How Emperor Charles V ended up talking German to his horse (1)

Domain-based code-switching from Daniel Bomberg’s Jerusalem Talmud to Hieronymus Fabricius’ De locutione. Featuring the wit and wisdom of Rabbi Jonathan of Beth Gubrin, Padua’s medical school and Jewry, and the Polish utopian Jan Zamoyski. With excerpts from Fellini’s I Clowns and a bodice-ripper by Kent M Chater, whose Agent Alighieri claims that “Like the great Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain I speak Spanish with God, French with men, German to my horse, and Italian to the ladies.”

Charles V and his horse discussing sociolinguistics before the Battle of Mühlberg (Titian <a href=',_by_Titian,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg'>@Prado</a>).

Charles V and his horse discussing sociolinguistics before the Battle of Mühlberg (Titian @Prado).


Some time back Ray Girvan (< Kenneth Haynes < Harald Weinreich < Erasmo Buceta < Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente’s De locutione et ejus instrumentis (1601)) posted what was apparently the first known example of the famous aphorism attributed to Charles V.

He also provided subsequent variants of his own discovery, and brief investigations on my part suggest that the meme’s still going strong, although its function has changed: Kent M Chater’s Ameuropa: Love And Betrayal in the Greatest Alliance of Nations, for example, illustrates splendidly generic use by modern vanity publishers, not as a hypothesis regarding the particular qualities of languages, but as a certificate of cultural authenticity, rather like the municipal arms stuck on their rucksacks by Japanese Interrailers:

“Tell them your Charles V joke.”

[Agent] Antonello [Alighieri, alias Dante] grinned. “Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose empire extended from the Netherlands to Sicily and from Austria to Spain and all its overseas colonies? Sure!” He took a deep breath, threw out his chest, raised his hands into position, and then rambled off into pleasantry accompanied by exaggerated and comical Italian hand gesticulations. “Like the great Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain I speak Spanish with God, French with men, German to my horse, and Italian to the ladies.”

They laughed.

On balance reviewer P Hightower (conceivably aka Squeakie) likes it:

It is the best novel I have ever read–exciting, entertaining, intriguing, suspenseful, romantic, and full of knowledge and wisdom. I have never learned so much from a novel before; it is very well researched.

The easiest way to describe Kent Chater’s style is to say that he is like Ian Fleming, Dan Brown, Robert Ludlum, H.G. Wells, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Luigi Pirandello, the Marquis de Sade, the romantic Spanish poet Bécquer, and Casanova all rolled up into one unique writer. Also, reading AmEuropa conjures images of a James Bond film; for that reason, Kent Chater’s style resembles that of Ian Fleming’s, but Chater is more visionary, cultural, philosophical, and psychological.

Kent Chater’s AmEuropa is the kind of work that will not only be considered a “classic” someday but should also win the Nobel Prize for literature. Chater is a very profound writer, for he cleverly uses the spy thriller and romance genres as vehicles to convey important political and philosophical messages in order to better the world. I hope his visionary yet very sensible and viable Alliance of AmEuropa becomes a reality someday soon. That would benefit us all!

The strong correlation in contemporary American novelising between use of the anecdote and glowing albeit solitary reviews on Amazon may indicate that Web 2.0 was a load of wank. Alternatively, talking German to horses may for Americans like Mr Chater have become key to deciphering the glorious civilisation devised for our benefit by Brussels.

The latter possibility being far the more congenial, I thought I’d extend Ray’s research backwards in time. In this post I’ll describe Fabricius’ probable immediate source, the first printed edition of the Jerusalem Talmud, published by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1523. Then, assuming my dodgy ear keeps playing up, in a subsequent post I’ll go quite a lot further back and afield (mainly Greater Greece and Persia) to examine some possible influences and the challenges of multilingual polities.

Hieronymus Fabricius, his 1601 phonetics treatise and his aphorism

Richard S Westfall’s bio is far better, but here’s Wikipedia for a change:

Hieronymus Fabricius or Girolamo Fabrizio or by his Latin name Fabricus ab Aquapendende also Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente (1537–1619) was a pioneering anatomist and surgeon known in medical science as “The Father of Embryology.”

Born in Acquapendente, Latium, Fabricius studied at the University of Padua, receiving a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1559 under the guidance of Gabriele Falloppio. He was a private teacher of anatomy in Padua, 1562–1565, and in 1565, became professor of surgery and anatomy at the university, succeeding Falloppio.

