The Power of Speaking Macaronic

Native of Sarajevo, Amila Buturović is Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests span the intersections of religion and culture in the context of premodern Islamic societies, with a focus on Bosnia and the Balkans. She is the author of Stone Speaker: Medieval Tombstones, Landscape, and Bosnian Identity in the Poetry of Mak Dizdar (2002), translated into Bosnian/Croatian as Kameni govornik: stećci, prostor i identitet u poeziji Maka Dizdara (2019); co-editor with I. C. Schick of Women in the Ottoman Balkans (2007), translated into Turkish as Osmanlı Döneminde Balkan Kadınlar (2009); guest editor of Descant: Bosnia and Herzegovina, between Loss and Recovery (2012); and author of Carved in Stone, Etched in Memory: Death, Tombstones and Commemoration in Bosnian Islam (2016). She is currently working on a study about health culture tentatively entitled Herbs, Stars, Amulets: Cross-confessional Health and Healing in Ottoman Bosnia.

For all of us raising children in the diaspora, the dilemma about language acquisition begins at their birth. What language shall we use with them and in front of them? The decision is not a matter of mechanical communication: when immigrant parents, even those fluent in the adopted language, face difficulties in spontaneously intimating their values and secrets, it is the entire cultural baggage inferred in the native language that is at stake. Our exilic challenges make us hesitate between a monolingual, bilingual, even trilingual (as was the case in my household) choice, pitting nostalgia for our cultural heritage against a sense of obligation toward our adopted environment. Decisions on how to go about our children’s language prompt us to meditate on loss, on the power of words to express continuities across the spaces we have traversed far away from homeland, and on the constraints of our emotions in the adopted language. Yet, we also feel the responsibility to expand our children’s horizons by means of the linguistic proficiency we may facilitate (though not too much, lest we – Slavs – mess up their accent and the use of articles). Some of us, under pressure, privatize our native tongues and reduce them to sporadic interjections during intimate conversations, in spontaneous expletives and terms of endearments, that is, as a lip service to our foreignness and our children’s extended sense of belonging.

To the reassurance of all perplexed immigrants, studies repeatedly show that bilingual children do not make evident these parental dilemmas because they acquire competency in both languages, if so allowed, at the same pace. They develop different personalities in each, following cultural conventions and idiosyncrasies expressed in diction, style, and gesticulations. Such code-switching that comes with a double linguistic heritage amplifies their ability to cognitively balance and resolve many other challenges of learning. Yet the environments where they grow up, especially in North America (with the exception of parts of Canada where French and English dynamically coexist) increasingly demand a choice. Under the current US administration, the pressure of that choice is even more pronounced. Not speaking English in the public sphere has put to question the social and political loyalty of immigrant children. Bilingual speakers are treated with suspicion, not as misfits but as potential turncoats. Adherence to one language – aka English – is equated with the adherence to one identity, one system of values, one social group. Withdrawal from foreignness is required to recalibrate a sense of belonging in the dominant society. But this pressure is not new in North America: nearly a hundred years ago, Texan governor MA Farguson allegedly rebuked bilingualism with, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” In Quebec, Francophone nationalists blamed “des votes ethniques” for the failure of the separatist referendum in 1995.

In historical terms, however, the insistence of tying identity to one language is not very old. It has roots in premodern times but its current manifestations date back to the late 18th c. and the rise of nationalist projects whose aim, in addition to charting and safeguarding exclusive political space for a nation-state, was to homogenize belonging and culture, memory and the imaginary. Before such systemic alignments between language, identity, and culture, most countries and regions around the world honed multilingualism, despite preferential treatments of a particular language in principle areas of communication. Moving through languages was a normal state of affairs, often demanded by imperial systems, buttressed by multiple nodes of identity that could include class, region, or profession, and sustained through the movement of people and goods across imperial and trans-imperial belts. People did not shy away from the use of culturally distinct practices, including languages, in daily affairs.

Medieval tombstone stećak with an inscription in Bosančica, exhibited at the National Museum in Sarajevo

In the Balkans in general and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular, multilingualism spanned many centuries. Slavic variants, of which bosančica was Bosnia’s main script (Figure#1), coexisted with Latin, Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, and Persian.

