Parisian Conversations

A linguist look into Carolingian everyday life

Introduction

The Parisian Conversations are probably the most enigmatic piece of Old High German literature that ever came down to us. What we have preserved in them is an actual and unique picture of the Carolingian day-to-day. Vernacular renderings of conversations in which people greet each other, laugh together and insult each other. The Parisian Conversation may have originated in a Early Medieval travelguide of sorts intended for Romance speaking clergymen traveling to the Franconian speaking east. It is almost as if we can see the people who uttered these sentences a thousand years ago standing on some withered Roman road, the cobble stones green with moss for the lack of maintenance, a hot wind blowing through the trees and the reed roofs of large farmhouses laying hazily in the background. A historian’s dream come true!

Strangely, however, the importance of the Parisian conversations is mostly overlooked by historians of Carolingian culture (even nowadays). Their linguistic and philological value on the other hand have been acknowledged by Old Germanicists from the nineteenth century onwards. The glosses were written down by a Romance speaking clerc, who learned Old High German as a second language and possibly heard the sentences somewhere during his travels. The “Latin” sentences that the Old High German was supposed to gloss can hardly be called Latin anymore, and is better understood as colloquial Proto-Romance. A good reminder to the historian that the clergymen writing our manuscripts did not “live” in a Latin world, they lived in a vernacular world and spoke to eachother using the Romance or the Germanic vernacular.

The sentences are concatenations of spoken language heavily influenced by the way the Romance scribe pronounced Old High German, naturally with Romance dialect features. The copyist who subsequently copied the text into the manuscript that we nowadays posses probably didn’t know any Old High German and corrupted parts of the text by making transcription errors and wrong word divisions. But still, the fact that we have an actual specimen of original non-poetic spoken Old High German makes the Parisian conversations a very valuable text for linguists.

 But not only the specialized linguist or philologist will enjoy the content of the Parisian Conversations. The vulgar and bawdy nature of quite some parts of the text make for a good laugh and a fun read. It seems very likely that some conversations were only written down for their humorous nature in the first place. In this article I want to present you a scandalous collection of sentences from the Parisian Conversations, which may together constitute a somewhat coherent converstation. I will give you the Old High German gloss, a tentative Old High German reconstruction of what the author of the text actually wanted to transcribe and the Latin translation. Finally I will give a modern rendering of the conversation as it might have looked. I will, however, not give a linguistic analysis, for that would make a whole article on itself.

Manuscript

 

The Parisian Conversations are preserved in the margins of a ninth century manuscript[1] that originated in the south of France, possibly the monastery st. Marcel at Châlons-sur-Sâone. The Parisian Conversations are copied from an older source that might be connected to the area of Sens, possibly the area where the text originated. The text is written in a dialect of Old High German which has some peculiar idiosyncracies. This has led some scholars to believe that it actually represents a dialect of Franconian spoken in the north of France, an elite Frankish sociolect surrounded by Romance speakers. Most of the idiosyncracies however can be explained as orthographical alternations and pronunciation difficulties common to the Romance speaking scribe. Please note that the Romance-Latin glosses are just as interesting to the linguist as the Old High German, for the language used there can hardly be called “Latin” anymore and truly ressembles colloquial Proto-Romance.

  Romance-Latin Old High German as glossed Reconstructed “Old High German”
83 Quot vices fottisti guanna sarden ger wanne sarden ger?
84   terue naste truwa, ne wist ech!
60 quare non fuisti ad matutinas? quandi nae guarin ger za metin wande ne waren[2] ger[3] zu metin?
61 ego nolui En valde ech[4] ne wolde!
62 tu iacuisti ad feminam in tuo lecto? ger ensclephen bitte uip in ore bette ger insliefun bit demu wif in (i)uwer bettin?
63 si sciuerit hoc senior tuus iratus erit tibi per meum caput! guez or erre az pe de semauda ger enscelphen pe dez uip so es terue u rebolgan wez (i)uwer herra daz, bi desemu (mīn)[5] hauƀda, ger insliefun so ist truwa (i)u irbolgan
64 quid dicitis vos? guaz queten ger, erra[6] waz queden ger?
65 Ausculta[7] fol[8]! coorestu, narra gahoristu, narra!
66 uelles corium de tuo equo habere in collo tuo? gualdestu abe (de)[9] tinen rose ter uht ze ine ruge? woldost du haben dīnen (h)rossen der hūt[10] zu dīnemo ruggi?
67 Stultus uolentarie fottit! narra, er sarda gerra narra, er sard gērno