In 1594 he revolutionized the teaching of anatomy when he designed the first permanent theater for public anatomical dissections. Julius Casserius (1561–1616) of Piacenza was among Fabricius’ students. William Harvey (1578–1657) and Adriaan van den Spiegel (1578–1625) also studied under Fabricius, beginning around 1598…

Westfall on his writings:

He published his anatomical observations in several volumes, including De visione, voce, auditu (Venice, 1600), De venarum ostiolis (1603), which contains systematic and accurate descriptions of the venous valves ex novo, De motu locali animalium secundum totum (1618)–all of which may be considered as parts of the uncompleted but monumental Totius animalis fabricae theatrum which he meant to publish and to which he devoted many years. Fabrici was one of the creators of comparative anatomy. Fabrici’s embryological works included De formato foetu (1604), and De formatione (1621). His surgical works were gathered in the Pentateuchos cheirurgicum (Frankfurt,1592) and in The Operationes chirurgicae (Venice, 1619).

Fabricius’ range is so wide that his treatise on the mechanics of human speech, De locutione et eius instrumentis, is often overlooked, despite it containing the first complete description of the anatomy of the larynx as well as a considerable number of interesting observations with regard to articulatory phonetics.

Vocal tract of unidentified nationality from Fabricius De locutione. More photo-posts here.

In the 15th and 16th centuries it was widely believed that the spoken language in particular reflected national character–take this passage from Iovianus Pontanus‘ (humorous, but it’s still sodding Latin) De sermone (1501?):

Magniloquentia delectat Hispanos, fucatus ac compositus sermo Graecos. Romanorum gravis fuit oratio, Lacedaemoniorum brevis, et horrida. Atheniensium multa et studiosa, ac Carthaginensium, Afrorumque callida, et vafra… Magniloquence delights the Spaniards, colourful and composed speech the Greeks; the discourse of the Romans was ponderous, that of the Spartans brief and rough; of the Athenians, excessive and studied; and of the Carthaginians and Africans crafty and sly… (tr Trebots)

In the chapter we’re interested in, De numero literarum, et dialectorum varietate (“Of the number of letters, and the variety of dialects”), Fabricius comes up with something rather more profound. The physiology of our speech organs, he says, has a powerful determining influence on the way we speak, so that physical differences between the peoples of the European Mediterranean and between them and those of the European North serve to explain why the sounds humans produce vary so radically from place to place:

Quamobrem, homines Septentrionales, quia robusti sunt, robustamque habent linguam; iccirco robustiores literas, hoc est, eas, ad quarum prolationem robustior tum lingua, tum exsufflatio requiritur, eligunt et proferunt. Unde eorum sermo asperior, et rigidior esse videtur. Hi autem neque Itali sunt, qui placide loquuntur, neque Hispani, qui suaviter; neque Galli, qui leniter; neque Graeci, quibus dedit ore rotundo Musa loqui; sed tantum, uti dictum est, qui Septentrionalem plagam incolentes, linguam ceteris suis actionibus respondentem habent. Itaque vehementes sunt, rigidi que ac severi: itemque ex Galeno animosi audaces.

For this reason Northern men, being strong, have strong tongues; therefore they choose and produce strong words, that is, those whose utterance requires strength of both tongue and exhalation. These are not the Italians, who speak serenely, the sweet-tongued Spanish, the gentle French, nor the Greeks, to whom the muse gave roundness of speech [Horace Ars poetica, and alternately interpreted as a metaphor for fluency or (particularly by dumb singing teachers) as opening one’s mouth like an organ pipe]; but, as we have said, those who, inhabiting the northern region, have a tongue corresponding to their other actions. And so they are violent, rigid and severe, as well as, according to Galen, bold and daring. (tr Trebots)

A live, rather more informal version of this may have given rise to the unsourced anecdote in Alexander Chalmers Biographical dictionary that

in one day, all the Germans deserted the school of Fabricius, because, in explaining the mechanism of the muscles of speech, he had ridiculed their mode of pronunciation.

Anyway, Fabricius continues by encapsulating his observation (and where is the comparative diaphragm- and tongue-strength research to refute it?!) in the Charles V aphorism:

Unde solebat, ut audio, Carolus V. Imperator dicere, Germanorum linguam esse militarem: Hispanorum amatoriam: Italorum oratoriam: Gallorum nobilem. When Emperor Charles V used to say, as I hear, that the language of the Germans was military; that of the Spaniards pertained to love; that of the Italians was oratorical; that of the French was noble
Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse: Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem, maiestatemque prae se ferat: si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit: si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice; quod illorum lingua nihil blandius: si cui minandum, aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens. Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement. [tr Wikiquote, via Ray]

So much for Fabricius. Now for the men I believe to be his source.

