Jenisch (Yenish)

Jenisch :: Language-genetic affiliationshow bookmarks

Jenisch (Yenish) is a style of speech that is characterised by the insertion of a special vocabulary into local and regional dialects of German. This vocabulary is known only to members of the Jenisch community, and is used to flag ethnic identity as well as to prevent bystanders from understanding key elements of a private conversation. The Jenisch lexicon covers everyday basic terms and typically includes up to five or six hundred lexical roots. Each Jenisch community has its own in-group vocabulary, but there are considerable similarities among the different varieties. A large proportion of the vocabulary has a long history of serving as a kind of camouflaged lexicon in the speech of marginalised and itinerant populations in the German-speaking areas and neighbouring regions, and belonged to what is often referred to as 'Rotwelsch' - a secret and in-group style of speech that is largely unintelligible to outsiders. These words often exploit figurative associations, as in Zündling for 'fire', based on the word zünd, 'to ignite', or Trittling for 'foot', based on the German word Tritt, meaning 'kick'. Other words, like Blamm 'beer' are of unknown origin but adhere to German rules of word formation and phonology. Alongside these words that are inherited from medieval German Rotwelsch or secret languages, there are also significant components of other sources. The two principal sources are Romani and Ashkenazic Hebrew. Romani words, such as nasch 'to run' and maro 'bread', enter Jenisch from the Romani dialects spoken in the German regions, in all likelihood as a result of the absorption of a considerable number of persons of Romani descent into the Jenisch population from the eighteenth century onwards, but also through contacts with Romanies. Words of Hebrew origin, such as laf 'no' and Schuck 'market/Mark', enter Jenisch in the Ashkenazic pronunciation employed when Hebrew words were integrated in the Judeo-German speech of German Jews. Their immediate origin is probably the in-group secret lexicon of Jewish traders, which employed a particularly high density of Hebrew-derived vocabulary in order to camouflage meaning. In addition to those, some Jenisch varieties show words of French, Italian and West Slavic origin.


Jenisch :: Historical distributionshow bookmarks

Jenisch in its present form can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when populations of itinerant travellers were invited to settle in villages in southwestern Germany and neighbouring regions, but carried on their mobile trades. Typically, itinerant traders were offered protection in villages belonging to private landowners in return for taxation, or sought shelter in remote locations, often at the edge of forests and close to state boundaries. Clusters of villages populated by Jenisch people are found throughout southwest Germany, Switzerland and parts of Austria. The settlements created a stable social framework within which individual varieties of Jenisch emerged, while mobility and contacts throughout the region continued to enrich these varieties with new and fashionable vocabulary.


Jenisch :: Present-day distributionshow bookmarks

Jenisch continues to be employed in the same region by those who continue the tradition of mobile services. Many members of the young generation break away from the traditions, however, and settle in towns and cities, where they have no use for an in-group vocabulary, and where this vocabulary is therefore no longer used and is not passed on. Precise figures about number of users do not exist, but estimates range from 20,000-40,000.

Jenisch :: References to Yaron Matras's workshow bookmarks

  • 1998. The Romani element in Jenisch and Rotwelsch. in: Matras, Y. ed. The Romani element in non-standard speech. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 193-230
  • 2000. Mixed languages: A functional-communicative approach. Bilingualism: Language & Cognition 3-2, 79-99
  • 2003. Mixed languages: re-examining the structural prototype. In: Bakker, P. & Matras, Y., eds. The Mixed Language debate. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 151-175.

Jenisch :: Links to other websitesshow bookmarks

Jenisch :: Sound samplesshow bookmarks