Macaronic language

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e. Dr. Beak] (a plague doctor in 17th-century Rome) with a satirical macaronic poem ("Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel")

Macaronic refers to text using a mixture of languages,[1] particularly bilingual puns or situations in which the languages are otherwise used in the same context (rather than simply discrete segments of a text being in different languages). The term can also denote hybrid words, which are effectively "internally macaronic". A rough equivalent in spoken language is code-switching, a term in linguistics referring to using more than one language or dialect within the same conversation.[2]

Macaronic Latin in particular is a jumbled jargon made up of vernacular words given Latin endings, or for Latin words mixed with the vernacular in a pastiche (compare dog Latin).

The word macaronic comes from the New Latin macaronicus which is from the Italian maccarone ("dumpling", regarded as coarse peasant fare). The term can have derogatory overtones, and is usually reserved for works where the mixing of languages has a humorous or satirical intent or effect. It is a matter of debate whether the term can be applied to mixed-language literature of a more serious nature and purpose.


Mixed Latin-vernacular lyrics in Medieval Europe

Texts that mixed Latin and vernacular language apparently arose throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages—a time when Latin was still the working language of scholars, clerics or university students, but was losing ground to vernacular among poets, minstrels and storytellers.

An early example is from 1130, in the Gospel book of Munsterbilzen Abbey. The following sentence mixes late Old Dutch and Latin:

Tesi samanunga was edele unde scona
et omnium virtutum pleniter plena

Translated: This community was noble and pure, and completely full of all virtues.

The Carmina Burana (collected c.1230) contains several poems mixing Latin with Medieval German or French. Another well-known example is the first stanza of the famous carol In Dulci Jubilo, whose original version (written around 1328) had Latin mixed with German, with a hint of Greek. While some of those early works had a clear humorous intent, many use the language mix for lyrical effect.

Another early example is in the Middle English recitals The Towneley Plays (c.1460). In The Talents (play 24), Pontius Pilate delivers a rhyming speech in mixed English and Latin.

A number of English political poems in the 14th century alternated (Middle) English and Latin lines, such as in MS Digby 196:

The taxe hath tened [ruined] vs alle,
      Probat hoc mors tot validorum
  The Kyng þerof had small
      fuit in manibus cupidorum.
  yt had ful hard hansell,
      dans causam fine dolorum;
  vengeaunce nedes most fall,
      propter peccata malorum

Several Anthems also contain both Latin and English. In the case of 'Nolo mortem pecatoris' by Thomas Morely, the Latin is used as a refrain:

Nolo mortem peccatoris; Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.
Father I am thine only Son, sent down from heav’n mankind to save.
Father, all things fulfilled and done according to thy will, I have.
Father, my will now all is this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
Father, behold my painful smart, taken for man on ev’ry side;
Ev'n from my birth to death most tart, no kind of pain I have denied,
but suffered all, and all for this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Translated: "'I do not wish the death of the wicked'; These are the words of the Saviour." An allusion to John 3:17 and 2 Peter 3:9.

Latin–Italian macaronic verse

The term macaronic is believed to have originated in Padua in the late 14th century, apparently from maccarona, a kind of pasta or dumpling eaten by peasants at that time. (That is also the presumed origin of maccheroni.)[3] Its association with the genre comes from the Macaronea, a comical poem by Tifi Odasi in mixed Latin and Italian, published in 1488 or 1489. Another example of the genre is Tosontea by Corrado of Padua, which was published at about the same time as Tifi's Macaronea.

Tifi and his contemporaries clearly intended to satirize the broken Latin used by many doctors, scholars and bureaucrats of their time. While this "macaronic Latin" (macaronica verba) could be due to ignorance or carelessness, it could also be the result of its speakers trying to make themselves understood by the vulgar folk without resorting to their speech.[4]

An important and unusual example of mixed-language text is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna (1499), which was basically written using Italian syntax and morphology, but using a made-up vocabulary based on roots from Latin, Greek, and occasionally others. However, while the Hypnerotomachia is contemporary with Tifi's Macaronea, its mixed language is not used for plain humor, but rather as an aesthetic device to underscore the fantastic but refined nature of the book.

Tifi's Macaronea was a popular success, and the writing of humorous texts in macaronic Latin became a fad in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in Italian. An important example was Baldo by Teofilo Folengo, who described his own verses as "a gross, rude, and rustic mixture of flour, cheese, and butter".[5][6]

Other mixed-language lyrics

Macaronic verse is especially common in cultures with widespread bilingualism or language contact, such as Ireland before the middle of the nineteenth century. Macaronic traditional songs such as Siúil A Rúin are quite common in Ireland. In Scotland, macaronic songs have been popular among Highland immigrants to Glasgow, using English and Scottish Gaelic as a device to express the alien nature of the anglophone environment. An example:[7]

When I came down to Glasgow first,

a-mach air Tìr nan Gall.
I was like a man adrift,

air iomrall 's doll air chall.

Folk and popular music of the Andes frequently alternates between Spanish and the given South American language of its region of origin.

Macaronic verse was also common in medieval India, where the influence of the Muslim rulers led to poems being written in alternating indigenous Hindi and the Persian language. This style was used by the famous poet Amir Khusro and played a major role in the rise of the Urdu or Hindustani language.