Bomberg’s, his 1523 Jerusalem Talmud and his aphorism

Wikipedia (the Dutch version‘s also good):

Daniel Bomberg (died 1549) was an early printer of Hebrew language books. A Christian, born in Antwerp, he was primarily active in Venice between 1516 and 1549. He produced the editio princeps of the Mikraot Gedolot, the Rabbinic Bible, consisting of the Hebrew text plus rabbinical commentaries, between 1516 and 1517, and the first and oldest complete set of the Talmud, between 1520 and 1523, a well-preserved copy of which is contained in the Valmadonna Trust Library. Bomberg found a ready audience among the Jews of Italy, whose numbers had been swelled by exiles from Spain and Portugal. Bomberg’s presses eventually produced some 230 Hebrew books, and his innovations in Hebrew typography set the standard for later printers.

The Jerusalem Talmud, says Wikipedia, is

a collection of Rabbinic notes on the 2nd-century Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) which was compiled in the Land of Israel during the 4th-5th century… It includes the core component, the Mishna, finalized by Rabbi Judah the Prince (c. 200 CE) along with the written discussions of generations of rabbis in the Land of Israel (primarily in the academies of Tiberias and Caesarea) which was compiled c. 350-400 CE into a series of books that became the Gemara…

The Encyclopaedia Judaica explains that the edition published by Bomberg is based principally on the 1289 manuscript now in Leiden, whose scribe, Jehiel b. Jekuthiel b. Benjamin ha-Rofe, says his source text is dreadful and apologises, “I know that I have not corrected even half of the mistakes.” Bomberg’s editor, Jacob b. Ḥayyim ibn Adoniyahu, also had at his disposal three other manuscripts, but seems (EJ) to have made something of a mess of things:

Jacob b. Ḥayyim was not conversant with the language and style of the Jerusalem Talmud and in many places spoiled the text by amendments due to his lack of understanding. It is clear that he did not examine the text before him with sufficient care, or correct it when necessary. Nor did he hesitate to omit passages which he did not understand or add sentences which are not found in the Leiden manuscript…

However, even if the Bomberg edition were, like the Leiden manuscript, online, I can’t read Hebrew; the great part of the three additional manuscripts are lost; and I haven’t checked any of the early commentaries on it for references to domain-based code-switching anecdotes.

And so I don’t know how and when the aphorism that follows became part of the Jerusalem Talmud. Nor do I know whether it really echoes the cracker-barrel philosophy of Rabbi Jonathan at Eleutheropolis in 3rd century Palestine, or whether it was merely ascribed to him for marketing purposes, rather in the way George W Bush accumulated linguistic fails not all of which were mistakes or even his. Anyway, from Heinrich W Guggenheimer’s edition, this is what you’ve all been waiting for:

Rebbi Jonathan from Bet Gubrin said, four languages are good for use: The foreign language [Greek] for song, Latin for war, Syriac for elegies, Hebrew for speech. Some people say, also Assyrian for writing. Assyrian has a script but no language, Hebrew has a language but no script. They chose for them Assyrian script and Hebrew language.

From Bomberg’s Jerusalem Talmud to Fabricius

Placement: Fabricius and Paduan Jewry

Fabricius would have known for at least professional reasons the kind of Jews who constituted the market for Bomberg’s publications, and it is perfectly possible that he heard the anecdote from someone who had read Bomberg’s Talmud. (Perhaps someone can tell me whether he borrowed material from the Jews elsewhere.) Padua was the university town of the Venetian republic, which protected it against papal influence, and his medical school was at that stage perhaps the best and certainly one of the most liberal in Europe. And, quite apart from substantial Jewish immigration from Iberia to Padua and other nearby cities following 1492, the school attracted Jewish students from all over Europe, as well as from North Africa and the Levant. In the century from 1519  medical degrees were granted to some 80 Jews, some of whom chose to remain to practise there. And, although the Talmud was printed in the publishing powerhouse, Venice, “in the field of Hebrew studies, Padua was of particular importance in the second half of the 15th century.”

Layering: Charles V a convenient protagonist

Whether the anecdote triggered Fabricius’ interest in comparative articulatory phonetics, or whether he merely seized upon it gratefully as a hanger for a coat he already possessed, it clearly required modification to make it suitable for a wider, anti-Semitic audience. And who better to replace the Rabbi Jonathan than the Emperor Charles V?

Celebrity biographers of the greatest Belgian statesman till Herman van Rompuy were quick off the mark after his death in 1558. None as far as I know contains this meme, although Alfonso de Ulloa’s incredibly popular Vita dell’Invittissimo Imperator Carlo Quinto (1560) pins another linguistic anecdote to a man whose Habsburg jaw must have made speaking any language something of a struggle: the story of Charles’ 1536 rant in Spanish to the Pope (which for all I know is the source of the Spanish-God pairing in the aphorism and in the ravings of hordes of subsequent Spanish national-religious fundamentalists).

