Fermor in Hungary.

Recently I posted material about German from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople; Fermer has now moved into Hungary and has further observations on language. From Remnant Placenames in Hungary, 1934:

When I had unfolded my map under the carob tree, the Tisza river, flowing south-east to join the Danube, uncoiled straight ahead of my path; I was struck by the place-names scattered beyond the east bank: Kúncsorba, Kúnszentmartón, Kúnvegytöke, and so on. The first syllable, it seemed, meant ‘Cuman’ and the region was still known as Nagykunság or Great Cumania. On my side of the river, a slightly different profusion spread southwards: Kiskúnhalas, Kiskúnfélegyháza, Kiskúndorozsma. ‘Kis’ means ‘little’: they belonged to the region of Kiskunság or Little Cumania.

So this was where the Cumans had ended up! And, even closer to my route, lay a still more peculiar paper-chase of place-names. Jászboldogháza, for instance, only a few miles north; and a bit farther afield, Jászladány, Jászapáti, Jászalsószentgyörgy, and many more… Here the first syllable recalled a more unexpected and still hoarier race of settlers. In the third century BC, the Jazyges, an Iranian speaking branch of the Sarmatians mentioned by Herodotus, were first observed in Scythian regions near the Sea of Azov, and some of them made their way to the west. They were allies of Mithridates—Ovid speaks of them in his Black Sea exile—and, between the Danube and the Tisza, exactly where their descendants finally settled, the Romans had much trouble with them. We know just what these Jazyges looked like from the column of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Colonna. The bas-relief warriors—and their horses, right down to their fetlocks—are sheathed in scale-armour like pangolins. Javelins lost, and shooting backwards in the famous Parthian style, they canter with bent bows up the spiral. Had they left any other traces in the Plain? Any dim, unexplained custom, twist of feature, scrap of language, or lingering turn of phrase? A few sparse reminders of the Pechenegs and the Cumans still flicker about the Balkans; but this entire nation seems to have vanished like will o’ the wisps and only these place-names mark the points of their evaporation.

From Eliciting Romany in Hungary, 1934:

Three camp-fires, spreading spokes of light through the tree-trunks, lit up the canvas of tents and shapes of men and horses. A party of Gypsies had settled for the night by yet another sweep-well, and our arrival caused bewilderment. […] We were incommunicado at first; but I had been alerted by what the oldest man had said to György before he helped me give Malek a drink: the mumbled sentence had ended, I thought, with the word pani—immediately recognisable, to anyone at all in touch with Anglo-India, as the Hindi for water. When I pointed questioningly at the water-jar and asked what was inside, they said “Víz,” using the Magyar word; I cunningly answered, “Nem [not] víz! Pani.” There was a sensation! Bewilderment and wonder were written on their firelit features. When I held up the fingers of my hand and said “Panch!”—the word for five in both Hindi and Romany (öt, in Magyar), the wonder grew. I tried the only other words I could remember from Lavengro, pointing to my tongue and saying “Lav?”; but drew a blank; tchib was their word for it. I drew another blank with “penning dukkerin,” Borrow’s—or rather Mr. Petulengro’s—word for ‘fortune-telling.’ But I had better luck with the word petulengro itself, at least with the first half. The whole word (‘horseshoe-master’ in Borrow, i.e. blacksmith) caused no reaction, but when I cut it down to petul, and pointed to the anvil, a small boy dashed into the dark and came back holding up a horseshoe in triumph.

As soon as they got the hang of it, each time I pointed at something with a questioning look, back came the Gypsy word. Most of them laughed but one or two looked worried, as though tribal secrets were being revealed. A finger pointing to Heaven, and “Isten?” (the Magyar word for God), at once evoked the cry of “Devel!,” which sounds odd at first; until one thinks of Deva in Hindi and its probable Sanskrit ancestor.

