Jim at UJG has an entry on the charming Renaissance genre of mixed-language poetry (vernacular words mixed into Latin verse) known as “macaronic” (after the Macaronea by Tifi Odasi [Typhius Odaxius] of Padua, 1486). But the style, if not the name, goes much further back; it was very popular among the wandering medieval poets, who loved to mix Arabic, Spanish, Provençal, French, English, and other languages, depending on their audience and experience. (The Andalusian zajal, for instance, consisted of colloquial Arabic verses with Spanish words inserted.)

Here are a couple of examples, drawn from Robert Briffault’s The Troubadours.

A celuy que pluys eyme en monde,
of alle tho that I have found,
saluz od treye amour,
with grace and joye and alle honour,
Sachez bien, pleysant et beele,
that I am right in good heele,
    Laus Christo!
et mon amour doné vous ay.
and also thine owene night and day
    in cisto.
–Camb. Gg. iv, 27; Chambers and Sidgewick, Early English Lyrics, VIII, early XVth century.

And this quatrain (Harleyan, 2253):

Scripsi haec carmina in tabulis,
Mon hostel est en mi la vile de Paris,
may I sugge namore, so wel me is;
yet I deye for love of hire, duel hit ys.

Incidentally, if you google “macaronic poetry” the first hit is a Bosna Forum article by Amila Buturovic called “Macaronic Verse in Ottoman Bosnia and the Incitement to Multivocality” (the direct link only gives the abstract—here’s the Google cache [no longer works in 2019]); it discusses the history and theory of the topic, with special reference to Bosnia, but sadly gives only one small example:

Elif-eldi nijjet geldi,
primakni se duso meni.
Da ja kazem elif tebi,
ti si tanka, elif motka
tu je osnov, tu je potka

Alif is in hand (?) and intention here,
come closer to me, my sweet.
Let me say alif to you:
alif is a stick, and you are thin
that’s the basis, that’s the trick.]

But it begins with a delightful anecdote:

One Saturday morning as the cottage country north of Toronto awoke to a temporary ice age, my three-year old daughter broke its frigid stillness outdoors by resorting to a polyglot description: “Mommy,” she said, “çok je zima outside.” Put in plain English it meant, “Mommy, it is very cold outside”.

Enchanted by her linguistic economy and multivocality, I found myself face to face with a set of questions raised by her spontaneous leap through three languages – English, Turkish, and Bosnian – which captured with such candor her impressions.


  1. Hey, I never knew where the term “macaronic” came from! Thanks! The zajal and an earlier strophic verse-form called the muwashshaha were erudite Arabic compositions based on a demotic refrain, sometimes in Romance vernacular or colloquial Arabic with Romance words mixed in. They probably emerged from poetic dueling, in which poets would be challenged to compose extemporaneously upon a set theme and melody. Kind of like Eminem in “Six Mile.” My favorite is a poem of ibn Hatima of Almeria, with the refrain, “My language is good Arabic (fasih) but my beloved’s is foreign (‘ajam)! Can someone translate?” I have a paper on it on my old Macintosh hard drive, which also needs translating.

  2. poets after Pound & Eliot don’t
    seem to have the education for
    this anymore, but i’m fond of an
    obscure genre (mostly Sixties pop
    music) where the refrain or some
    of the verses are in French (or,
    sometimes, Spanish or Italian);
    Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” &
    Beck’s “Loser” are almost the only
    modern examples.

  3. Sorry, but I sincerely doubt it has anything to do with the education today’s poets possess. Perhaps such poetry simply isn’t a la mode these days; there are certainly plenty of polyglot poets in the world who would be capable of writing such verses and simply choose not to.

  4. graywyvern: Aren’t you forgetting a couple of more famous examples?

  5. cbrayton: I’d love to see the paper if and when you resurrect it.

  6. I vaguely remember that Leonard Cohen did some macaronic things. His poetry in English had a strong French flavor anyway, and he was from Quebec and fluent in French.

  7. Does this count?

  8. The Pixies also had a few English/Spanish songs.

  9. srah: It sure does! I’ve rarely seen anything as macaronic as this:
    You chialed comme une madeleine,
    Not me, I have my dignité.
    You tell me : you are a sale mec !
    I tell you : poil to the bec !

  10. I am actually stumbling around the web looking for words I can’t find at home anymore. I’d like to show my 3 Latin students in homeschool the use of the cases for a modern Latin compound, “motor bus” through a delightful and silly poem which starts:
    “What is this that roareth thus?
    Can it be a motor bus?
    I have no idea of the poet’s name. I suspect he was quoted in a book by Willard R. Espy, a clever and laughing poet in English but who also does macaronics.

  11. I dare say you’ve already found it, Jennifer, but the poem is “Motor Bus” by A.D. Godley (1856-1925), and there are many copies on the web, for example this one.

  12. Guess the author:
    «Ну, — думают, — команда!
    Здесь ногу сломит черт,
    Es ist ja eine Schande,
    Wir müssen wieder fort».
    Но братец старший Рюрик
    «Постой, — сказал другим, —
    Fortgeh’n wär ungebürlich,
    Vielleicht ist’s nicht so schlimm.
    Хоть вшивая команда,
    Почти одна лишь шваль;
    Wir bringen’s schon zustande,
    Versuchen wir einmal».

  13. I cheated and googled: Alexei Tolstoi (your namesake). And he got “Vielleicht ist’s nicht so schlimm” from Goethe, or at least Goethe is the other name that pops up.

  14. That was easy, wasn’t it? Some more on Russian macaronics here. Style highly idiosyncratic, parental discretion urged.

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