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The Poetry of Traditional Languages

by Nick Balamaci

          The Neapolitan linguist-historian Giambattista Vico said in 1744 in his New Science, "We find that the principle of [the] origins both of languages and of letters lies in the fact that the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters." This grand discovery enabled Vico to outline the development of civilized society; nowadays it is a sort of truism amongst lovers of languages, one almost taken for granted by those of us who were raised in societies which still have many traditional elements and that includes much of rural America as well as the Balkans. We know that everyday language is losing its poetry because we can compare our speech with that of our parents and grandparents and hear the difference. Modern language is more precise, while traditional language must make much more use of metaphorical extension of meaning. Modern language is more formal and has been doctored to remove vulgarities, while traditional language can be blunt and hard-hitting. Modern language strives for ever-increasing standardization over the widest possible sphere, while traditional language was tenaciously local.

          In short, whereas today we can feed our language into computers which can discern the various parts of speech, understand the meanings of the words, and even translate them into dozens of other more or less standardized human languages, in the past language was much more anarchic, impossible to tame, and thus much more beautiful.

          The language I learned and heard my elders speak was Arumanian (Vlach), but I know from my language hobby that real modern Greek (i.e., dhimotiki, especially before being polished up, standardized, and taught in schools) and the other Balkan languages were and are equally colorful. (In fact, linguists see all the Balkan languages whether Albanian, Slavic, Greek, or Rumanian as one unit, as they have certain "deep" structural features in common.) In their earthiness and humor, Vlach and rural Greek remind me most of Yiddish. It is ironic that not long ago we all ran as fast as we could from the "backward" speech of our parents; now some of us would give almost anything to be able to really sing the language the way they could. What virtuosos!

          Especially when it came to threats. My mother could spell out a warning or a curse that would make my brain send out hormones that screamed surrender and made my hair bristle as my body temperature plummeted. The language she was using may have been particularly suited to our ancestors' nomadic mountain lifestyle of the last 2,000 years, but I am here to tell you that the words still work just as good as they ever did. It's obviously risky to try to translate such language-bound expressions into another language, but if even one of them reveals its magic to you I'll feel as if I have made my point.

Note: Since Arumanian orthography is still not standardized I will add Spanish (ny) and ll (ly) to a simplified English alphabet and hope for the best. Some peculiarities of Vlach:  

1) the attachment of the definite article to the end of a noun, as in Albanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Rumanian; e.g., (masc.) lupu, "wolf," lupulu, "the wolf"; (fem.) cale, "road," calea, "the road." 

2) certain regular sound changes from the original Latin, such as p becoming a k sound and vice versa (e.g., pinus, "pine tree," becomes kinu, while aqua, "water," becomes apa) and vowels becoming diphthongs (e.g., hospites, "guests," becomes oaspitsi). 

3) more and more borrowings from Greek as the years go by (e.g., xei, "strangers," or capitalismo, "capitalism"). This seems to be a natural tendency of less developed languages unless they are tightly controlled, which Arumanian is not. I hope I don't sound too defensive if I note that Greek would experience an invasion of Western words without this control; I still remember the morning I was walking down Broadway in Astoria and heard someone say, "Dhen boroume na to agorasoume because einai semi-detached."

Expressions of Death

The pedestrian way to say that someone is dead is simply easti mortu. In his monumental 1974 etymological dictionary of Arumanian, Tache Papahagi lists some 25 metaphoric ways to say the same thing, including:

lo calea mari = he took the big road

li deadi klleili = he turned in (his) keys

lli macara granlu = they ate his kollyva (wheat dish made for memorial services)

lli adusira habarile = they brought him the news (that his time had come)

u arupsi chioara = he tore (his) yarn (the one the Fates were spinning for him, I imagine)

aruca topa = he fired (his) cannonball

In a special category are two expressions concerning beheading, which was a popular way to die in the Ottoman Empire:

l-featsira una palma ma shcurtu = they made him shorter by a palm

lli loara Ayiu Ian = they took his St. John

Threats

va-ts dau una di va-ts ascapira oculli = I'll give you one (slap) so hard that your eyes will sparkle (see stars)

va-ts dau una di va-ts hiba tuta ta = I'll give you one so well-aimed that it will be totally yours

va matsi shi va jotsi = you'll eat and you'll dance besides (i.e., you'll do whatever I tell you to do)

Disgust or Put-downs

i sta tu coasti= it sticks in my craw (lit. "ribs")

nu li avea patruli = he didn't have the four (meaning all four hundred drams in a Turkish oka, i.e., he's not all there)

ari capu di Gheg = he has the head of a Gheg (a northern Albanian tribesman, i.e., he is stubborn, thick-headed)

ca unu paru easti = he's like a stake in the ground (he's useless, he does nothing but stand there)

u ai shcrumata = you've had it burnt to a crisp (your brain)

The Devil (Draculu)

mi baga Draculu = the Devil made me do it

nu ari Dratsi = he has no Devils (i.e., he is good)

candu mi veadi, fudzi ca Draculu di thimeama = when he sees me, he runs away like the Devil from incense (i.e., he avoids me)

Curses

s-ti agudeasca topa = a cannonball should strike you

si-ts creapa hearia = your gall bladder should burst

s-ti agudeasca kicuta = the drop should strike you (this one is extremely common but a bit of a mystery; my uncle George, who had an active imagination, maintains that ubiquitous Vlach merchants even found their way to China, where they learned about the Chinese method of torture by water drops...)