And from Learning Magyar on the Go, 1934:

Later, as Malek and I tittuped past a sleepy railway-halt called Pusztapo, the scene clears a bit; its name has stuck only because of its oddity. Hamlets like this were hardly more than a row of thatched cottages on either side of the dusty way. Sometimes I would stop and buy some oats; when the word kocsma over a door or painted in white on a window-pane indicated a tavern, I would dismount and sit on the bench among the budding hollyhocks over a small glass of a fierce country schnapps called seprü, or cseresznye, when made of cherries. Sometimes, blinking in the sun and the dust, a waggoner or two might be on the same bench and, though we were incommunicado, I was among friends at once because of the prevalent sympathy for horses: Malek’s fine looks won all hearts, and everyone stroked him. “Nagyon szép!” they would murmur, “Very beautiful” or “Az egy szép ló,” “He’s a fine horse…” (Sketchy vocabularies are jotted in the journal here and there: zab, oats; , horse; lovagolok, I ride; lovagolni fogok, I will ride; lovagolni fogok holnap Mezötúrra, I will ride to Mezötúr tomorrow. Gyönyörü! excellent or first class, it continues, and Rettenetes!, terrible! and so on.) Sitting with the reins loose in my hands under the transparent leaves of the acacias, I felt like a lone cowboy venturing among little-known tribes and the Gypsies and the shepherds with their tomahawk-staves supplied corroborative detail.

When a village fell behind, we were alone once more in a flat and now familiar landscape, half desert and half sown, with its flocks and its herdsmen and its solitary sweep-wells and its cloud-processions along the horizon. In the late afternoon we were picking our way through another enormous herd of cattle with those long straight horns. Soon Gypsy hovels appeared and a straggle of kilns and sheds and thousands of bricks set out to dry and a rambling overgrown churchyard; then solider houses multiplied and we were on the outskirts of the substantial country-town of Mezötúr.

Smaller than Szolnok, it was a place of some consequence nevertheless. (Between two coffee-houses in the main street with kávéház helpfully inscribed across their fronts, another shop-window full of cosmetics and lotions and pictures of women with lowered lids stroking their soft complexions had a mysterious superscription: Szépség Szálón. After a few seconds’ delay, like the working of a slow calculating machine, ‘Beauty Parlour’ came to the surface…) Many of the shops had Jewish names, German in origin but spelt in the Hungarian way. Others were simple Hungarian words—Kis, Nagy, Fehér, Fekete—which may have been translations of Klein, Gross, Weiss and Schwarz, changed during Magyarising drives in the past. A grocer called Csillag—Stern?—set me on the right track for stabling. There were plenty of horses about and many country carts; old and battered four-wheelers with their hoods down waited patiently under the leaves or trundled about in the dusty evening light. Down a back lane at the stables I fell in with an ex-student called Miklos Lederer. He had just been apprenticed to a chemist; when Malek had been watered and fed, he helped me carry all the tack to a room in the house where he had taken digs. Half Hungarian and half Swabian, he too spoke German. Like everyone else at this time of the day, we strolled about the town, while busy swallows whisked by; there was something indefinably oriental in the atmosphere of the place. (I only discovered later on that south of varying parallels of latitude the corso—this universal evening promenade—was a phenomenon that stretched all the way from Portugal to the Great Wall of China.)

I’m glad to discover the verb tittup; we discussed the corso/volta/passeggiata here and here.


  1. Christopher Culver says

    That encounter with gypsies that Leigh Fermor describes is, biographers seem to agree, fictional (just as his account of riding a horse on that stretch of his Hungarian journey was fictional). My own impression was that most of Leigh Fermor’s observations on linguistics in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water consist of trivia he picked up only later in life, much later than his walk to Constantinople, and probably even after the war.

    But I assumed that Leigh Fermor did actually learn German quite well and quickly, since he seemed to have been already capable of handling himself in German with some of the noble families he met in Hungary and Transylvania, and with Balasha Cantacuzino’s circle after the walk (and, of course, in his famed military adventures in Crete). So, I take the German insights quoted in your last post on Leigh Fermor as something that actually dated from the time of his walk.

