October 15, 2022
9.00 Inches (US)
6.00 Inches (US)
.98 Pounds (US)
$65.00 USD, £47.00 GBP
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 among 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 language of Rabelais. 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.


"My life was crossed by so many disappointments" declared Lazare Sainéan. In a book written with erudite empathy, Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the successive disappointments of this extraordinary scholar who was born in Walachia in 1859 and died in Paris in 1934. Like many figures in Natalie Davis's previous books, Lazare Sainéan crossed boundaries, traveled between countries, mastered numerous languages (Romanian, Yiddish, his mother's tongue, French, German, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English and many others), and born as a Jew, converted to Orthodox Christianity. His scholarship associated multiple disciplines (linguistics, philology, comparative mythology, folklore, ethnography, lexicology, literature) and covered different topics: Romanian literature, folktales, Yiddish, old and modern popular languages, Rabelais' vocabulary, and French etymologies. Sainéan was a man with several names: he was born as Eliezer ben Moses Sain, became Lazar Saineanu and, after he came to live definitively in Paris in 1901, Lazare Sainéan. The melancholy tone of this superb and moving book is rooted in the bitter contrast. Sainéan's emphasized the creative power of mixtures and hybridizations: the Romanian language welcomed Oriental influences, Judeo-German or Yiddish mixed Middle High German, Hebrew and Slavic idioms, Rabelais' French language was infused with social and geographical mixture. On the other hand, societies closed on themselves denied him academic position and even, in the case of anti-semitic Romania, naturalization and citizenship. Natalie Zemon Davis "tried to listen to Lazare Sainéan's voice". Her rigorous and touching work allows us to listen the vigorous and tormented voice of a man who dedicated his intellectual life to encounters, loved two nations and three languages, and, however, remained everywhere a foreigner.—Roger Chartier

"Once again, Natalie Zemon Davis has given us a beautifully written and meticulously researched study illuminating a historical period through the story of one individual. Lazare Sainean (1859–1934)—philologist, folklorist, Jew, convert, scholar of Rumanian, French, and Yiddish—was repeatedly denied citizenship and academic positions and yet, as Zemon Davis convincingly argues, was able to cross cultural and geographic boundaries."—Anita Norich

"Known under the name of Lazăr Șăin, Lazăr Șăineanu (from 1883) and Lazare Sainéan (from 1901), the renowned linguist and folklorist is an interesting addition to Natalie Zemon Davis's study of figures who crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. This book, which often reads like a novel, emphasizing the author's qualities as a storyteller, follows one man's destiny in late nineteenth-century Europe, as one of many Jewish life stories. The book explores identity as constructed by its subject, but also as recast by the historian."—Maria Silvia Crăciun

"A very important contribution to the study of the history of the Yiddish, Romanian, and French linguistics, of Romanian and general East European and Balkanic folklore, and of the history of the Jews of Romania in the period of the polemics for emancipation in the last two decades of the 19th century. The book is very useful for philologists, folklorists, historians of Romanian Jewry and of Romania."—Lucian-Zeev Hercovici
Central European University Press

9789633865934 : listening-to-the-languages-of-the-people-zemon-davis
200 Pages
$65.00 USD

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