© Yaron Matras

Lekoudesch is one of the names given in southwest Germany to the mixed in-group secret language of Jewish cattle-traders. Jews were particularly active in the cattle trade in rural communities across Germany and neighbouring regions (Alsace, Switzerland, and the Netherlands), until their persecution under the Nazis from 1933 onwards. The rural Jewish population in these areas usually spoke a Judeo-German ethnolect, that is, a variety of German that had its own distinct features. (Some scholars refer to this variety as West Yiddish, since it shares its roots with the speech varieties which, in eastern Europe, later developed into Yiddish). Alongside this vernacular language, Jews in traditional communities also learned to read and write in Hebrew, which was the language of prayer and the language of scriptures that were studied in Jewish schools. Although Hebrew was not spoken in Jewish communities, most people had some knowledge of it through their religious education. The pronunciation of the Hebrew words was based on that used in the synagogues throughout the northern areas of Europe, often referred to as the Ashkenazic pronunciation, as it was strongly influenced by German (and thus distinct from today's spoken Israeli Hebrew, which is based largely on the Sephardic or Spanish-influenced pronunciation). Some Hebrew words became part of the everyday vocabulary that Jews used amongst themselves, especially words denoting religious and other community-specific institutions.

Based on their knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish men engaged in the cattle trade developed their own secret code, which they could use among themselves at the markets without being understood by outsiders. It was based on integrating individual Hebrew words and expressions into German sentences. The name given to this form of speech was Lekoudesch, derived euphemistically from the term denoting the language of the Hebrew scriptures - Loschn ha-koudesch 'the holy language'.

Jews were driven out of their homes in Germany under the Nazis first by tightening persecution and restrictive laws, which led many to emigrate, and then by force, through deportations to concentration camps. Few returned after the war, those who did went back mainly to the urban centres. Rural Jewish communities practically ceased to exist in Germany after World War II. But the secret languages of Jewish cattle traders survived in some communities for another generation.

[Listen to interview]The story of Lekoudesch

Interview with Yaron Matras on ABC Radio National's Lingua Franca programme

The following examples were recorded between 1984-1985 in the village of Rexingen, near the Black Forest in southwest Germany. They document the usage of Lekoudesch by men who belonged to the Christian population of farmers. As young boys in the 1920s and earlier, these men often took on part-time jobs with the Jewish cattle-traders, helping to bring cattle to the markets. On the road, they became acquainted with the in-group code, which was more than just a trade language: it was a token of group solidarity, and a source of humour and entertainment, as it allowed group members to share conversation at the expense of others. This function in particular helped Lekoudesch survive. It remained the secret, in-group code of a circle of elderly men in the village for another generation, until the late 1980s.

Much of the content of what is said in Lekoudesch concerns laughing at the expense of others and other forms of by-passing the normal rules of polite communication without suffering the punitive sanctions that overt communication about taboo topics normally entails. Consider the following examples. The sentences are uttered in the local Swabian dialect of the village; Hebrew-derived words are italicised and explained below:

Example 1 [Listen to example]

'He sits all day in the pub, and drinks a lot, and doesn't work.'
Lekoudesch wordHebrew etymology
schäfftšev'to sit'
Uschpiss/Aramaic ušpiz'pub'
schasskennašata'to drink'
loulo'no, not'

Example 2 [Listen to example]

'When he comes to the woman/ when he comes home to the woman then she gets beaten, right?'
Lekoudesch wordHebrew etymology
Gojagoya'(non-Jewish) woman'

Example 3 [Listen to example]

'The woman is very pretty, one could sleep with her.'

