The Language of Thieves | Granta

  • Published: 07/01/2021
  • ISBN: 9781783786428
  • Granta Books
  • 288 pages

The Language of Thieves

Martin Puchner

You might have heard the saying ‘you’re in a pickle’ meaning you’re in a difficult situation. This is just one example of Rotwelsch, an ancient language of the road influenced by Yiddish and written in rudimentary signs, and spoken by vagrants and refugees, merchants and thieves since the European Middle Ages.

Martin Puchner grew up knowing that Rotwelsch was of unusual interest to his family. When he inherited a family achive, it led him on a journey not only into the history of this extraordinary language but also into his family’s connections to the Nazi Party, for whom Rotwelsch held a particular significance.

The Language of Thieves is a compelling story of the mindset and milieu of Central Europe and of the way language can be used to evade oppression. It is also a deeply moving reckoning with a family’s buried past.

A rare find. A journey through language and family, revealing lives lived on the margins and on the wrong side of history

Rachel Seiffert, author of, A Boy in Winter

A fascinating blend of linguistics, history, and autobiography which offers a powerful new approach to humanities research

Bart Van Es, author of, The Cut Out Girl

The Language of Thieves is a revelation: in telling the story of an underground language, Martin Puchner exposes a hidden corner of Europe's-and his own family's-surprising past. Entirely original, infectiously curious, by turns playful and poignant, it offers at once a fresh, fascinating insight into history and a thoughtful meditation on identity and belonging. The book sings with Puchner's pleasure in the power of words to move, delight, deceive, and connect us

Maya Jasanoff, author of, The Dawn Watch

The Author

Martin Puchner holds the Byron and Anita Wien Chair in Drama, English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He has published over a dozen books, collections, and anthologies, including The Written World (Granta, 2017) and is the general editor of the six volume Norton Anthology of World Literature, used by students worldwide. He has written for the London Review of Books, Raritan Review, Bookforum and N+1.

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From the Same Author

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From clay tablets to the printing press.

From the pencil to the internet.

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This is the true story of literature — of how great texts and technologies have shaped cultures and civilizations and altered human history.

The inventions of paper, the printing press and the world wide web are usually considered the major influences on the way we share stories. Less well known is the influence of Greek generals, Japanese court ladies, Spanish adventurers, Malian singers and American astronauts, and yet all of them played a crucial role in shaping and spreading literature as we know it today.

The Written World tells the captivating story of the development of literature, where stories intersect with writing technologies like clay, stone, parchment, paper, printing presses and computers. Central to the development of religions, political movements and even nations, texts spread useful truths and frightening disinformation, and have the power to change lives. Through vivid storytelling and across a huge sweep of time, The Written World offers a new and enticing perspective on human history.

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