Alphabets and scripts cohabited in administrative, scientific, religious, and literary texts alike, and at times merged or forged new forms, as was the case with Alhamiado, which entailed writing Bosnian, as well Albanian and Greek, in Arabic script. In Bosnia, this script was also known as arebica; it was used to write poetry and prose, and was later maintained as the main scriptural mode among Bosnian Muslim nobility (Figure#2). Its precursor was the Andalusian Alhamiado where Romance languages (Castilian, Portuguese, Ladino) were transcribed in the Arabic alphabet due to the centuries-long Arabic supremacy as the lingua franca in the Mediterranean basin. (Of course, Arabic was also the language of faith and had led to its scriptural adaptation to Persian and Ottoman Turkish and Urdu. De-Arabization of the script in modern Turkish was a significant secularist act with clear political, religious, and social consequences).

Historical texts and manuscripts repeatedly remind us that such dynamic forms of transculturation across the Balkans were neither random expressions of good faith nor were they political impositions. Rather, they were the outcome of spatial proximity and social intimacy between different ethnic and religious groups. Bosnia’s libraries contain rich testimonies to linguistic intermingling and commitment to polyglossia. Later, during the Yugoslav history when the hyphenated Serbo-Croatian was instituted as the official language, Serbian and Croatian scripts were equally represented in Bosnian life, intermingling with local praxis. School children, for example, were instructed to alternate regularly between Latin and Cyrillic scripts in schoolwork and homework so as to give Serbian and Croatian variants equal representation. Newspapers and magazines were required to do the same. The main daily “Oslobodjenje” in Sarajevo used evenly Cyrillic and Latin scripts in each edition, sometimes page by page. Both Latin and Cyrillic continue to be the official scripts of Bosnia and Herzegovina  , to the chagrin of many nationalist purists who regularly vandalize the evidence of it in public space.

Embedded polyglot practices, in contrast to learning foreign languages in school today, are not a mechanical engagement with ‘foreign’ tongues; rather, the speakers skillfully switch between cultural and religious sensibilities of native speakers in the language employed. Polyglot environments foster fluid ‘identifications’ – I am deliberately avoiding the term ‘identity’ of our day and age – that is born out of cultural transactions in different spheres of life: commerce, bureaucracy, family, religiosity, health, etc. Historians tell us of many people commanding a working knowledge of six-seven languages in the late Ottoman Balkans. What replaced such polyglot environments — in the Iberian Peninsula after 1492, in the Balkans in the late 19th century, and in many other parts of the world in various times of national and political awakening — were new labels that required cultural hybridity to be shed because identity was being fixed to one language, one literature, one canon, and one linguistic praxis. In the recent history of Yugoslavia, this politicization of language was overtly carried out through the policies of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and cultural genocide; elsewhere it has been more covert. Whichever the method of purification, from the linguistic point of view, eliminating the Other commonly goes hand in hand with impoverishing the Self, and speakers often find themselves lost in translation, that is, lost in their own cultural memory.

Of special interest in the enduring hybrid spirit and intermixing of languages in Bosnia was the presence of “macaronic” compositions. The term “macaronic” names a particular type of semantic production in which the speaker moves through several languages to create a multilingual phrase and effect. In other words, one does not switch from language to language; one uses them all at once. Words in two or more languages are cast in the grammar of one of the languages employed, usually the author’s native language. The term’s culinary etymology derives from the Italian word maccaroni: Teofilo Folengo, the early 16th-century Italian author of the mock-epic “Le maccheronee,” wittily likened this style to a crude mixture of flour, cheese, and butter. In Western European literary history more generally, the macaronic effect was most frequently achieved by mixing Latin with the poet’s vernacular. One finds bits of this poetic style in 15th- and 16th-century French and German poetry (where it is also referred to as Nudelverse), and some in English literature as well. As mediaevalists observe, Latin did not just possess scriptural authority: it was flexible and useful in many non-Church related forms of discourse, penetrating vernaculars (and vice versa) in a manner greater than the conventional bifurcation of high and low literature assumes. Historically, however, macaronic style is not unique to mediaeval and Renaissance Europe. Far and wide the interaction of imperial and local cultures formed multiple venues for macaronic expressions, written and oral, providing dynamic contacts between dominant and vernacular languages, literacy and orality. One of the world’s most acclaimed poets, Jalaluddin Rumi (d.1273), also blended multiple languages, in some instances four (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Armenian) in order to conjure a richer, more layered sense of reality. In fact, Rumi and his son Veled, as Lehfeldt tells us, are credited with paving the way for macaronic engagements between Greek and Turkish and the Greek Alhamiado tradition that would culminate a couple of centuries later in a tetralingual book involving Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Serbian written in Constantinople under Sultan Bayazıt II (d.1512).

In Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans, the official Ottoman languages — Turkish, Arabic, and Persian — mixed with the local idioms. In all these cases, the tension between literacy and orality, standard language and the vernacular, and imperial and ethnic norms, raise a host of theoretical and practical questions about both communication and translation as simultaneous modes of cultural and linguistic mediation. Unlike the macaronic practice elsewhere in Europe where the mixture involved the language of high culture and the vernacular, in Ottoman Bosnia several possibilities existed for such compositions: they could be bilingual, trilingual, or tetralingual, though all used Arabic script. One of the earliest of such texts dates to the 1650s, in form of a poem that consists of six stanzas versified in four languages — Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Bosnian — where each language takes one strophic line. Even simpler macaronic compositions reflect the polyvalent character of Ottoman culture and its negotiation of local sensibilities and poetic tastes. Many bilingual and trilingual poems and prose texts were preserved in manuscripts and deposited in local libraries. The Library of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, that was destroyed — with full intent — in May 1992 by Serbian nationalists, housed most of them. As for oral compositions, many popular poems persisted in everyday culture, commonly combining Turkish and Bosnian. Often inspired by local folk songs, they were mostly faithful to Bosnian/Slavic grammar and syntax, flexible in form or style, and they were frequently performed to music and/or publicly recited. Significantly, the growing presence of macaronic poetry in the late Ottoman period came at a time of heightened self-awareness of Bosnians vis-à-vis the imperial structure and their need for self-affirmation in matters of culture. (Figure #3.1;3.2;3.3;3.4)

An exceptional example of a polyglot tombstone from the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, in memory of an eminent member of the Jewish community Zekki Efendi Rafaelović. The three inscriptions – Bosnian, Ottoman Turkish, and Hebrew – are not translations as they are intended to be read by diverse visitors and therefore communicate a different, albeit formulaic message.


Linguistic theorists describe this process where signifiers converge rather than banish each other as one in which meaning is “heterologized,” or rendered somewhat autonomous of language. While there are few examples of macaronic text that have entered literary canons, macaronic expressions are relatively widespread in popular consumption. As mentioned, they can be complex compositions or aspects of everyday speech. A famous example from Egypt involves a song whose tune is popular throughout the Ottoman lands – in Bosnia and the Balkans it is knowns as “Anadolka” and in Turkey as “Üsküdar’a Gideriken” (made popular in the US by Ertha Kitt). In Egypt, the song is entitled “Fel shara” and is associated with Sephardic musical tradition (in fact, all versions allegedly have Sephardic roots). The song’s playful lyrics about erotic misfortunes mix Arabic, Italian, Ladino, French and English, giving the song a uniquely cosmopolitan, if perhaps burlesque, character with its linguistic patchwork. Such a mishmash, however, is a reality that persists in households and public places across the world, as well as on the internet. Many of us encounter situations where our bilingual children, with endearing innocence, answer a question in a language other than the one we posed it in, or begin a sentence in one household language and end it with another. Similarly, albeit for different reasons, bilingual speakers around the world will often mix English, the language of globalization, with their native tongue, at times for efficiency’s sake and at other just to mark their commitment to cosmopolitan spirit. Semantic foraging across language barriers constitutes a common practice that has not been fully accepted into mainstream language politics and never canonized as literacy. Yet all languages continuously loot from each other so as to enhance the aesthetic and functional dimensions of their own. Against their status as a coherent and self-sufficient national language, each is open to expansion and neologisms, accepting diversification even when subjected to canonical rigor and regulation.

