And called it macaronic (by Dr Mela Sarkar)

…or, how is translanguaging like macaroni?

Norman Rockwell, A Study for ‘Yankee Doodle’, 1937

Yankee Doodle” is, for me, the most American of patriotic songs, despite its ridiculous lyrics (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”? Really?). South of the border, the Yankee Doodling this week has been on or about presidential ballots—a tangled mess of spaghetti still on the boil. I propose that we leave our friends and neighbours to the litigious complexities of their Electoral College and refresh ourselves with a plunge into the distant past of translanguaging. How is it like macaroni?

From the learned talk given recently by eminent translanguaging scholar Li Wei at McGill’s Plurilingual Lab to the ten-minute Social Life of Language Youtube videos posted regularly by NYC “translanguaging ninja” Mike Mena, there are many ways to find out what translanguaging means to scholars of the present day. Readers of this blog will already be familiar with translanguaging—several BILD members and guest bloggers have written about the ways in which their family, friends or students language (here, a verb) creatively and flexibly, in precisely the style outlined by Otheguy, García and Reid (2015), who define translanguaging as “the deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages.”

But before the “national and state” languages we know today assumed their current importance, the linguistic landscape of mediaeval Europe was dominated across all its nations and states by the sole language of pan-European literacy for many centuries: Latin. The literate tradition of the Middle Ages has bequeathed to us a remarkable kind of translanguaging: macaronic Latin.

Why “macaronic”?

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that macaronic refers to a poetic form which is

characterized by the introduction of vernacular words with appropriate but absurd Latin endings: later variants apply the same technique to modern languages. The form was first written by Tisi degli Odassi in the late 15th century and popularized by Teofilo Folengo, a dissolute Benedictine monk who applied Latin rules of form and syntax to an Italian vocabulary in his burlesque epic of chivalryBaldus (1517; Le maccheronee, 1927–28). He described the macaronic as the literary equivalent of the Italian dish.

The Italian ancestor of mac’n’cheese was, in its 16th-century form, “a crude mixture of flour, butter, and cheese,” according to the same entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Some might consider that the modern version is equally crude—certainly there are mac’n’cheese recipes, such as this ultra-gooey one from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science (López-Alt, 2015) which make up in moreishness what they lack in sophistication.

Macaronic Latin was, in other words, “a crude mixture” of Latin and Italian that Teofilo Folengo, that “dissolute” individual, found as irresistible as its culinary equivalent. A few lines from his “burlesque epic,” Baldus, will give something of the flavour. Clearly we are dealing here with a man who is keenly aware of the gustatory aspects of life and language.

Teofilo Folengo: dissolute?
In quibus exercent lazzos et retia Musae,
Retia salsizzis uitulique cusita busecchis,
Piscantes gnoccos, fritolas gialdasque 
(Baldus 1, ll. 36-38)
[‘In which the Muses set lace and nets,
Nets woven out of sausages and calf tripe,
Fishing gnocchi, fritters, 
and yellow meatballs’] 
(Demo, 2018, p. 36.)

Sime Demo of the University of Zagreb is, to my knowledge, the first and perhaps the only 21st-century scholar to explore the output of the macaronic poets of Renaissance Italy, and later of large parts of mediaeval Europe, in the context of modern theories of language mixing (Demo, 2018, 2020). Applying Demo’s analysis to discourses around translanguaging is as irresistible as creating and consuming edible or readable material of the macaronic kind. At a time when to be literate, in Europe, meant exclusively to be literate in Latin, writing in any other language did not command respect (Ostler, 2007). But across the mediaeval European landscape, writers of Latin were, of course, speakers first and foremost—of Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese (though over a long course of development the languages we now know by those names would for a long time have been thought of as degenerate forms of Latin); and also of German, Dutch, or English.

These writers—for we are looking here at a kind of language mixing which we know only in its written form—drew on their entire linguistic repertoire to create literature that allows us, one would think, to at least make inferences about their real-life (trans)languaging practices. Demo points out that they constituted “a non-negligible, if somewhat unorthodox, community of users” (Demo, 2020, p. 7); they were, in fact, “members of an educated bilingual elite, having a very advanced level of competence in Latin as well as a scholarly background in classical and medieval culture.”

