ill-defined in premodern times. Some of the earliest Byzantine records say things like “Serbs, also known as Croats”. Of course, the modern nation states have constructed their identity as being in continuity with a glorious distant past – so there’s a lot of backward projection of nationalist tropes backwards into the high middle ages.

    And just like in present day, this nationalist reading of history gets tripped up by Bosnia, which was a medieval state for far longer than either Serbia or Croatia, and with a religiously diverse population to boot, even before the arrival of the Ottomans and the spread of Islam. But nationalisms abhor pluralism and tolerance so medieval Bosnia simply does not figure into their historical narrative.

  54. There was even a time when Serbs were literally called Russians.

    Rascians (Latin: Rasciani, Natio Rasciana; Serbian: Рашани/Rašani)….

  55. In Serbia Raška not Rašanj from the town Ras (or Stari Ras). Russia (Rusija in Serbian) comes from Rus so not even a little bit related.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    hakkaa päälle

    Is there hack in there? “An ax to the head”?

    not even a little bit related

    No, it just sounds like it in English. 🙂

    into the high middle ages

    And beyond – at some point in the early Middle Ages, there were “White Serbs” (Sorbs?) and “White Croats” (???) in some northwesterly location. I don’t know if the nationalists have discovered the Xiānbēi yet, but I’m sure they don’t need to…

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