Special Event

The Language of Thieves with Martin Puchner Online Event

Thursday, December 02, 2021 | 6:30 p.m.

Are you wiz? You are if you know Rotwelsch, an ancient language form spoken by vagrants and refugees, merchants and thieves since the European Middle Ages. It’s a colorful mix of words borrowed and repurposed largely from German, Yiddish, Hebrew, with a bit of Romani, Czech, and Latin, and even a few pictograms. It is incomprehensible unless you are in the know, or “wiz.” As a child in Germany, Harvard literature professor Martin Puchner learned the secrets of Rotwelsch from his father and uncle, who delighted in exploring its clever turns of phrase. As an adult, Puchner discovered his grandfather had also been obsessed with Rotwelsch, but for a very different reason: he was a Nazi who had tried to stamp the language out, fearing it was a secret code for Jews. Join us for a conversation about the history of Rotwelsch, as well as larger questions about what makes a language, and who gets to decide.

Puchner’s book The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate is available at our Bookshop.org storefront.