It would be impossible to do justice here to the large and active body of scholarship on macaronic literature in and across many of the languages of Europe, spanning the last 150 years (Morgan, 1872, was a distinguished contributor); I only wish I had time, in my life as a reader-for-pleasure and as a scholar, to do more than dip into it. What seems irrefutable is that writers in the macaronic tradition were, on the one hand, extremely fluent bi- or multilingual speakers and writers; the “…skill of interlacing a definite Latin line into a poem so as to make it fit into the meter and often into the rhyme of the English poem required great skill in handling both languages” (Wehrle, 1933, cited in Jeffrey, 1982).

On the other hand, these writers seem to have been a playful lot of translanguagers who enjoyed themselves tremendously. Beatie (1962) refers to the “pasta-comic overtones” of macaronic verse, a narrowly-defined genre “preceded by a long and rich Medieval tradition of poetic bi- and multilingualism of such variety…that the phenomenon is scarcely describable.”

Composers of mediaeval carols, for example, commonly sprinkled Latin through their pious vernacular-language lyrics, intended to be sung in joyful mode by mostly-illiterate lay folk. Readers may be familiar with the still-popular macaronic carol “In dulci jubilo,” in either its English-Latin version or its original German-Latin version (I first encountered the word macaronic in choir practice many years ago), both of which seem to me far more fun to sing than the unmacaronic “Good Christian men, rejoice.”

Commenting on the macaronic poetry of English poet John Skelton (1463-1529), no less a critic than E.M. Forster calls our attention to “…a jumble and a splutter, heaps of silly Latin…a curious impression of gaiety; a good time, one can’t help feeling, has been had by all” (Forster, 1951, p. 148). Skelton and his Scottish contemporary, William Dunbar (1459-1530), are perhaps the poets who stand out most clearly in the older English tradition for the amount and quality of their macaronic output (Archibald, 1982).  

We see in the poetry of Dunbar, however, that macaronic literature also had a serious side. In this pandemic year, it seems appropriate to close with a few lines from one of the great English macaronic poems of the sixteenth century, Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makaris [makers]” (i.e., lament for dead makers, meaning poets or creators). Each of the 25 verses ends with the same sobering (and macaronic) thought.

The stait of man dois change and vary,
Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary,
Now dansand mery, now like to dee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.*

A translation of the entire poem, preceded by many suitably terrifying images, may be found at .

Detail from “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562) – Pieter Bruegel, the Elder (1525-1569), in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid
* The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blithe, now sorry,
Now dancing merry, now like to die;
The fear of death doth trouble me.


Archibald, E. (1992). Tradition and innovation in the macaronic poetry of Dunbar and Skelton. Modern Language Quarterly, 53(1), 126-149.

Beatie, B.A. (1967). Macaronic poetry in the Carmina Burana. Vivarium, 5(1), 16-24.

Demo, S. (2018). Macaronic Latin: When a language goes wild. Cursor: Latein4EU, 34-37.

Demo, S. (2020). Artificial fusion: The curious case of macaronic Latin. International Journal of Bilingualism (n.p.).

Encyclopedia Britannica. Entry for “macaronic.” Accessed 8 November 2020.

Forster, E. M. (1951). Two cheers for democracy. Penguin.

Jeffrey, D. L. (1982). Early English carols and the macaronic hymn. Florilegium, 4, 210-227.

Li Wei. (2020). Multi-competence, translanguaging and mobile self-directed learning. Talk given at Plurilingual Lab, McGill University.

López-Alt, J. K. (2015). The food lab: Better home cooking through science. Norton.

Mena, M. (2020). The social life of language. Youtube channel. Accessed 8 November 2020.

Morgan, J.A. (1872). Macaronic poetry. Riverside Press.

Ostler, N. (2007). Ad infinitum: A biography of Latin. Walker & company.

Otheguy, R., García, O. & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307.

Putter, A., & Jefferson, J. (Eds.) (2012). Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066-1520): Sources and analysis.

Wehrle, W. O. (1933). The macaronic hymn tradition in medieval English literature. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Catholic University of America.

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