  2. Ah, je suis déçu !

  3. CC: Thanks for the cautionary comments. His books read like travel recollections told around the fire decades after the events, definitely not actual travel diaries. I’ve quoted passages that appeal to me as a linguistic fieldworker (long ago), but take them with a grain or three of salt. I haven’t read Cooper’s biography of Leigh Fermor, but plan to do so before his travel stories have faded too far from my memory. I’ve only started the third book in the series.

    My storytelling from many travels would be equally unreliable in many details, I suspect, although I still have many very vivid memories of my year in Romania in 1983-84, during which time I got quite fluent in Romanian. In 1976 I kept a fieldwork diary in Papua New Guinea and later published it (very slightly abridged) on a blog with some linguistic gleanings from the fieldwork.

  4. @Joel: the postscript to the 3d book (whose manuscript Fermor had never finished to his own satisfaction while alive) is, in fact, a bunch of contemporaneous diary entries from his fairly lengthy side-trip from Istanbul to Mt. Athos in early 1935. So that gives you a certain benchmark to compare the written-decades-later stuff against. (Also, in the decades-later writing-up there were some segments where he had access to his old diaries and others where he didn’t, although I forget the details about what was what.)

  5. One hint that Fermor backfilled his linguistic elicitations is that they are in standard orthographies. Not something that first-time encounters normally achieve! BTW, the conversion to Kindle format revealed that the print edition relied on combined characters to render unusual orthographic symbols. For instance, “Timis, oara” and “Timis, valley” in Romania in book 2, and “Hasvek’s Good Soldier Svvejk—or Schweik” in book 1.

  6. David Marjanović says

    One hint that Fermor backfilled his linguistic elicitations is that they are in standard orthographies. Not something that first-time encounters normally achieve!

    I can actually believe that for Hungarian. Plus, he didn’t get Kunszentmárton right…

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    References to that fantasist George Borrow* always raise suspicions that all may not be quite as it should be linguistically.

    (Though I suppose one can get too sniffy about such things. The incomparably more reliable and scientific John Sampson has an epigraph from Borrow at the beginning of his magisterial Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales of 1925.)

    * Wild Wales is unforgiveable.

  8. One hint that Fermor backfilled his linguistic elicitations is that they are in standard orthographies.

    I noticed that too, and wondered about it.

  9. I don’t think the orthography is relevant by itself. Among the things you or your editor would do in converting your journals or reminiscences into a publishable work is to fix the orthographic problems, unless of course you are Lawrence of Arabia. But note that of the three languages being discussed here, only Hungarian has a standard Latin orthography. So what if the journal said ert instead of őt?

  10. As for the unforgivable George Borrow, he has always struck me as an honest man; not a correct man, certainly — he is more interested in being amusing than correct. He starts off his unforgivable book as follows:

    Wales is a country interesting in many respects, and deserving of more attention than it has hitherto met with. Though not very extensive, it is one of the most picturesque countries in the world, a country in which Nature displays herself in her wildest, boldest, and occasionally loveliest forms. The inhabitants, who speak an ancient and peculiar language, do not call this region Wales, nor themselves Welsh. They call themselves Cymry or Cumry, and their country Cymru, or the land of the Cumry. Wales or Wallia, however, is the true, proper, and without doubt original name, as it relates not to any particular race, which at present inhabits it, or may have sojourned in it at any long bygone period, but to the country itself. Wales signifies a land of mountains, of vales, of dingles, chasms, and springs. It is connected with the Cumbric bal, a protuberance, a springing forth; with the Celtic beul or beal, a mouth; with the old English welle, a fountain; with the original name of Italy, still called by the Germans Welschland; with Balkan and Vulcan, both of which signify a casting out, an eruption; with Welint or Wayland, the name of the Anglo-Saxon god of the forge; with the Chaldee val, a forest, and the German wald; with the English bluff, and the Sanscrit palava—startling assertions, no doubt, at least to some; which are, however, quite true, and which at some future time will be universally acknowledged so to be.

