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A Dictionary on Trial

A pioneering Romanian Jewish lexicographer finds out that his mastery of language isn’t enough to make him a citizen

Natalie Zemon Davis
March 14, 2023
Public Domain
Lazăr ŞăineanuPublic Domain
Public Domain
Lazăr ŞăineanuPublic Domain
Editor’s note: The following excerpt is reprinted from Natalie Zemon Davis, “Listening to the Languages of the People: Lazare Sainéan on Romanian, Yiddish, and French” (2022), with permission of Central European University Press. 

On April 13, 1895, Hasdeu and the whole Senate had the chance to hear Urechiă’s diatribe against Şăineanu. Urechiă had more of a challenge than at the 1891 session, for this time the naturalization commission and the Chamber of Deputies had recommended in Şăineanu’s favor. He insisted for a start that he was not an anti-Semite. He had recently voted for naturalization for a Jewish candidate. He was opposed not to a race but to an individual. He went on, however, to quote from Hasdeu’s early books on Judaism, where the “illustrious professor” described the Jewish hatred for Christians and the Jewish lack in humane sentiment.

On Şăineanu’s publications, Urechiă said little and almost all of it negative. He had invited Şăineanu to contribute a bibliography to his edition of the historian Costin, but then Şăineanu had shown his unpatriotic colors by asserting that in the persons of the Khazars, the Jews had been living in the Romanian kingdoms before the true Romanians themselves. To this familiar and contrived accusation, Urechiă added, with no evidence, the claim of a now deceased professor that Şăineanu had plagiarized one of his articles. As for Urechiă himself, in reading Şăineanu’s writings he felt that he had in his hands the work of a professor of anatomy: one saw only the skeleton of the cadaver of the Romanian language, not its life.

Urechiă’s tirade then turned to statements made in publications by Şăineanu’s “co-religionists,” which Urechiă found false and anti-Romanian. Most of his examples, from periodicals such as Egalitatea and Monitorul evreesc, compared the treatment by the Hungarian authorities of the Romanians living in Transylvania and the Banat with the treatment by the Romanian government and Romanian Christians of the Jews of Romania.

When members of the Senate interrupted to ask what all this had to do with Şăineanu, Urechiă brushed them aside. Why had Şăineanu not done his patriotic duty and written to object to the falsehoods of his fellow Jews? Josef Bloch, a Jewish deputy in the Austrian Parliament, had published a pamphlet on the matter in which he found the Hungarians “civilized” in their conduct and the Romanians “barbaric.” Şăineanu knew German perfectly; why had he not exposed the calumny of his co-religionist?

Whatever books he had written, Şăineanu could not be trusted to teach love of the nation to university students. He should be denied the naturalization that was the path to a university professorship. “Dear colleagues,” said Urechiă, “let your Romanian hearts tell you how to vote,” and was greeted by applause.

Thirty-three Senators voted to deny naturalization to Şăineanu, but despite Urechiă’s oratory, 26 supported the Commission’s recommendation that he be allowed to become a citizen. Since the naturalization law required a larger majority for decisions, a second vote was held a day later. As he dropped his black ball into the urn, Sturdza, head of the Liberal party, announced to the assembly that “he was voting against the Jew who has tried to introduce himself into the Romanian city by devious paths.” This time 61 opposed naturalization, but 12 valiant hearts still voted to welcome Şăineanu into that Romanian space.

Once again Şăineanu responded with resilience, though with much less hope than before and with some costs to his earlier desire to maintain both a Romanian and a Jewish public identity. He composed an open letter to Urechiă, which he hoped to have published in the Romanian press. He recalled there how he had returned from his studies abroad “full of enthusiasm for the future of scholarship in our country,” but then during the past four years he had suffered from Urechiă’s “hatred” and “the venom” that Urechiă had spread among the Senators.

Urechiă had reproached him before the Senate for having written nothing in defense of the national cause. But distancing himself from politics was his duty as a scholar:

During the 12 years that I have devoted to Romanian philology, I have always kept myself away from political discussions, and that for the good reason that scholarship must remain serene and rise above such preoccupations ... Just as I have never written on current events in any political newspaper, so I solemnly declare than no sentence from my hand has appeared in the Jewish periodicals here or abroad.

