July 31, 2022
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v2.1 Reference

Listening to the Languages of the People

Lazare Sainéan on Romanian, Yiddish, and French

This tale of great achievements and great disappointments offers a fresh perspective on the interplay between scholarship and political sentiment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Lazăr Șăineanu (1859-1934), linguist and folklorist, was a pioneer in his native Romania, seeking out the popular elements in culture along with high literary ones. He was the first to publish a study of Yiddish as a genuine language, and he uncovered Turkish features in Romanian language and customs. He also made an index of hundreds of Romanian folktales. Yet when he sought Romanian citizenship and a professorship, he was blocked by powerful figures who thought Jews could not be Romanians and who fancied the origins of Romanian culture to be wholly Latin. Faced with anti-Semitism, some of his friends turned to Zionism. Instead he tried baptism, which brought him only mockery and shame.

Hoping to find a polity to which he could belong, Șăineanu moved with his family to Paris in 1900 and became Lazare Sainéan. There he made innovative studies of French popular speech and slang, culminating in his great work on the origins of that language. Once again, he was contributing to the development of a national tongue. Even then, while welcomed by literary scholars, Sainéan was unable to get a permanent university post. Though a naturalized citizen of France, he felt himself a foreigner, an "intruder," into his old age.

About the Author

Natalie Zemon Davis is Professor Emerita in the History Department at the University of Toronto.
Central European University Press

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July 31, 2022
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