    Now of course only a few of those startling assertions are in fact true, but it is the piling up of extravagances that give the passage its charm. He is ignorant enough of the Welsh, though most of his Welsh etymologies, unlike this one, are trivially true — one wonders what the Welsh thought of them, or of him. But while he patronizes them in both senses of the term, he is never both ignorant and mocking at the same time, unlike many another Englishman. Indeed, he epitomizes his own book in this passage:

    “Good-day, friend,” said I; “what be the name of this place?”

    “Pont Fadog, sir, is its name, for want of a better.”

    “That’s a fine name,” said I; “it signifies in English the bridge of Madoc.”

    “Just so, sir; I see you know Welsh.”

    “And I see you know English,” said I.

    “Very little, sir; I can read English much better than I can speak it.”

    “So can I Welsh,” said I. “I suppose the village is named after the bridge.”

    “No doubt it is, sir.”

    “And why was the bridge called the bridge of Madoc?” said I.

    “Because one Madoc built it, sir.”

    “Was he the son of Owain Gwynedd?” said I.

    “Ah, I see you know all about Wales, sir. Yes, sir; he built it, or I daresay he built it, Madawg ap Owain Gwynedd. I have read much about him — he was a great sailor, sir, and was the first to discover Tir y Gorllewin or America. Not many years ago his tomb was discovered there with an inscription in old Welsh—saying who he was, and how he loved the sea. I have seen the lines which were found on the tomb.”

    “So have I,” said I; “or at least those which were said to be found on a tomb: they run thus in English:—

    “‘Here, after sailing far I Madoc lie,
    Of Owain Gwynedd lawful progeny:
    The verdant land had little charms for me;
    From earliest youth I loved the dark-blue sea.’”

    “Ah, sir,” said the man, “I see you know all about the son of Owain Gwynedd. Well, sir, those lines, or something like them, were found upon the tomb of Madoc in America.”

    “That I doubt,” said I.

    “Do you doubt, sir, that Madoc discovered America?”

    “Not in the least,” said I; “but I doubt very much that his tomb was ever discovered with the inscription which you allude to upon it.”

    “But it was, sir, I do assure you, and the descendants of Madoc and his people are still to be found in a part of America speaking the pure iaith Cymraeg better Welsh than we of Wales do.”

    “That I doubt,” said I. “However, the idea is a pretty one; therefore cherish it. […]”

  11. I don’t think the orthography is relevant by itself. Among the things you or your editor would do in converting your journals or reminiscences into a publishable work is to fix the orthographic problems

    In English? Yes. (In theory; nowadays, well…) In Hungarian? Not so much. I doubt anybody would have known or cared (aside from Hungarians, of course) if the spellings had been left phonetic.

    As for the unforgivable George Borrow, he has always struck me as an honest man; not a correct man, certainly — he is more interested in being amusing than correct.

    You might say the same about white writers who made hay with black behavior and dialect a century or two ago. “More interested in being amusing than correct” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. I’m not saying you should cancel George Borrow, but I don’t think there’s much point in arguing with someone who finds his jovial bullshit offensive.

  12. In Germany, new editions of Ancient German Books for demanding Bildungsbürger contain a note by the editors on how they have meddled with orthography and punctuation. It’s usually a vague note to the effect that they have “cautiously” adapted them to modern expectations. [behutsam modernisiert].

    behutsam” has a quiver of connotations in different contexts: judiciously, tactfully, cautiously, gently. The expression means that the editors and their staff have made every effort to ensure that your reading experience is a pleasant one.

    That’s usually fine with me. If I want the One Real Thing, I can order all previous editions in photofacsimile, and discover that the Real Thing is not One.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    he epitomizes his own book

    As I say, unforgiveable …

    Patronising git. (As we say in Welsh.)

    And his “Welsh” interlocutor is plainly made up. (And, like his creator, doesn’t know the gender of iaith.)

  14. On the basis of those excerpts, I am strongly inclined to cancel this Borrow person. But how is this done effectively ? Do I sign a petition, or is it enough not to respond to mentions of him in blog threads ?