Hebrew-derived words:

Lekoudesch wordHebrew etymology
Gojagoya'(non-Jewish) woman'
haggelhakol'all, entirely'
lekächalakax'to take'

Example 4 [Listen to example]

'Don't speak, the man is there! [=a stranger is listening]'
Lekoudesch wordHebrew etymology
loulo'no, not'
dibradibber'to talk'
Gujgoy'(non-Jewish) man'
schäfftšev'to sit'

Example 5 [Listen to example]

'Coffee without milk'
Lekoudesch wordHebrew etymology
loulo'no, not'

See how Lekoudesch acquired new functions, as an in-group entertainment code: It often figures as the climax in anecdotes told by the group, which depict outsiders' ignorance of the code, or, in some instances, the surprise effect when outsiders turn out to understand the code after all:

Example 6 [Listen to example]

1Nå isch er nei in des Hous,
2då håt dia Frau oba rakuchet, net.
3Nå håt d'r Jud sie gfråget: "Hasch scho z'morje gseifelt?"
4B> "Z'morje".
5Y> "Hasch scho ..?"
6"Hasch scho z'morje gseifelt".
7Ob sie heit morga scho brunzet häb...,
8.. "z'morje gseifelt".
9Nå håt dia gsagt: "Jå jå, wart amål".
10Nå isch sie in Kiche nei, un nå håt a Eimer Wass'r kholet un håt's iber den nagleert: "So, etzt håsch du au z'morje gseifelt"
11Un nå isch er rouskomma, då war i selb'r dabei: "Schumajes kiess, die Goja håt v'roumelt".
12Y> Wie nomal?
13"Schumajes kiess, die Goja håt v'roumelt", "Schumajes kiess", ..
14B> Die håt's v'rschtanda.
15.. also die Go/ die Frau håt's v'rschtanda.
16Y> Ah ja, ah ja, ah ja ..
17Un/ und i hao sie/ nåchher schpäät'r han i sie mal troffa.
18Nå han i sie gfråget.
19Nå håt sie gsait sie war in Rexinga schau bei-me Jud im Dinnscht.
20Und die hat's v'rschtanda.
21Y> Ah ja, ah ja.
22Un nå wär-m a Eimer Wasser iber de Kopf ra/ [ ]
23So, nå håt se gsait: "Jetzt hasch au z'morje gseifelt".

Example 6 Translation

1And he went into the house,
2So the woman looked down at him, right.
3So the Jew asked her: "Have you already peed this morning?"
4B > "this morning"
5Y > "Have you.."
6"Have you already peed this morning?"
7Whether she has already peed this morning..
8"Peed this morning"
9And so she said: "Yes, yes, wait a minute."
10And she went into the kitchen, and brought a bucket of water, and emptied it on his head: "Right, now you've also peed this morning!"
11And then he came out, I was there myself: "Goodness gracious, the woman understood it!"
12Y> Say again?
13"Goodness gracious, the woman understood it!", "Goodness gracious"
14B> She understood.
15well, the wo/ the woman understood it.
16Y > Oh, oh, oh,
17An/ and I met/ later I met her.
18And I asked her.
19And she said she had been in Rexingen working for a Jew.
20And so she understood.
21Y > Oh, oh.
22And he got a bucket of water over his head/ [ ]
23So then she said: "Now you have also peed this morning!"

The key to the humour in the anecdote is the surprise effect that the woman's understanding of the secret code had on the man who provoked her. At the same time the story reveals how the provocation itself was intended as a source of humour for the insiders, who planned to be able to expose and embarrass the woman by confronting her with a verbal taboo without her realising this. The first segment in Lekoudesch, in line 3 - 'peed this morning' - represents both a Hebrew insertion - seifela 'to pee', from Hebrew zevel 'waste' - and the pronunciation that is typical of the German component of the Jewish ethnolect - z'morje 'this morning'. The Jew's reaction in line 11 contains a unique Lekoudesch interjection - schumajess kiess, Hebrew šəmāʕ ve-haskēt 'listen and be quiet' -, the word Goja 'woman' (Hebrew goya '(non-Jewish) woman'), and the hybrid verb ver-oumela 'to understand', consisting of the German prefix ver- (as in German ver-stehen 'to understand'), and Hebrew amad- 'to stand', augmented by a Swabian verbal derivation suffix.