The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 26, 2008

The Cant of Thieves

I happened to read A. C. Baantjer's DeKok and the Geese of Death recently. Baantjer is a famous Dutch writer of crime fiction, and his police inspector DeKok is as erudite a man as Sherlock Holmes, with knowledge of far more recondite things than the great detective. This book is rather weak, though. It's fairly obvious early on what the plot is, and the rather literal translation from the Dutch makes for a slightly jarring read.

But one interesting thing I came across is Bargoens, the Dutch argot of sundry low-life, criminals and tramps. In the translation of Baantjer's book, it was rendered into a sort of pidgin Italian-English, a sort of Cockney-mixed-with-Brooklyn (at least, that is what it looked like in English). Bargoens, itself, though, has a long and immodest history. It was fairly widespread till about the 1980s (the book is from 1983), but fewer and fewer people spoke or understood it even then. For instance, Baantjer makes the case that DeKok understood it well, although he didn't like to speak it at all. His colleagues seemed to have a slightly trickier time comprehending it.

Bargoens has a large complement of Yiddish loan-words in its vocabulary. (See here, for instance.) It appears to have originated in the 16th century, but became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jewish travelling salesmen, ostracised by the general population, were large contributors to the slang, explaining thereby the Yiddish influence. Traces of the tongue now survive in the Amsterdam dialect of Dutch, but mainly in cuss-words, and terms for money or sex.

There are a few Dutch people in my office. Well, usually, there are. Today, for some reason, most of them are absconding. There's only one around: Loes. And she hasn't heard of Bargoens. Perhaps not known in my part of Holland? she says.

Man, I gotta find me some real Dutch toughies.

Paul Van Hauwermeiren, a researcher who is writing a book on the argot, makes the following remarks 1, (paraphrased by me).
"Dutch Bargoens dates from 1504. You can find it, for instance, in the work of the 16th century poet Anna Bijns of Antwerp. Over time, some Bargoens words transferred to general Dutch.

"It is hardly spoken any longer. In Flanders and in the Netherlands, there are a few places where Bargoens lives on. In Roermond (Dutch Limburg), for instance... In Flanders, it is spoken by traders in scrap and used cars. They call themselves 'travellers', indigenous Flemings descended from travelling salesmen and artisans. Many of them still live in mobile homes. They speak Bargoens, but they agree that their kids grow up not speaking it much. When these people meet another who they think is a 'traveller', they attempt a few words of Bargoens, and if he responds, they know that he is a 'traveller', too.

"Roermond is the only place where Bargoens is heard in daily use... The district is a former working class neighbourhood with great solidarity...They mixed Bargoens with their own dialect to create a Begoons. Many locals think that strange Bargoens words in their speech are authentic old Roermondese words... But there are families in Roermond who use Bargoens words like premerik (priest) and drejjerik, instead of the Roermondese pesjtoor and vlaaj

"It is not very easy to collect the words and their meanings. The Bargoens speakers in 't Veld are not forthcoming with information about their Begoons. This is understandable, because if they explain the meaning of a word to everyone, it no longer remains a secret. Fortunately, I have an informant in t' Veld who occasionally feeds me a few words.

"Other countries had their own secret languages as well. Around 1450, the French poet Villon was writing ballads in the argot of the infamous Coquillards. In England, around the same time, began the Thieves' Cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which is very related to Bargoens. Travellers of either Bargoens or Rotwelsch country were mutually intelligible in a broad area of Europe, from coastal Flanders through Denmark to Poland.

"...Anywhere that Bargoens was spoken, you would have a basic core of words, around which there were words that were typical for that particular area. There is Yiddish influence, influence from the Romany in the south, and from French in Belgium. Dutch words were distorted. New words were formed by derivation and composition.

"It was never a full language with its own grammar. In the oldest lists of words, Bargoens only has nouns and verbs. Other parts of speech were added as its range extended: adjectives, a few adverbs, and also secret counting words. There are many nouns for money. It was more a vocabulary, a series of words to be inserted in a given language or dialect. In the 19th century, the average speaker used about three to four hundred Bargoens words. But if you counted all the words used by the speakers in Roeselare in West Flanders, Zele in East Flanders, Brussels or Antwerp, you already had a list of two thousand different words.

"Bargoens was grafted onto the local dialects. Each speaker was basically bilingual. Besides Bargoens, he spoke the local dialect of the national language. One would switch to Bargoens only when necessary. For example, when doing 'business in the margins,' when there were outsiders present, crucial words would be uttered in Bargoens. Thus, with minimal effort, the conversation was rendered impenetrable to outsiders. It was a shield. Remember that if you had no fixed place to live, you were a nobody, treated with suspicion. There was a large group of people without permanent rights to residence. They only had their secret language to guard against the inimical society around them.


1. Interview with Paul Van Hauwermeiren. Taalschrift, 29/01/2007.


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