    How can you cancel someone if you have to refer to them in order to cancel ? Surely “strongly deprecate” is the best one can do while avoiding the atheist paradox. Thus “patronising git”.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, I will certainly object if he is asked to speak at my university …

    And I will not be staying at the George Borrow Hotel in Aberystwyth. That‘ll show him.

  16. I’d never heard of Welschland — German Wiki tells me it now means the French-speaking part of Switzerland but used to mean “Italien, Frankreich im historischen Sprachgebrauch”. How historisch are we talking? Was it actually in use in either of those senses in Borrow’s time?

  17. @TR: Paul’s Wörterbuch says welsch is “veraltet bzw. veraltend”, but that’s an understatement: the word hasn’t been used since 1945, and before that it was not only “teilweise herabsetzend”, it was an almost racist term for “French/Italian”. This pejorative use goes back a long way (Luther, for example), but at least until the French Revolution there was also a neutral usage. 19th century romantic nationalism put an end to that.

  18. behutsam modernisiertbehutsam means in practice, that where differences in orthography seem to indicate different pronunciations, the older spelling is kept. But I have seen a “behutsam modernisierte” edition of Hölderlin where a “zween” found in the standard critical edition was changed to “zwei”. Even Hölderlin’s notoriously unreadable handwriting doesn’t excuse that (a more recent critical edition added facsimiles of his manuscripts).

    In recent decades, there have been a few editions of 18th or 19th century authors with unmodernized spelling, for example the Reclam Stundienausgaben.

  19. Gender! Don’t talk to your warranted anglophone monoglot (meaning myself, Sir, meaning myself) of that subject. Compared to me, George Borrow is a one-man Tower of Babel.

    But really, if it is mockery you are wanting, it is not at Borrow’s Welshmen you must be looking, it is at his Irishmen. Chapter XLI, wherein he is not merely mistaken, but accused, tried, and convicted, of being Father Toban, that greatest of all Irish priests of his day, is far more a sort of a fiction as any mere question of Gender.

    “And suppose I were to tell you that I am not Father Toban?”

    “Och, your reverence, will never think of doing that.”

    “Would you believe me if I did?”

    “We would not, your reverence.”

    “If I were to swear that I am not Father Toban?”

    “We would not, your reverence.”

    “On the evangiles?”

    “We would not, your reverence.”

    “On the Cross?”

    “We would not, your reverence.”

    “And suppose I were to refuse to give you a blessing?”

    “Och, your reverence will never refuse to bless the poor boys.”

    “But suppose I were to refuse?”

    “Why, in such a case, which by-the-bye is altogether impossible, we should just make bould to give your reverence a good big bating.”

    “You would break my head?”

    “We would, your reverence.”

    “Kill me?”

    “We would, your reverence.”

    “You would really put me to death?”

    “We would not, your reverence.”

    “And what’s the difference between killing and putting to death?”

    “Och, sure there’s all the difference in the world. Killing manes only a good big bating, such as every Irishman is used to, and which your reverence would get over long before matins, whereas putting your reverence to death would prevent your reverence from saying mass for ever and a day.”

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    more interested in being amusing than correct

    Borrow (mirabile dictu) actually made quite a thing of his own impeccable correctness.

    I recall an elaborate and extended defence in one of his introductions against the charge that he had made a mistake in an Armenian form in one of his works, along the lines that it had actually been a deliberate error knowingly inserted by him in order to trap would-be critics in their own ignorance. The point evidently rankled.

  21. behutsam means in practice, that where differences in orthography seem to indicate different pronunciations, the older spelling is kept

    Different from what ? Pronunciations by speakers today, or back then ? There are and, in the very nature of the thing, always have been* different pronunciations. How does that yield a criterion for meddling ?

    I can’t say I remember anything like that being given in justification. But then I don’t really care what the reasons are, as I said. They usually sound vague and hand-wavey to me. If I wanted to know more, I could inquire at the publisher. I assume all they essentially want is to provide a smooth read for the punters.

    In recent decades, there have been a few editions of 18th or 19th century authors with unmodernized spelling, for example the Reclam Stundienausgaben.

    Thanks for the tip !

