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Dark Tongues

The Art of Rogues and Riddlers


Daniel Heller-Roazen


New York: Zone Books, 2013

Hardcover. 236 p. ISBN 978-1935408338. $27.95


Reviewed by Sandrine Sorlin

Aix-Marseille Université


This book written by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, owes its title (Dark Tongues) to a line extracted from Finnegans Wake (The howtosayto itiswhatitis humustwhomust worder schall. A darktongues, kunning) which, placed as an epigraph, sets the tone of the whole book: though no chapter is devoted to Joyce, it is linguistic darkness that the author tries to illuminate here. The “secrecy of language” is what constitutes the invisible thread that relates the eleven chapters of unequal length composing the book. From chapter 2 to 8, in a large diachronic perspective, the author tries to answer the underlying question: what is the link that draws together the language of bandits, the language of poets and the language of the gods? The following chapters concentrate on Saussure’s “anagrams”, Jakobson’s poetic function and Tristan Tzara’s work on François Villon. If Saussure and Tzara tried to perceive in the art of ancient poetry an “unapparent law”, Jakobson exposes the “poeticity” of language that is there for everyone to see. With François Villon as studied by Tzara in the final chapter, the book comes full circle: indeed Villon’s ballads are written in the secret language of the criminals with which the book opens. And yet surprisingly enough, as the author points out, Tzara’s work on Villon does not include the six ballads in his research. If Saussure abandoned studying ‘anagrams’ in the end, Tzara’s analyses have been proved wrong in computer-aided studies. The book thus ends on the ultimately undisclosed linguistic secrets of poetry which Saussure and Tzara strove so hard to see through.

Chapter 1 entitled “Forkings” delves into the partition that has been historically established between language and languages. It demonstrates that from classical Greece and Rome to 20th-century linguistics, the concern has been with the abstraction of language rather than with linguistic diversity. The 19th-century attempts at retrieving a unique “Proto-Indo-European language” confirm the historical tendency to put aside the reality of the plurality of languages. As in the Bible, multiplicity has been regarded as a sign of division and “incommensurability”. The author thus aims at doing justice to an essential aspect of speaking humanity that has been underestimated by philosophers and linguists: the ability to take language apart and reconstruct it, making it plural and dark.

This capacity is illustrated in chapter 2 in the language of the 15th-century Burgundian bandits called “Coquillars” that—the Dijon legal documents make clear—committed their crimes thanks to linguistic means. Heller-Roazen details the deformation that the rogues submitted the late medieval northern French to, through metonymic, metaphoric and other unpredictable processes. Among many others, he gives the example of “La rouhe” (wheel) standing for the court of Justice that might use this instrument should they get caught. A link came to be established between this hermetic jargon and the obscure language of the Middle French poems written by Villon, leaving Heller-Roazen to wonder why the two arts came to such a fast union.

Slang, jargon and cant are three varieties of discourse. The third chapter concentrates on the last kind. Although we can trace some references back to the 12th century, the distorted language of malefactors came to prominence in the age of the Coquillars: early modernity, the author says, “proved to be an epoch favorable to rogue tongues” [33]. Indeed an entire literature on the impenetrable tongue of vagabonds started to rise in many countries. In 1509, The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars (der Betler Ordern) was written by an anonymous “expert in roguery” and prefaced by Martin Luther who wanted those linguistic swindlers’ dark language to be known by potential future victims. In England, Caveat or Warening of Common Cursetors written by Thomas Harman in 1557 was the first of a long list (Thomas Dekker 1608, Richard Head 1665, Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1731, etc.) In France, Vidocq’s Les Voleurs (1837) threw luminous light on the world of thieves that inspired Balzac and Hugo. The Iberian picaresque novel was also particularly marked by thieves’ cant. Going through different varieties of French (le verlan, le javanais—the 19th-century secret variety used by prostitutes, the Largonji de loucherbème adopted by Parisian Butchers at the same time) and of English (the rhyming slang of East London Cockneys but also American and Australian prisoners), the author concludes that these varieties embody in fact not secret tongues but “secret uses of language”, for they do nothing but feed on the various grammatical units that compose language. They are “parasitic languages” rather than “anti-languages”: “such linguistic parasites, like all others, possess their own means of subsistence. They involve both the sense and the sounds of the languages by which they live” [38].

The author highlights the specificity of these languages. First they defy the principle established by Jean-Claude Milner, according to which absolute synonymy does not exist: words are interchangeable in slang, jargon and cant. Second, they come fascinatingly close to another type of variety, that is to say poetry. This proximity, the author claims, has not been sufficiently underscored. As he evinces in the next five chapters, the medieval rogue tongues and their Renaissance and modern avatars have indeed numerous poetic precedents, like the poetry of the troubadours (using word substitution to avoid naming the beloved lady), the Old Norse poems between the ninth and eleventh century in Sweden, Denmark and Norway (using circumlocution to obscure language according to divine will) or the Veda’s riddles and enigmas (as used by a close circle of priests).

But the author adds that if the Vedic riddles played a particular role in classical India, there is a universal essence to the riddle that he painstakingly details in chapter 6. A riddle is composed of a ‘Precedent’ (the riddle per se) and the ‘Sequent’ (its resolution). Drawing on Frege’s distinction between ‘sense’ (Sinn) and ‘reference’ (Bedeutung), he shows that Precedent and Sequent have the same ‘reference’ as they refer to the same part of reality, only the first part does so obscurely. A riddle can be called a “special language” as it aims at rendering common language unintelligible to those who have not mastered the art of riddle building. Once the principles of construction are mastered, the art of riddling becomes productive: the “true secret” of riddles indeed lies in “the structural bond that unites ‘Precedent’ and ‘Sequent’”. The author shows that although the links can be varied, they are in fact predicated on two resources: first a rhetorical one as the links rest on a vast array of rhetorical figures. This knowledge might have helped Oedipus in understanding that ‘morning’, ‘daytime’ and ‘evening’ were metaphorical scramble for the different stages of the journey of life for example. But there are also grammatical riddles where the ambiguity plays on morphology rather than semantics, as in “why is coffee like the soil? It is ground” for instance.