Forget It

va u facu la Pashtile calilor = I'll do that when horses celebrate Easter (i.e., never)

va u facu candu va-i vedu io ureacllia = I'll do that when I can see my own ear (i.e., never)

ahatu s-armana di tini = you should be so lucky (lit. "so much should remain of you")

urbarea tsi ts-u deadi = the blindness that gave that (idea) to you (i.e., forget that stupid idea)

pri atsea mana s-ti badzi = you should be so lucky (lit. "you should sleep on that hand," because every one of us has a favored hand to tuck under our heads when we go to sleep)

fatsi guva tu apa = you're making a hole in the water (you're trying something impossible)

Expressions from Mountain Life

These will probably need a bit more explanation:

tuti lucri iesu tu pade = all things come out into the meadow (i.e., the truth will eventually come out. In the forested mountains, you can only see things when they're in a meadow.)

deadi capu fumealia alu Profenza = Profenza's family has arrived (lit. they "gave their head" because the first thing you see when a family is rounding the bend of a mountain road is their heads as they lean forward to get a good look at their native village)

sh-aspindzura tambaria = he hung up his cape (he came for a visit and now we can't get rid of him)

scoati cutsurile = he's taking out logs (he is moaning and groaning a lot)

Livestock

These, too, will need some explanation:

u adutsi di varigala = hes bringing her around (based on the way a rooster seduces a chicken, so this really means "he's flirting with her" or "he's trying to get his way with her")

tsi stai ca gallina uda? = Why do you stand there like a wet chicken? (meek, quiet)

ca capra easti = he's like a goat (lively, energetic)

s-culca cu gallinili = he goes to sleep when the chickens do (early)

nu i-u canta cucotlu = the rooster isn't singing it for me (i.e., I don't have the energy to do this today)

cari nu ari tihi la calli, nu ari nitsi la ghumari = he who has no luck with horses has none with donkeys, either (I must confess that Im not quite sure what this means, but if anyone figures it out please don't hesitate to write to me)

The Human Condition

nu am intratu tu kefi = I'm not in a gay mood (lit. "I haven't entered a good mood")

lu adrai caplu = I got drunk (lit. "I did my head")

va un napoleon si-zbureasca = he requires a gold piece in order to speak (i.e., he doesn't talk much)

cu Vangheliu tu mana = with the Gospel in hand (said of a person who is extremely holy, honest, prudent, etc.)

nu moashi, ma sufrusita = not an old lady, yet wrinkled (used mockingly when someone denies being something he/she obviously is)

lli-u aflashi pandica = you found her stomach (you got her pregnant)

poala u ari unflata = she's had her apron inflated (she's pregnant. Used only for pregnancies out of wedlock; otherwise the word greaua, from Latin gravida, is used.)

Degree

laie sh-corba = black as a crow

era mortu ca di dzatsi ai = he was so dead it was as if he had been dead ten years

nu easti pani cu cashu = he's not just bread and cheese (i.e., he's really something)

Here's one that is so context-bound it would only be understood in my mother's village, Avdhella:

i li scrisi di la Ayiu Thanas pana la Ayiu Nicola = he wrote me about everything (lit. "he wrote me from St. Thanas to St. Nicholas." Vlach villages are almost always on the side of a mountain, and in Avdhella before the war, the church of St. Thanas was uppermost and that of St. Nicholas was lowest. The whole village thus lay between the two churches, and so this expression became another way to say "everything.")

Dying

This and the first category above, Death, are my favorites, strange to say. People's attitudes towards death have received much academic and popular attention over the last few decades.  Whereas Western Europe (during what some would call its "modernization") has seen its attitude towards death change several times until the present, it has been observed that people in the Balkans, until very recently, have seen death in its context as quite natural (as long as it is not sudden), and this strikes me as a rather healthy outlook. There are so many ways to say in Vlach that a person is dying that I couldn't even begin to list them all. But I hope that the expressions below show that the inevitability of death was both accepted and deflected with a bit of humor.

lli-si disclisi usha shi a lui = the door has been opened for him, too

u aduna chioara = he is gathering the yarn (of the Fates?)

nu ari multa pani = he hasn't got much bread left

poarta apa a mortsilor = he's bringing water to the dead

s-ari scoasa tiketlu, ma nu shtii candu va fuga = he has taken out his ticket, but he doesn't know when he'll be leaving

                                      *        *        *        *        *

          What does this tell us? That our ancestors' languages were hilarious? Maybe. That we should be talking like this? I wonder whether it's possible any longer. Then what?

          I think that all we can safely conclude is that we are losing something as well as gaining something as we move along in the modernizing process.  I have gone into detail on language because it is a passion of mine. Older languages seem to express themselves more poetically, that is, they use the same devices poets use I don't mean that the expressions quoted above can be compared to actual poetic work, nor are such expressions the monopoly of Vlach or Greek. Other languages have them, too; I just happen to know Vlach better. I think we can agree, however, that all languages seem to be moving away from this colorfulness of expression towards increasing standardization and precision.


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