Text

I place the last two sentences which were numbered 83 and 84 in Wilhelm Braune’s edition in the same context as the conversation. I do this because sentences 83 and 84 were written on the upper margin of the manuscript page and the text seems to continue in the right margin of the page, therefore 83 and 84 seem to be followed by sentence 60 in Braune’s way of counting. The fact that 83-84 and 60-67 share a rather scandalous nature combined with the possibility that they may have followed eachother up in the original text, brings me to put the two sets of sentences together, for that may be how the text was originally intended.

                I interpret the lines as representing a verbal jousting amongst friends. The inquiry as to why one of the speakers wasn’t present at matins does not sound like something you would ask a stranger. The use of the politeness form in the second plural is used as part of their verbal game.[11] The rudeness of the retort seems to confirm this interpretation. Sentence 66 is best interpreted as referring to a physical beating by a riding whip. Sentences 83 and 84 use the word sarden which is cognate to Old Icelandic serða, which meant “unconventional intercourse”. The Latin translation fottire is the Romance continuation of Classical Latin futuere and seems to have a quite general meaning.

Reconstructed conversation

In my reconstruction of the text I will name the speakers Ruodlieb and Walthar, after the protagonists of the two most important secular poems that were written down in Carolingian times.

Ruodlieb:              How many times did you have sex?

Walthar:               Truly, I dont know!

Ruodlieb:              Why weren’t you there at matins?

Walthar:               I did not want to go!

Ruodlieb:              Did you sleep with a woman in your bed?

                               If your lord finds out that you slept, by my head, he will be so angry!

Walthar:               What did you say?

Ruodlieb:              Listen, fool!

Walthar:               Do you want to feel the skin of your horse on your back!?!

Ruodlieb:              Fool, he likes having sex (too much)!

Bibliography

Wolfgang Haubrichs et Max Pfister eds., „In Fracia Fui; Studien zu den romanisch-germanischen Interferenzen und zur Grundsprache der althochdeutschen ‚Pariser (Altdeutschen) Gespräche“, Abhandlungen der geistes- und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse 1989, 6 (Mainz 1989).

Braune, Wilhelm, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (17th edition 1994 Tübbingen; 1875).

Wilhelm Braune, Althochdeutsche Grammatik (Tübingen 2004).


[1] the fragments of which are to be found in Cod.Vat.Reg.Lat. 566 and Cod.Paris.B.N.lat.764

[2] the indicative  2.pl. in /-en/ is enigmatic and looks like a dialect feature of this specific Frankish dialect

[3] it may be that ger instead of expected gi or gir is also a dialect feature of this dialect, another possibility is that is merely the Romance confusion of /i/ and /e/.

[4] See last note, ech instead of ich.

[5] I put this mīn here because it warranted by the Latin translation and to make it fall in line with similar colloquial expessions in the Middle Germanic languages and early modern English.

[6] this erra is not translated in the Latin gloss and it looks like it is quite out of place.

[7] This word is naturally the Romance word for “to listen” continued in Fr écouter, It ascoltare, Sp escuchar

[8] note here the ancestor of modern English fool!

[9] this de looks like an erroneous placement of the de in the Latin translation

[10] litterally; the skin of your horse

[11 a parallel would be the use of the politeness forms in the plays of Shakespeare

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