Thieves' cant

Rotwelsch [rut-velsh] (German: ‘beggar’s foreign language’) or Gaunersprache (German: ‘crook’s language’) is a secret language, a cant or thieves’ argot, spoken by groups (primarily marginalized groups) in southern Germany and Switzerland. The language is based primarily on German.

Rotwelsch was formerly common among travelling craftspeople and vagrants. The language is built on a strong substratum of German, but contains numerous words from other languages, notably from various German dialects, including Yiddish, as well as from Romany languages, notably Sintitikes. There are also significant influences from Judeo-Latin, the ancient Jewish language spoken in the Roman Empire.

Rotwelsch has also played a great role in the development of the Yeniche language, a variety of German spoken by the Yenish people, former nomads living mostly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace and other parts of France. In form and development, it closely parallels the commercial speech (‘shopkeeper language’) of German-speaking regions.

Variants of Rotwelsch, sometimes toned down, can still be heard among travelling craftspeople and funfair showpeople as well as among vagrants and beggars. Also, in some southwestern and western locales in Germany, where travelling peoples were settled, many Rotwelsch terms have entered the vocabulary of the vernacular, for instance in the municipalities of Schillingsfürst and Schopfloch. A few Rotwelsch words have entered the colloquial language, for example, ‘aufmucken’ (‘to revolt against orders’) and berappen (‘to pay up’ or ‘fork over’). ‘Bock haben’ (‘to be up for something’) is also still used all around Germany. The Manisch dialect of the German city of Gießen is still used, although it was only spoken fluently by approximately 700-750 people in 1976. The term ‘Manisch’ is understood throughout much of the German state of Hesse and parts of the Rhineland-Palatinate to refer to the ‘gypsy’ elements of their vernacular.


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