So I guess that Fabricius or some other intermediary figured that those who noticed would not care if a multilingual Talmudic gag was recycled for the multilingual Holy Roman Imperial gossip market.

Integration: a better world on Poland’s eastern borders

Jan Zamoyski, the outstanding Polish politician of the 16th century, studied at Padua, where he became rector, apparently converted from Calvinism to Catholicism, and developed interests in republicanism and rationalism. Back home he founded a large estate in the predominantly Ruthenian east, encouraging Armenian and (Sephardic) Jewish immigration (see eg Hannes Palang & Gary Fry, Landscape interfaces: cultural heritage in changing landscapes, p76ff). This colony he equipped with Zamość, a successful Italianate model capital, and that capital with a Renaissance academy with a multinational professorate which apparently sought to encourage “the reading of philosophy and law“.

De locutione is dedicated nominally to Zamoyski’s 7-year-old son, but more substantively to learning, justice and the great civilising project of Zamość. But the quote will have left Zamoyski in no doubt that Fabricius was comparing the aspirations and achievements of Zamoyski with respect to ethno-economic symbiosis with those of the colossal figure of Charles V.

I suppose someone soon will look back and compare Charles V with the Eurocrats who created a superstate in which you spoke German to bankers, Spanish to narcos, Romanian to prostitutes, and English to the Welsh, but my serious non-billable business is over for the day.


The William Camden conundrum

The following from William Camden’s 1605 Remaines, concerning Britain is to be found amongst similar and not so similar examples of this kind of stuff in the chapter on The supposed qualities of different languages in David & Hilary Crystal, Words on words: quotations about language and languages:

[the] merry playing with words, too much used by some, hath occasioned a great and high personage, to say, that as the Italian tongue is fit for courting, the Spanish for treating, the French for trafficke; so the English is most fit for trifling and toying.

Had news of Fabricius’ tract spread so rapidly in the couple of years separating the two publications? Or was the whole meme floating around Western Europe anyway, quite independently of Rabbi Jonathan et al? Or … ?

Text discovery and translation tools

Thanks to Google and the participating libraries, this stuff is all pretty easy now. I go to the Biblioteca virtual del señor licenciado Pero Pérez, whack in an interesting word, “Latin”, and an early modern end date, and lo and behold! out pops for example “Buldrianus Sclopetarius”treatise on farting, which, with the help of the translation tools on the same page, will keeps me amused for an hour or so.

Bonus video from Fellini, I clowns

I’ve been incommunicado for a couple of weeks with otitis, mostly watching Italian films and considering my otolaryngological prospects. Combining both interests, here is a bloody lump from Fellini’s I clowns, whose Janus-like conception of human destiny I would attempt to elucidate had not a bucket fallen on my head. The circus stars in the documentary speak the three great modern Romance dialects amongst themselves, but the only language a tiger understands is German:

… while a pantomime horse union official, insisting in Italian on the eight-hour day, requires English-language discipline from the coachman of the carro de la muerte (surely it’s not a comment on English imperialist oppression of the Rimini working class):

My granny-in-law, meanwhile, is disinclined to explain why she talks Spanish to her grandchildren, Catalan to her doggy, and delightful quasi-macaronic gibberish to foreigners.

Similar posts

Last updated 23/08/2019

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Code-switching (2):

Diglossia (2):

Divine language (1):

French (1): French) may refer to: Something of, from, or related to France: French language, a Romance language which originated in France, and its various dialects French people, a nation and ethnic group identified with France French cuisine, cooking traditions and practicesPopularized in England by French debutante Amelia Boleyn under the rule of Henry the 8th, the language quickly was adopted among royalty and their hand maids.

Fürstenspiegel (1):

German (1): German may refer to: The German language, mainly spoken in Central Europe Something derived from or related to Germany Germans, an ethnic group A citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany, or any political predecessor, under German nationality law Something derived from or related to Germania.

Geronimo Fabricius (1):

God (1): In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith.

Horse (5):

Israel (44):

Italian (1): Italian may refer to:

Kaleboel (4307):

Multilingualism (1):

Translation (788):


  1. Undeniable proof of the positive correlation between surplus snot and intellectual acumen. Might we, though, permit ourselves the luxury of dreaming of Baudolino leading the euro-charge against godless speculators?

  2. Ah, but surely the essence of God is that the Grail doesn’t need to glitter. Throw aside your worldly goods (bank a/c in the mail) and gambol cross Hill and Dale with your goat-queen!

    There may be a film on the way.

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