The Language of Thieves: My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate

Front Cover
W. W. Norton & Company, Oct 13, 2020 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 288 pages

Tracking an underground language and the outcasts who depended on it for their survival.

Centuries ago in middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti and spoken only by people who were "wiz" (in the know). This hybrid language, dubbed Rotwelsch, facilitated survival for people in flight—whether escaping persecution or just down on their luck. It was a language of the road associated with vagabonds, travelers, Jews, and thieves that blended words from Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Romani, Czech, and other European languages and was rich in expressions for police, jail, or experiencing trouble, such as "being in a pickle." This renegade language unsettled those in power, who responded by trying to stamp it out, none more vehemently than the Nazis.

As a boy, Martin Puchner learned this secret language from his father and uncle. Only as an adult did he discover, through a poisonous 1930s tract on Jewish names buried in the archives of Harvard’s Widener Library, that his own grandfather had been a committed Nazi who despised this "language of thieves." Interweaving family memoir with an adventurous foray into the mysteries of language, Puchner crafts an entirely original narrative. In a language born of migration and survival, he discovers a witty and resourceful spirit of tolerance that remains essential in our volatile present.


What people are saying - Write a review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - akblanchard - LibraryThing

Harvard professor and native German Martin Puchner discusses Rotwelsch, a centuries-old Central European sociolect, or “secret language” spoken by people outside the boundaries of polite society such ... Read full review

The Language of Thieves: My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate

User Review  - Publishers Weekly

Puchner (The Written World), a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, brilliantly integrates the personal and the professional in this intriguing account of his quest to learn as ... Read full review


Introduction Language Games
Camouflage Names
The Book of Vagrants
A Picture Comes into View
The Rotwelsch Inheritance
The King of the Tramps
The Farmer and the Judge
An Attic in Prague
The Story of an Archivist
Judgment at HikelsMokum
ErrorSpangled Banner
Your Grandfather Would Have Been Proud of
Rotwelsch in America
The Laughter of a Yenish Chief

When Jesus Spoke Rotwelsch
Igpay Atinlay for Adults
Illustration Credits

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2020)

Martin Puchner is Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, author of The Written World, and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bibliographic information