Through his scholarship, however, he had served Romania:

When in my Semasiology, I deepened our understanding of the Romanian language; when in the History of Philology, I followed the distinctive path of our intellectual life; when I penetrated the soul of the Romanian people in my studies on the “Fées méchantes” and the “Jours de la Vieille”; and when recently I devoted to our folk literature a monumental work that introduced the products of the Romanian genius into European folklore—was I not then putting all my intelligence and perserverance to the service of the Romanian cause?

As for the Romanians in Transylvania, Şăineanu felt deeply for their sufferings, having himself experienced the blows of persecution. He sympathized with all victims of persecution and expected that “the noble martyrs of the Romanian cause”—“les nobles martyres de la cause roumaine”—would disapprove of Urechiă’s acts against him.

Şăineanu presents himself in this open letter as both a scholar devoted to advancing the knowledge of language and folk culture in “our country,” “notre pays”—thus, making clear that Romania was his country—and as a Jew who is suffering persecution there. The activist Jew of the 1880s, who had published essays in Jewish periodicals to advance Jewish enlightenment and Jewish emancipation, is effaced—even seemingly lied about in the phrase, “I solemnly declare that no sentence fom my hand has appeared in the Jewish periodicals here or abroad.” Even if what Şăineanu meant here was that he had published not a word on current politics in a Jewish periodical, he was being disingenuous, for his historical essays on such matters as the blood libel in Romania clearly had contemporary implications.

Only one newspaper was willing to publish Şăineanu’s letter: the Românul, whose editors were currently supporting the campaign of the Social Democratic Workers party for universal suffrage “without distinction of sex, religion, or race.” Şăineanu’s letter appeared on 10 May 1895. Not long after, he received an indignant message from Moses Gaster:

To see that act of villainy and untold infamy committed by that odious body [the Senate]! ... One cannot imagine how disgusting and degrading it must be to deal with such people. That you, after such hard work and sacrifice to the cause of Romanian literature, were treated in the way you were, makes one lose all hope in the future of the country.

Indeed, at the end of May, Şăineanu was writing to Gaston Paris about what had happened and talking of emigration: “What use to me have been my titles, my writings, my services to Romanian civilization? ... Completely isolated and seeing my human dignity and my intellectual efforts trampled underfoot, the thought has come to me to expatriate.” While in “le noble pays de France,” the brilliant careers of Jewish scholars like the late Arsène and James Darmesteter were interrupted by untimely death, in Romania the talent of Jewish scholars was met with hatred. (In making this comparison, Şăineanu evidently did not realize how serious were the consequences of the condemnation of Alfred Dreyfus for espionage that past December in France and his public degradation and imprisonment not long after.) What would his “cher maître” advise?

Paris, who was about to write his review of Basmele române, urged Şăineanu not to give up yet on Romania: “It seems impossible to me that you will be refused a grant of naturalization that you have so brilliantly deserved.” He must have powerful enemies, but they would not last forever. “Your task is to spread in your own country the scholarship in which you’ve been so deeply trained and to which you’ve already contributed.” Paris encouraged him to believe that he would finally win.

Şăineanu decided to stay put for a time. He could be somewhat reassured by the reviews of the Basmele, which began to appear. Giuseppe Pitré, the great Sicilian folklorist, found its useful system of classification and rich annotations expanded readily from Romanian tales to those of Italy. Vatroslav Jagić, professor of Slavic philology at Vienna, saw it as contributing to the study of both comparative popular literature and Slavic folktales.

