Rotwelsch (German: [ˈʁoːtvɛlʃ]) or Gaunersprache (German: [ˈɡaʊnɐʃpʁaːxə], "criminal language") is a secret language, a cant or thieves' argot, spoken by groups primarily in southern Germany and Switzerland.

Origin and development

Rotwelsch was formerly common among travelling craftspeople and vagrants. The language is built on a strong substratum of German, but contains numerous words from other languages, notably from various German dialects, including Yiddish, as well as from Romany languages, notably Sintitikes. There are also significant influences from Judæo-Latin, the ancient Jewish language spoken in the Roman Empire. Rotwelsch has also played a great role in the development of the Yeniche language. In form and development, it closely parallels the commercial speech ("shopkeeper language") of German-speaking regions.


Because of its development as a means of conveying information about goods and transactions, Rotwelsch has no terms for abstractions. For example, it has no direct translations for the seasons such as spring and autumn.[contradictory] Instead, it uses Bibberling (literally, "shiver-ling") and Hitzling (literally, "heat-ling") in place of season names.

Other vocabulary examples, compared to their German counterparts, include:

  • Schokelmei = Kaffee (coffee)
  • schenigeln = arbeiten (to work)
  • Krauter = Chef eines Handwerkbetriebes (master artisan)
  • Kreuzspanne = Weste (waistcoat)
  • Wolkenschieber = Frisör, Barbier (barber)
  • Stenz = Wanderstock des Handwerksburschen (walking stick)
  • fechten = betteln (to beg)
  • Platte machen = Unterkunft suchen (to seek lodging)
  • Puhler = Polizist (policeman)

From Feraru's "The 'United Ring' and Organized Crime in Berlin"

  • abfaßen = to arrest (literally 'to write out')
  • acheln = to eat (from Hebrew)
  • ackern = to go acquire; to go off the line (literally 'to till or cultivate')
  • den Affen kaufen = to get drunk (literally 'to buy the ape')
  • alle gehn = to be arrested; to vanish into thin air
  • assern = to testify against someone, to 'betray' them
  • aufmucken = to revolt against orders
  • auftalgen = to hang (literally 'to grease up')
  • der Getalgente = the hanged man
  • balldowern = to spy out; to make inquiries about (perhaps from Hebrew Ba'al Davar = one who brings an accusation)
  • ballmischpet = examining magistrate (from Hebrew Ba'al Mishpat = Master of Law)
  • der Bau = the prison or penitentiary (literally 'the lodge')
  • Bauer = a stupid simple-minded person (literally 'peasant' or 'farmer')
  • begraben sein = to be hunted for a long time (literally 'to be buried')
  • bei jom = by day (Hebrew yom = day)
  • bei leile = by night (Hebrew laila = night)
  • der Bello = the prison toilet
  • beramschen = to swindle
  • berappen = to pay up or fork over money (literally 'to plaster a wall'); also possibly from Malayan through Dutch: berapa means 'how much?' (what does it cost), now integrated in Dutch as berappen: to pay.
  • betuke = discreet or imperceptible (perhaps from Hebrew betokh' = within)
  • die Bim = a small bell (from bimmel)
  • bleffen (or anbleffen) = to threaten. Possibly from Dutch: blaffen: to bark (like a dog).
  • der Bock, from Romani bokh = hunger, coll. Bock haben = to be up for something.
  • Bombe = coffee glass (literally 'bombshell')
  • brennen (literally 'to burn') = Extortion, but also to collect the "thieves' portion" with companions. The analogy between distilling spirits (Branntweinbrennen) and taking a good gulp of the portion (Anteil) is obvious.[1]

Current status

Variants of Rotwelsch, sometimes toned down, can still be heard among travelling craftspeople and funfair showpeople as well as among vagrants and beggars. Also, in some southwestern and western locales in Germany, where travelling peoples were settled, many Rotwelsch terms have entered the vocabulary of the vernacular, for instance in the municipalities of Schillingsfürst and Schopfloch. A few Rotwelsch words have entered the colloquial language, for example, aufmucken, Bau, and berappen. Baldowern or ausbaldowern is very common in the Berlin dialect; Bombe is still used in German prison jargon. Bock haben is also still used all around Germany. The Manisch dialect of the German city of Gießen is still used, although it was only spoken fluently by approximately 700-750 people in 1976.[2]


Josef Ludwig Blum from Lützenhardt (Black Forrest) wrote from war prison:

„[E]s grüßt Dich nun recht herzlich Dein Mann, viele Grüße an Schofel und Bock. Also nochmals viel Glück auf ein baldiges Wiedersehen in der schönen Heimat. Viele Grüße an Mutter u. Geschwister sowie an die Deinen.“

Bock and Schofel are persons? The control let pass the words. This code words Schofel („bad“) and Bock („hunger“) change the meaning.[3]

Rotwelsch in the arts

A variant of Rotwelsch was spoken by some American criminal groups in the 1930s and '40s, and harpist Zeena Parkins' 1996 album Mouth=Maul=Betrayer made use of spoken Rotwelsch texts.[4]

An example of Rotwelsch is found in Gustav Meyrink's Der Golem and reads as follows: An Beindel von Eisen recht alt. An Stranzen net gar a so kalt. Messinung, a' Räucherl und Rohn, und immerrr nurr putzen. Und stoken sich Aufzug und Pfiff, und schmallern an eisernes G'süff. Juch, Und Handschuhkren, Harom net san.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Peter Feraru (1995). die "Ringvereine" und das organisierte Verbrechen in Berlin. Muskel-Adolf & Co. ISBN 978-3-87024-785-0.
  2. ^ Hans-Günter Lerch, "Tschü lowi...Das Manische in Giessen", 1976/2005, Reprint Edition, page 22, ISBN 3-89687-485-3
  3. ^ Christian Efing (2005), Das Lützenhardter Jenisch: Studien zu einer deutschen Sondersprache (in German), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, p. 74, ISBN 978-3447052085
  4. ^ Proefrock, Stacia; Allmusic.com review of Mouth=Maul=Betrayer; URL accessed Jan 06, 2007
  5. ^ http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Meyrink,+Gustav/Roman/Der+Golem/Punsch Transcript of Golem novel.
  • Wolf, S.A.: Wörterbuch des Rotwelschen. Deutsche Gaunersprache, 1985/1993, 431 S., ISBN 3-87118-736-4
  • Heinz Sobota : Der Minus-Mann, 1978, Verlag Kiepenheuer und Witsch

External links

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