During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, language was one part of cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism that came under attack and needed to be disassembled. The premodern macaronic corpus that was textually encoded became an easy target for nationalists in pursuit of linguistic purity. After all, linguistic diversity always assumes cultural diversity, and using different languages simultaneously in the same speech challenges the hierarchy that exists even in the most pluralist of societies. It also challenges the assumed singular destiny of historical languages, exposing an underlying lexical multiplicity in each. In this sense, the macaronic practice is especially subversive, confusing the tongue, literally and figuratively, and remaining untranslatable. As such, it has both liberating and restricting effects on the individual, and indeed cultural consciousness, prioritizing inter-textuality and informality, while implicitly questioning the purpose and function of cultural barriers of which ‘translation’ is one indicator. As macaronic compositions draw together speakers into a frame of linguistic intimacy, they allow them to cherish rather than shun semantic diversity while sustaining the space of separation. Although some linguistic philosophers have argued that the act of speaking and interpreting can never be performed simultaneously, macaronic expressions allow the speakers to evoke meaning by engaging the listener/reader in a speaking-as-translating dialectic. Every language is equally revered and each one is irreverently disassembled.

In light of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, drawing examples from its distant polyglot past has an oddly cathartic value for all of us who have inherited it as an element of our cumulative knowledge. Even if no longer active in the languages we speak in post-Yugoslav times, multilingual spirit is encoded in the memory of our languages, as it is encoded in many languages around the world. The macaronic style, as probably the least considered yet most intense form of linguistic hybridity, has the capacity to confront recent patterns of representation of cultural purity with something else: an assertively multilingual politics and a stern rebuke to the practices of ethnic division and genocide, xenophobia and intolerance, racism and chauvinism, all of which have taken over many critical arenas of international politics. The macaronic idiom, then, is an improbable but still potent witness to the legacy of tolerance and pluralism, one element of a broader complex — culture — that became both target and victim of nationalist denial and forgetting. In the linguistic synthesis of macaronic style lies the nationalists’ ideological antithesis. Where once pluralism was the modus operandi, nationalist bastions of linguistic/cultural purity, that have taken hold in Europe and spread everywhere as modernity and progress, aborted the idea of crossing, linguistically, through the pools of cumulative cultural knowledge in their midst. Nowadays, as Europe and North America are facing an almost unprecedented flow of immigrants and refugees from different parts of the developing and war-torn world, and as globalization has intertwined many linguistic threads into a bundle of virtual and real communications, it seems the world is given an opportunity to forge a new polyglot reality and linguistic diversity that can be the norm not only for immigrants but all citizens alike.

Beyond the painful personal reflections on the breakup of Yugoslavia and its tragic consequences on its population, as a cultural historian I struggle with the costs of violence on historical culture. What vanishes after a country falls apart and what is salvaged? What is the role of cultural memory in that process, among those who stay and those in exile? Needless to say, such fragmentation is never neat and its devastations traverse different spheres of life. Culture is a cumulative system that absorbs multiplicities, through time and space, and when that multiplicity is violently betrayed, the loss is unpredictably damaging – for language, material and immaterial heritage, and the social imaginary at large. Multiplicity that lies in all languages can serve as a reminder of how it might be possible to see and articulate the world in a polyglot way, as once was a common practice, so that cultural differences in our midst are recognized as an asset rather than a drawback. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, in a rather deterministic way, that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world,” suggesting that adhering to one’s own language alone gives us at once a capacity to understand the world but also robs us of the same. The story of the ancient tower of Babel, whose variants exist across many regions, teaches a lesson of what happens when pride and self-centeredness drive people to fortify their society and preserve their cultural homogeneity – it results in a violent breakup and dispersion. Perhaps it is time to rebuild the tower of Babel on new terms, this time not by attempting to scale heaven as a single nation, but by reaching across the world to affirm the tremendous potential of our linguistic diversity.


3 thoughts on “The Power of Speaking Macaronic

  1. Pingback: The geopolitical unmoored: from exemplarity to deprovincialization | The Disorder Of Things

  2. I found this article totally engaging and thought clarifying for me. I was researching for an article I’m writing on my own use of different languages in my poetry and find this opens up ideas for why i might be doing that!


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