The Language of Thieves

The Language of Thieves

Who can resist this book’s subject, a language spoke by the rootless of Central Europe? A language damned by Martin Luther and other upholders of civil order into the 20th century. Rotwelsch was the jargon or sociolect of no ethnicity but of tramps and hoboes and thieves. Rotwelsch speakers wandered European roads from the Rhine to the Danube, probably speaking German, Yiddish, and other settled languages. But among themselves they could use the language of the road, makes their meanings impenetrable to outsiders. To avoid “shul” they could “an hasn machn” or make a rabbit (a quick getaway) to stay out of jail. And like American hoboes in the early 20th century they used signals (zinken) scratched onto fence posts or the sides of houses to let other wanderers know if they could expect a handout or a bad man or a religious zealot. (Or, maybe these zinken show the spread of Rotwelsch with international migration.)

But this story has other dimensions. Martin Puchner, who serves as a professor at Harvard University, learned many Rotwelsch words from his uncle while growing up in Nuremberg. As a doctoral student at Harvard, he began to uncover more of his family connection to the language, and he began a decades long exploration of the language and his family history. Every chapter opened a new door into the role of language and family and ideology in recent and distant European history. As the subtitle already tell you, there are Nazis involved.

Martin Puchner. The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020. 978-0393868289