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Response to Listening to the Languages of the People

I have read Alex Drace-Francis’s learned review of my book on Lazare Sainéan with much interest and appreciation. The reviewer has enriched the political and intellectual context both for Sainéan’s professional quest and for his studies of language.

I want here to point up the theme of mixture, broached by Drace-Francis in reference to Sainéan’s attention to “morphological hybridity.” 19th and early 20th-century Europe was rife with nationalist sentiment, all the stronger in countries like Romania that were late to take on constitutional forms and institutions. Was it going to be an inclusive nationalism, drawing in residents of different origins and languages, or exclusive, limiting citizenship to those with some kind of pure and prior claim? Throughout, the Jews were a major test case for inclusion. Sainéan, a son simultaneously of the Jewish Enlightenment and of European civic patriotism, sought citizenship ardently and presented the mixture of peoples as a benefit to the polity. Likewise, languages had mixed origins: Romanian had drawn its vocabulary not only from “pure” Latin sources, so Sainéan demonstrated, but from Germanic, Slavic, and even Turkish.

Simultaneously, Sainéan took issue with the traditional hierarchical arrangement of language families, which had assigned pride of place to the Indo-European cluster. Following his French-Jewish mentor, the great linguist Michel Bréal, Sainéan argued for the equivalent potential of the Semitic languages, and even of those of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. All were capable of describing the human condition and its complexities. Thus he made the case for Yiddish: he was among the first to study it as genuine language, not a mere slang confined to women and uneducated men, and to identify its own mixture of sources.

Alex Drace-Francis asks about “the status and validity of Sainéan’s research principles today,” and I welcome the opportunity to comment further on this. In the book, I sided with those linguists who see change in pronunciation, word order, and the like as the result both of natural/physiological laws of speech practice and of actual social and cultural exchange among the people. In this latter realm, Sainéan’s attention to popular speech bore fruit, as in his identification of the sources for Rabelais’s language in the everyday writings of the late medieval period rather than in high literary texts. Today, Sainéan’s pioneering efforts would be superseded by the studies of Rabelais by François Rigolot and Barbara Bowen among others, but they still make lively reading.(1)

Moreover, Alex Drace-Francis is quite right in saying that “listening to the languages of the people” is a practice I have followed in my own historical work. In my earliest work on religious and social life in 16th-century France, I drew both on the shouted rhymes of charivaris and the printed sermons of learned preachers. In my current work on slave families in colonial Suriname, their Creole language is one of my most precious sources. Interestingly enough, that language has been studied by Hugo Schuchardt, whose early writings on Sprachmischung (language mixture) was instrumental in the education of Lazare Sainéan.(2)

Alex Drace-Francis has rightly noted that my book, divided into sections entitled “Romania” and “France,” devotes many more pages to the former than to the latter. That division was drawn especially from Sainéan’s own sense of his life: the period when he and his family were based in Romania and he still strove to create a professional career there; and the period, beginning in 1901, when he saw career possibilities only in France. In fact, he had visited France often in his earlier years, and had made most of his important innovations in method and subject matter by 1901. When I got to writing the second part of the book, I could describe his opening up of slang/argot and everyday street speech as fields for philological study, but much of his work involved the application of his earlier methods to French literary texts.

Somehow, I found myself doing this quite succinctly. When I had finished, I remarked to my late husband, a seasoned editor along with his talent as mathematician, poet, and science-fiction writer, that the Paris part of my book was much shorter than the Romania part. He read it and said “let it be.” And so I did, while regretting that he did not live to see the final book, and now Alex Drace-Francis’ helpful remarks about it. With both his achievements and his disappointments, Sainéan offers us a telling example of a Jewish scholarly life in the Europe of modern times.


  1. François Rigolot, Les langages de Rabelais. 2d. ed. Geneva, 1996. Barbara C. Bowen, Enter Rabelais Laughing. Nashville, 1998.Back to (1)
  2. Hugo Schuchardt, Kreolische Studien. 9 vols. Vienna, 1882-1891; Hugo Schuchardt, Pidgin and Creole Languages, ed. and trans. Glenn G. Gilbert. Cambridge and New York, 1980. Davis, Listening to the Languages, 12, 37-38.Back to (2)