    * = immer schon

  22. actually made quite a thing of his own impeccable correctness

    That is just what I would say, were I more interested in being amusing and correct (as indeed I am from time to time). But as for his attitude toward the Pope, and Catholicism generally, he is neither amusing nor correct, and I only wish he would make less of it.

  23. One hint that Fermor backfilled his linguistic elicitations is that they are in standard orthographies.

    it may well be true, but i don’t think this is a reason to think so: none of these books were written or published until forty-odd years after his journey, and it’s hard for me to imagine him (at 60) not checking his spelling, even if only because he would’ve cared what his hungarian friends would think! especially with these books, he’s not a bruce chatwin* – part of the whole point is paying proper respect to his hosts, taken individually or collectively.

    * whose travel writing i like, but who clearly didn’t give a tinker’s damn if anyone he wrote about would ever speak to him again.

  24. but who clearly didn’t give a tinker’s damn if anyone he wrote about would ever speak to him again

    Chatwin didn’t expect anyone to ever speak to him again; he expected to be dead.

  25. The legend that Madoc had discovered the New World is a crucial part of the background for Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I was not familiar with the legend before reading the book, but I doubt that had had I been, it would have made any difference. A Swiftly Tilting Planet was such a mess that it convinced me to stop reading L’Engle’s work. The book has many problems, but the creepiest part was implied notion that some bloodlines were permanently tainted by evil; whether a nuclear war is going to occur in the 1970s is determined by whether someone in the mid-nineteenth century marries a descendant of Madoc or of his evil kinsman.

  26. I knew someone with whose family Chatwin stayed at some point during his travels. She made fun of him.

  27. Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania is probably the most scorched-earth (-ocean?) travel memoir I have read. He insults about half of the people he meets, deeply and sincerely. It’s fun though.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Zwei, zwo, zween were the three genders of “two” back in the 17th century, and evidently later in some places. Zwo is used today, regardless of gender, whenever the rhyme with drei is thought too dangerous, and I wonder if it’s actually the only form in some places.

    Within Switzerland, the Romance-speaking parts are still collectively called Welschschweiz neutrally. Other than that (and Walnuss “walnut”), the term is dead enough that I don’t think I was aware of the pejorative usage.

  29. Zwei, zwo, zween were the three genders of “two” back in the 17th century, and evidently later in some places.
    Especially, zween as male form is still frequently found in early 19th century literature, including Schiller.
    Other than that (and Walnuss “walnut”), the term is dead enough that I don’t think I was aware of the pejorative usage.
    There’s also Rotwelsch as a (now mostly historical) designation of travellers’ and criminals’ cant.
    Like with other terms of traditional German nationalism, the cut-off point here is 1945 – after that, many such terms vanished from respectable usage. Maybe the far right scene kept using Welsch for some time. But nowadays I think that term would sound quaint even to Neo-Nazis, not least because the “other” today are people from the Balkans, Middle East and Africa, not (as used to be) the French.

  30. I think even back then anti-Welschness was pretty far down the list of Nazi priorities or sins. Nazi racial theory certainly did not treat the “Nordic” race as co-extensive with speakers of Germanic languages and was willing at least for tactical reasons to consider Bretons to be the “Nordic” sort of Celt. And regular gentile French people as such (although a historical enemy) were not generally considered untermenschen the way Slavs were.* The Waffen-SS was happy to recruit a French division and a Walloon division for service on the Eastern Front, although admittedly Walloons were segregated from Flemish collaborators, who had their own units.

    *One of the influences on Nazi race theory was the wackadoodle 19th-century Frenchman de Gobineau, whose racial theory of French history as I understand it was that Franks were Nordic (and thus good) while Gauls were non-Nordic (and thus not so good) and admixture between the two had been unfortunate.

  31. I think even back then anti-Welschness was pretty far down the list of Nazi priorities or sins.
    That is true; nevertheless, the Nazis also continued and used the traditional tropes of German romantic nationalism. And like all Fascists, they didn’t value intellectual or ideological consistency very highly.

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