Monday, September 24, 2018


When Catholic missionaries in the Middle Ages went to a new land, how did they deal with language barriers? They had to make their own lexicons, or find one made by someone who went there before them.

The Codex Cumanicus, found in the Library of St. mark in Venice, includes a language guide to the Cuman language, spoken by the Turkic nomads of Western Eurasia. As early as the 11th century, Hungary and Italian city-states such as Genoa attempted to open trade with the region, and the need for understanding the language became an important goal.

The Codex was probably assembled in the 12th or 13th centuries. I say "assembled" because it is a collection of various documents clearly created by different writers. It can largely be divided into two sections: the "Italian" section which is a glossary of the Cuman-Kipchak language and Italo-Latin words, as well as Persian; and a "German" section, which includes several religious texts translated into Latin and Middle High German.

It was important to teach the natives how to pray in their own language. The Paternoster ["Our Father"] in the Codex reads:

Atamız kim köktesiñ. Alğışlı bolsun seniñ atıñ, kelsin seniñ xanlığıñ, bolsun seniñ tilemekiñ – neçik kim kökte, alay [da] yerde. Kündeki ötmegimizni bizge bugün bergil. Dağı yazuqlarımıznı bizge boşatqıl – neçik biz boşatırbız bizge yaman etkenlerge. Dağı yekniñ sınamaqına bizni quurmağıl. Basa barça yamandan bizni qutxarğıl. Amen!
Some of the Cuman words you can learn from this lexicon are:
tizgi tiz - knee
bitik bitiv - book, writing
sag sav - healthy
kyeg kyv - bridegroom
yag yav - fat
tag tav - mountain
ekki eki - two

It also includes riddles:
"The white kibitka [a carriage] has no opening." (an egg)
"My bluish kid at the tether grows fat." (ripening melon)
"Where I sit is a hilly place. Where I tread is a copper bowl." (a stirrup)

The Codex is a mere curiosity now, the languages involved having changed radically over the years.

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