The survival of this ancient language is as mysterious as its origins
May 4, 2024 1:08 AM   Subscribe

Shakespeare toys with numerous European languages throughout his work, including Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Often, these are spoken in thick accents, with comedic pronunciation. The same holds true for his use of the various British dialects—Scots, Welsh, Cornish, and Irish—heard in scruffy taverns or high courts. In Henry V, soldiers fracture the King’s English while the king himself and a French princess descend into a comical Franglais courtship. Yet, no matter how garbled the speech, playgoers can usually identify distinct languages and dialects—that is, until they bump up against what scholars have called the “invented language,” “unintelligible gabble,” and “‘Boskos thromuldo boskos’ mumbo-jumbo” in his comedy "All’s Well That Ends Well." from I Understand Thee, and Can Speak Thy Tongue: California Unlocks Shakespeare’s Gibberish [LARB]
posted by chavenet (14 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It would be so wonderful if true.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:39 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]

I’m getting the weirdest error at the LARB link.
TypeError: i.addEventListener is not a function. (In 'i.addEventListener("change",handleChange)', 'i.addEventListener' is undefined)
The site loads, but then jumps to this error display.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:16 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

This is cool, chavenet. Thank you for posting it!
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:48 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

Oh, cool. I find it plausible that in attempting to convey an incomprehensibly exotic language Shakespeare drew on the rough phonetic footprint of a real language that he did not know but had come into contact with. And the wider panorama of early modern Basque culture and technology this article offers is fascinating.

I should also say that when a non-Shakespeare scholar with other specialist knowledge proposes a theory, it's often a theory that has already been considered by Shakespeareans, sometimes nineteenth-century German Shakespeareans. No idea if that's the case here, but it's at least possible.

Finally, congratulations to 2024 Copa del Rey champions Athletic Bilbao.
posted by sy at 4:21 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]

Apparently, Shakespeare did not put all his Basques in one exeunt.
posted by Ishbadiddle at 4:35 AM on May 4 [53 favorites]

The problem with this theory is that the text of All's Well in the First Folio is full of errors (one scholar speculated that it was transcribed from Shakespeare's manuscript by 'a rather incompetent literary scribe'), and we can't be confident that the soldiers' language bears much relation to what Shakespeare originally put on paper.

For example: one of the characters in the play is a 'gentle Astringer'. An astringer is a keeper of goshawks: no one has been able to explain what he's doing in the play, and it's been suggested that 'gentle Astringer' might be a misreading of 'gentleman usher' or 'gentleman stranger'. If the transcriber or typesetter could confuse 'stranger' with 'astringer', just imagine what a hash they might have made of 'Manka revania dulche', 'Bosko chimurcho', and the rest of the soldiers' language.

I like the theory, though, so I'm going to run with it and imagine that Shakespeare met a wandering band of Erromintxela on the road from Stratford to London ..
posted by verstegan at 5:25 AM on May 4 [13 favorites]

I tend to take basically any novel Shakespeare theory with a lot of salt, because they so often reveal more about the theorists' personal agendas and our universal confirmation bias than anything new about the text. And this one is no different there. The author (Frank Bergon) is clearly thoughtful, but also very invested in his Basque heritage. The Basque language, while not widely known or spoken outside of its own community, isn't exactly obscure either, particularly as its independence from Greek, Latin, and Germanic origins is a well-known and fascinating aspect for those interested in linguistics (i.e. most scholars who would be interested in solving this particular puzzle in the first place.) I'm not sure his test on the matter (having Basque speakers identify parts of the gibberish that "sound" Basque) would pass any p-value measurement for significance compared with other languages, and as verstegan points out, the First Folio is a mess, which complicates things quite a bit.

That said, I like this theory, and don't find it implausible at first glance. It fits the characters and setting of France/Spain, and moreover, it fits the joke of the scene. Parolles knows a bunch of languages, and Bertram's buddies are playing with that by improvising a made-up language that he's sure not to know. Shakespeare would likely have been aware of the Basque language, but only secondhand, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if, in this situation, he had some fun with the secondhand knowledge he had of it for this scene (which one imagines is hearing from better-traveled associates trying their best to convey the sounds of it to him.)

So yeah, I can't say that I totally buy this, but I like the sound of it, and I can't think of any reason that it can't be right, so that's something?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:21 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

When I read "rural California," I briefly thought that, somehow, Shakespeare had time-traveled and learned about Boontling.

Cool though this possible Euskera connection is, the Boontling thing would have been even cooler.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:30 PM on May 4 [3 favorites]

Cool though this possible Euskera connection is, the Boontling thing would have been even cooler.

Shakespeare was active in the English theater community. Maybe it's Polari?
posted by dannyboybell at 12:46 PM on May 4 [2 favorites]

By his own account, the passage was read to several Basque speakers who couldn't identify a single word, and the one word he does identify, "Boskos", is... not Basque.

Honestly, it looks like faux-Italian or faux-Spanish to me.
posted by zompist at 2:10 PM on May 4 [3 favorites]

I grew up mainly in the Jan Joaquin Valley. In the 1980s, I worked for a pack station with a campsite destination along the North Fork of the San Joaquin River, known as "the Naked Lady" camp.

The campsite is in a grove of mature aspens whose barks are inscribed with dates and images attributed to Basque sheepherders from the early 20th century.

I have no idea how to contact Berger, but I believe he might be interested in visiting that camp. Maybe the MetaHive mind can help. I can provide details.
posted by mule98J at 2:59 PM on May 4 [2 favorites]

> Shakespeare was active in the English theater community.

Hey now — we're all tangled up in the crazy idea that Shakespeare knew about Basque. We can't get involved in other crazy theories like this one.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:43 PM on May 4 [2 favorites]

Mod note: [Hey-ho! This post and Ishbadiddle's comment hath been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:15 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

Shakespeare was active in the English theater community. Maybe it's Polari?

Despite what Wikipedia says, my understanding is that the alleged pre-19th century usage of Polari is considered a...stretch, at best.
posted by desuetude at 6:55 PM on May 6

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