Languages that have been and gone

11. August 2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

And then there are those languages used by people who are forever on the move, or have had to leave for good, mostly for reasons of persecution. There may or may not be traces left on terrains where today a national language dominates. Those hidden languages are sometimes more intriguing to pursue compared to devoting myself to researching the hegemonic language, such as Polish around here. When I was in Thessaloniki last year, I logged two of the languages on the move: Judaeo-Spanish or Ladino, of which I found preserved evidence in a museum library there. I also put down Romani as a language I „travelled through“ simply on the grounds that I tried to talk to a young girl who looked Roma (I can’t remember what linguistic mix we used, but I did find out that she was from Albania).

Maybe that’s a bit tenuous, as I’m not sure if she really spoke Romani with her parents. But today I can safely say that I heard Romani – not spoken, but sung. That was at an open-air concert on Saturday in the lively main square of Plock. The concert was announced as a festival, and at the start, a crowd of about 20 performers, mostly dressed up in the tsigane costumes that we have come to expect, gathered on the stage. They later took turns, usually introduced by a male and a female MC who spoke Polish. However, some of the songs were clearly in Romani, the vowels sounded quite different; well, there was a lot of Nja, nja, nja and Ney, ney, ney too, and some of the songs sounded oddly familiar – they were gipsyfied pop songs. In the end, the family turned out a middle-aged singer with a pony tail and large dark sun glasses who led the combo through some solid reggae.

There were a good number of Roma in the audience, all gathered together left front near the stage. Some of the ladies made dance movements with their arms, and at one point broke into a ring dance. The local people stood around mostly stoically, without showing emotions. Hardly anyone applauded after the songs, and the young ones fingered their smart phones incessantly. But, although the „festival“, as it was called, lasted an uninterrupted four hours, there was always a good-sized crowd, so the Poles can’t have been too put off. It just seemed they couldn’t relate the offerings to anything that made sense in their rather inward-turned cultural lives.

Romani has more speakers than Norwegian (about 6 million), and it belongs to the indo-aryan language family. So although it is not really a European language (but which one is, genuinely and originally?), it is recognised as a minority language by some European states, e.g. Germany, and is even an official language in some regions of Macedonia and Kosovo. One interesting thing I learned from reading about Romani in Wikipedia is that specialised linguists have drawn maps with regional Romani dialects into which the language seems to divide. And I had thought this was one language that doesn’t yield itself to being pinned onto some territory. The page also seems to confirm that the family band was not, as the tourist information officer had suggested to me, from Romania, but from around here. Which makes my observation about the two groups in the audience seem even more revealing. In fact, they could have been Bergitka Roma, as they are listed as a dialect speaker group „from Poland“. Once they sang about „amare Roma“, the expression the Bergitka Roma use for themselves. Incidentally, one of the musicians was introduced as being from Francia, another from Spain (if my non-existent Polish doesn’t betray me). Wikipedia says that only about 700 words with Indian roots remain in Romani today, among them some numerals. And yes, I did hear the lady at the mike count the songs in with „jek, dui, trin“.

Earlier that day, I had visited the Plock Jewish Museum. If the guestbook is a correct indicator, I was the first guest since a month ago, and seem to have awoken the two attendants from a long mid-summer daze. It’s a well-conceived small museum which occupies the renovated building of the former „small synagogue“ (the main one having been burnt down in the local Kristallnacht), funded mainly by the EU. There was a temporary exhibit about the writer Bruno Schulz, whose „Zimtläden“ I had once begun reading, but it was all in Polish and mostly lost on me. The main displays and screens led me through the history of the large Jewish population in the Plock area and provided some compact insights into what is considered to be typical of the culture. There was also a niche, all in black, with stories and documents from the Holocaust, with the usual threatening flyers and „Bekanntmachungen“ by the mayor, acting on behalf of the Nazis. The nameless photo portraits seemed to show reactions of incomprehension to these machinations although they were probably just innocent studio portraits.

The only acoustic touch was provided by recordings that 83-year old Liber Taub had made in Israel of songs he’d learnt in his Plock youth. So I listened a good while to this lone half-broken voice, coming from afar, yet relating to the very spot I was on, sing about Yankele, Rabbi Eliezer, the wedding and the fiddle. Obviously, there is no visible trace of Yiddish in the streets of Plock today, but I did take a picture of a Sukkah, a closed balcony on which, during the Sukkot holiday, men are meant to pray in memory of the wanderings of the Jews through the desert. In fact, the men should pray in booths or shelters away from home, under the open sky. But the Sukkah, which might be mistaken for an Ottoman balcony or a medieval outhouse, is certainly the best architectural compromise under the sky.
So even if it feels odd and a bit sad, I feel justified to add Yiddish as a language I travelled through, with song.

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