Macaronic language  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
"Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel"

Macaronic refers to text using a mixture of languages, 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.

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:

<poem> Tesi samanunga was edele unde scona et omnium virtutum pleniter plena </poem>

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:

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

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.) 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 common folk without resorting to their "vulgar" language.

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".

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:

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.

The term "macaronic" itself bears a superficial resemblance to a common Gaelic surname form, Mac a' (meaning son of the).

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.

Unintentional macaronic language

Homophonic translation

Occasionally language is unintentionally macaronic. A Greek-French example, well-known among French schoolchildren, is attributed to Xénophon by Alfred de Vigny in Pluton ciel que Janus Proserpine:

Ouk élabon polin, alla gar elpis éphè kaka.

This means

They did not take the city, as they hadn't a hope [of taking it].

but if read in French sounds like:

Où qu'est la bonne Pauline? A la gare. Elle pisse et fait caca.


Where is the maid Pauline? At the station. She's pissing and pooing.

The Swedish film Off Side (in which an Englishman spends time in Sweden) uses numerous jokes of this sort. For example, the English word "cup" sounds to a Swede a lot like kopp (cup), which sounds to an English ear exactly like "cop"; when a character says that they'd better take out the kopps, the Englishman is confused. In another example, the Swedes try to translate skata (a kind of bird) and call them "skates". So they tell the Englishman to watch out for 'skates' defecating everywhere.

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 novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt 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'.

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 modern non-humorous macaronic verse are Byron's Maid of Athens, ere we part (1810, in English with a Greek refrain); 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 mixing English, Spanish, Maltese, Italian and French; works of Italian writer Guido Monte,; and the late poetry of Ivan Blatný combining Czech with English.

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-Nazi 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 dialect).

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Macaronic language" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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