How To Recognize a Secret Spanish Jew by His Marrano Accent

Could Distinctive Speech Pattern Live on for Centuries?

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By Philologos

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.

Dr. William Greenfield of Libertyville, Ill., asks: “Are you familiar with George Borrow’s identifying a living marrano in 19th-century Spain by his speech pattern? It’s in his book ‘The Bible in Spain.’”

Never having heard of George Borrow, I went to the Internet and found a digital copy of “The Bible in Spain.” A fascinating book!

George Borrow (1803–1881) was a British travel book writer, novelist, accomplished linguist and devout Christian who worked for many years for the Bible Society of Great Britain, disseminating Holy Scripture in non-Protestant European countries whose laity was not encouraged by clergy to read it. Five of these years, from 1835 to 1840, were spent in Spain, resulting in memoirs published in 1843.

The Spain that Borrow traversed was a poor, sparsely populated and largely illiterate country of superstitious villagers and wild landscapes, full of brigands and picaresque wanderers, and Borrow’s adventures were not the ordinary tourist’s. Once, he writes, as he was riding his donkey along a moonlit trail leading to the town of Talavera, near Toledo, he overtook a man walking in the same direction. This figure was “the tallest and bulkiest that I had hitherto seen in Spain, dressed in a manner strange and singular for the country,” with a broad-brimmed hat “insufficient to cover an immense bush of coal-black hair, which, thick and curly, projected on either side.” After riding beside him in silence, Borrow began a conversation.

Something Borrowed: George Borrow was a 19th-century travel writer, novelist and linguist, who encountered a marrano while wandering through Spain.
Wikimedia Commons
Something Borrowed: George Borrow was a 19th-century travel writer, novelist and linguist, who encountered a marrano while wandering through Spain.

“‘A cold night,’ said I at last. ‘Is this the way to Talavera?’

“‘It is the way to Talavera, and the night is cold.’

“‘I am going to Talavera,’ said I, ‘as I suppose you are yourself.’

“‘I am going thither, so are you, bueno.’”

The narrative continues:

“The tones of the voice which delivered these words were in their way quite as strange and singular as the figure to which the voice belonged; they were not exactly the tones of a Spanish voice, and yet there was some- thing in them that could hardly be foreign; the pronunciation also was correct; and the language, though singular, was faultless. But I was most struck with the manner in which the last word, bueno, was spoken. I had heard something like it before, but where or when I could by no means remember.”



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