The Sublime song "Caress Me Down" alternates between English and Spanish lyrics, at some points between verses, at others between lines within a verse, and occasionally between phrases within a line.[8]

Unintentional macaronic language

Occasionally language is unintentionally macaronic. One particularly famed piece of schoolyard Greek in France is Xenophon's line "they did not take the city; but in fact they had no hope of taking it" (οὐκ ἔλαβον πόλιν· άλλα γὰρ ἐλπὶς ἔφη κακά, ouk élabon pólin; álla gàr elpìs éphē kaká). Read in the French manner, this becomes "Où qu'est la bonne Pauline? A la gare. Elle pisse et fait caca." ("Where is young Pauline? At the [railway] station. She's pissing and taking a shit.")[9][10] In English literature, the untranslated line makes an appearance in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.[11]

Modern macaronic literature


Macaronic text is still used by modern Italian authors, e.g. by Carlo Emilio Gadda. Other examples are provided by the character Salvatore in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and the peasant hero of his Baudolino. Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo ("Comic Mystery Play") features grammelot sketches using language with macaronic elements.

The 2001 novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt[12] includes portions of Japanese, Classical Greek, and Inuktitut, although the reader is not expected to understand the passages that are not in English.

Macaronic games are used by the literary group Oulipo in the form of interlinguistic homophonic transformation: replacing a known phrase with homophones from another language. The archetypal example is by François Le Lionnais, who transformed John Keats' "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" into "Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l'hiver": 'A monkey of beauty is a toy for the winter'.[13] Another example is the book Mots d'Heures.

Macaronisms figure prominently in the The Trilogy by the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, and are one of the major compositional principles for James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake.


Two well-known examples of non-humorous macaronic verse are Byron's Maid of Athens, ere we part (1810, in English with a Greek refrain);[14] and Pearsall's translation of the carol In Dulci Jubilo (1837, in mixed English and Latin verse).

An example of modern humorous macaronic verse is the anonymous English/Latin poem Carmen Possum ("The Opossum's Song"), which is sometimes used as a teaching and motivational aid in elementary Latin language classes. Other similar examples are The Motor Bus by A. D. Godley, and the anonymous Up I arose in verno tempore.

Recent examples are the mużajki or 'mosaics' (2007) of Maltese poet Antoine Cassar[15] mixing English, Spanish, Maltese, Italian, and French; works of Italian writer Guido Monte;[16] and the late poetry of Ivan Blatný combining Czech with English.[17] "Night Falls," a macronic poem in Chinese and English by American poet Lynn Xu, appeared in the Boston Review and in her first collection, Debts & Lessons, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Brian P. Cleary's "What Can I C'est?" makes use of macaronic verse, as do other poems in his book "Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry":

My auntie Michelle is big in the BON

(As well as the hip and the thigh).
And when she exhales, OUI haul out our sails

And ride on the wind of VERSAILLES.

A whole body of comic verse exists created by John O'Mill, pseudonym of Johan van der Meulen, a teacher of English at the Rijks HBS (State Grammar School), Breda, the Netherlands. These are in a mixture of English and Dutch, often playing on common mistakes made when translating from the latter to the former.


'Macaronisms' are frequently used in films, especially comedies. In Charlie Chaplin's anti-war comedy The Great Dictator, the title character speaks English mixed with a parody of German (e.g. "Cheese-und-cracken"). This was also used by Benzino Napaloni, the parody character of Benito Mussolini, using Italian foods (such as salami and ravioli) as insults.

Other movies featuring macaronic language are the Italian historical comedies L'armata Brancaleone and Brancaleone alle crociate (d. Mario Monicelli), which mix modern and medieval Italian as well as Latin (sometimes in rhyme, and sometimes with regional connotations, such as the Italo-Normans using words from modern Sicilian).

See also


  1. "Macaronic". Oxford Dictionary of English.
  2. "Definition of Macaronic". Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  3. Fran Hamilton. "LinguaPhile online magazine, September 2007". Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  4. Giorgio Bernardi Perini. "Macaronica Verba. Il divenire di una trasgressione linguistica nel seno dell'Umanesimo" (PDF).
  5. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford University Press (1996)
  6. "Teofilo Folengo in The Catholic Encyclopedia". 1909-09-01. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  8. Arbre d'Or eBooks. "Pluton ciel que Janus Proserpine...". (French)
  9. Genette, Gérard & al. Palimpsests, p. 41.
  10. FinnegansWiki. "Ouk elabon polin".
  11. DeWitt, Helen. The Last Samurai (Chatto and Windus, 2000: ISBN 0-7011-6956-7; Vintage, 2001: ISBN 0-09-928462-6)
  12. Genette, Gérard; Newman, Channa; Doubinsky, Claude. Palimpsests. pp. 40–41.
  13. Byron, George. "Maid of Athens".
  14. Grech, Marija. "Mosaics: A symphony of multilingual poetry", The Daily Star (Kuwait), 25 August 2007
  15. "see for ex.". Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  16. Wheatley, David. "The Homeless Tongue: Ivan Blatný". Contemporary Poetry Review, 2008.
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