As implicitly stated in the previous chapters, the author shows in chapter 7 and 8 that the “true masters” of linguistic authority, as testified by the most ancient Indo-European literary traditions, were “the gods of the ancient Greeks, Celts, Norsemen, Indians and Anatolians” who practiced the art of concealment in their abhorrence of what was plainly exposed to the eye and detectable to an indiscrete mortal ear. But here too the author demonstrates that sacred language is not the only prerogative of the gods, as any mortal being seems to be attracted to what is hidden from view. Drawing on Antoine Meillet’s comments on linguistic substitutions in certain societies throughout the world and Benveniste’s analysis of taboo, Heller-Roazen recalls that linguistic prohibition lies at the heart of human linguistic activity. Taboos do not always occasion substitution; blasphemy can be concealed under linguistic deformation (‘par dieu’ becoming ‘pardi’ or ‘parbleu’ for instance).

Chapter 9 is focused on Ferdinand de Saussure. It is the famous linguist’s interest in the oldest form of Latin poetry that supplies the link with what precedes. Indeed, on leave from teaching in Naples, Saussure thinks he has detected recurrent sound patterns in the inscription of the Roman forum. After three years of careful study registered in no less than 99 notebooks, the linguist came to regard the phonetic harmonies and symmetries of letters he had identified as an essential feature of the Saturnian verse. What came to be known by the very imprecise word of “anagram”—as the author explains, this is not anagram in the strict sense, since it displays more complex phonic imitations—are varieties of “anaphones” that are close to the art of circumlocution in their “phonic paraphrases”. According to Saussure, the Indo-European poets possessed a special “science” of sound structure that they would keep secret. His anaphonic phenomena belie all the linguistic principles exposed in his Cours de linguistique générale (the division between signifier/signified, the arbitrary nature of the sign, the system of differences and oppositions, and last but not least the principle of linearity). Indeed not only does the anaphone exist as itself and is anything but arbitrary, but it does not respect the principle according to which no two elements can be pronounced at once. In his willingness to test his hypotheses, Saussure asked the opinion of the Latin poet Giovanni Pascoli. As the latter did not answer Saussure’s second letter, the linguist chose to abandon his investigations that no system of calculus could confirm or infirm at the time, leaving them as one more unresolved mystery.

Most linguists were prone to see in Saussure’s work on ‘anagrams’ a symptom of some madness or even schizophrenia. There was one, however, who declared that Saussure’s anagrammatic work embodied a second revolution after his Cours. Had it not been kept secret for 50 years, the art of poetics would have progressed faster. This dissenting voice was that of Roman Jakobson, the topic of Heller-Roazen’s last but one chapter. While Saussure asked himself how the techniques of anaphones had been transmitted from master to pupil, how Virgil, Lucretius or Horace could have adopted this millennia-old technique, Jakobson got rid of the secret altogether: the phonic realisations, he argued, had to be distinguished from any notion of ‘poetic intention’. There is no ‘conscious will’ to be deciphered whatsoever. The poetic patterns are not so much the result of some divine decision as the result of the “poeticalness” that is inherent in language. Poetry is the very privileged site where the poetic function of language is openly brought to the fore.

The much-awaited sixth and final volume of Tristan Tzara’s Complete Works (1991) exposed the cryptographic signs in François Villon’s verse. Unlike Saussure’s anaphones, the play on alphabetic units was here destined not to the ear but to the eye. As he gives detail of Villon’s syllabic decompositions in the final chapter, Heller-Roazen wonders why Tzara, the avant-garde poet and one of the central figures of the anti-establishment Dada movement, had been drawn to ancient techniques. For, if we can perceive some similarities with the poetic method expounded in the 1920 Manifesto (the assemblage of “disparate pieces” for instance), there is an irreducible difference: the poetic processes in Villon’s poetry, as Tzara perceived them, were not a matter of chance. Yet Tzara’s results have been contradicted by computerized calculations that proved the presence of anagrams to be a matter of mere chance: one study shows they were in fact not less but far more numerous than Tzara had himself indicated.

This synthesis of the eleven chapters that make up Daniel Heller-Roazen’s work can scarcely do justice to the richness of a particularly well-written book. We can be grateful to the author for having brought to light what is usually excluded from “serious” linguistic analysis, like Saussure’s notebooks that have been for a long time “dogmatically excluded”. And yet, as Jakobson noted, they had intuitively revealed important aspects of language, in the field of phonology in particular, where the conception of the linearity of the sign had been an impediment to any scientific progress. Although bibliographies can never be exhaustive, Louis-Jean Calvet’s work on argot could have been included in the already numerous French references that the bibliography counts. More prejudicial is the misspelling of the name of an eminent specialist of Occitan literature who is deservedly summoned in Heller-Roazen’s focus on troubadours (Gérard Gouiran and not Gourian). These are very minor remarks that cannot deter the reader from delightfully following the author as he takes her on a highly learned linguistic journey through centuries and civilisations. We can only regret that all the threads subtly pulled throughout the book between different aspects of language secrecy have not been plaited in a final conclusion. Unless this missing part comes from a conscious will to leave the reader in a linguistic darkness that can never totally come out into the open: like the language of the rogues, riddles or ancient anagrams, the mysteries of language seem to work best when they are kept as what they are, mysteries…


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