Gaston Paris noted the impressive range and the “grande valeur” of the Basmele for the study of tales but spent much of his review contesting one sentence: Şăineanu had said of Paris’s study of Tom Thumb (Petit-Poucet) that it was “erudite,” but that it “bore the imprint of the fantastic exaggerations of the mythological theory of Max Müller.” Paris insisted that since the Big Bear constellation (la Grande Ourse) was referred to in some parts of Europe as “le Char Poucet,” it had been reasonable for him to suggest that Tom Thumb was originally a story about the god Hermes, himself here a personification of the Big Bear constellation. Such an explanation, Paris maintained, had more plausibility than Şăineanu’s theory that the similarity among tales of diverse peoples was due simply to “the human spirit,” that “the stories are born everywhere ... and have no other meaning than that offered right off, that is to say, stories drawn from the imagination, fascinating and amusing.” Paris doubted that this was the case. This was not the first example (as we have seen) of his disapproval of Şăineanu’s loyalty to the popular imagination, and it would not be the last.

By the late summer of 1895, Lazăr and Cecilia had had a family holiday in Switzerland, she was pregnant with their first child, and he was busy with publication. His History of Romanian Philology came out in Bucharest in a second edition, and his Contemporary Romanian Authors in a third, now published by his Samitca in-laws in Craoiva, who were happy to add it to their inventory of school texts. Clearly Şăineanu still had ample readers, though the History bore signs of his current struggle. The Preface told of the prize that had been awarded by the Romanian Academy to his first edition, but also named the Academy member who had claimed that “this book adds nothing new to the study of our philology.” For the honor of the Academy, said Şăineanu, the man should retract his statement.

On his list of publications, Şăineanu announced as forthcoming his Six Years in the Life of a Romanian Philologist (1891–1895): it would include a chapter on the “History of a Naturalization.” In mentioning the works by V.A. Urechiă, he now added negative assessments, which had not been present, presumably for strategic reasons, in the first edition. For instance, he claimed that Urechiă’s so-called Legende române were not collected in Romania at all, but were translations from collections from France and Spain.

In fact, Şăineanu decided to postpone his autobiography, presumably in hopes that it might one day have a happier ending. His next publication was in 1896: Studii folklorice (Folklore Studies), a collection of his previously published essays on folk tales and beliefs together with a recent lecture at Bucharest’s Atheneum on non-verbal forms of communication. He included not only his mischievous fairies, the Ilele, and “The Days of the Old Woman,” but also—pace Urechiă—“Jews or Tatars or Giants.” The collection was intended to illustrate the anthropological method of his Basmele: by examining tales in different parts of Romania and nearby, he would uncover an “enduring substratum” of belief, parallels among neighboring peoples (popórelor), and the psychological principles behind stories.

As for “Jews or Tatars or Giants,” he remarked at its conclusion that since its first appearance in 1887, he had been accused of “anti-patriotic inspiration.” To this he responded in elegant sarcasm wih Junia’s rejection of Nero’s proposal of marriage in Racine’s Britannicus (II, 3): “Je n’ai mérité ni cet excès d’honneur ni cette indignité” (“I have merited neither this too great honour nor this indignity.”) His mission had been a scholarly one, simply to account for the semantic correlation between Jew, Tatar, and giant. The presence of the Khazar Jews in different lands had been reported in several studies, including from Poland, Bulgaria, and Serbia. He had uncovered an ancient feature of popular psychology, that is, the identification of dangerous outsiders, like Huns, as giants.

In a postscript at the end of the Studii, however, Şăineanu dropped this scholarly cool for bruised anger. In the course of his scholarly production, he said, he had been met with detractors acting out of hate and envy. An example was the recent review of his Basmele române by Aron Densuşianu. Densuşianu’s effort to write a Romanian epic had already been ridiculed by Eminescu and other poets (Şăineanu was referring to Densuşianu’s Negriada, where the historical hero confronts monsters and dragons, a text which Şăineanu had quoted a few times in his chapters on folk beliefs). Now Densuşianu was turning serious criticism into mere pedantry, a parody of learning. Şăineanu was fighting back, though it is not at all sure that this particular response served his cause.

From folktales, Şăineanu returned to the Romanian language. On May 1, 1896, one week after the birth of his daughter Elisabeth, the new father signed the long preface to his Dicționar universal al limbei române (Universal Dictionary of the Romanian Language). In this book, published by the Samitcas a few months later, Şăineanu asserted his strongest identity as a Romanian and prompted the most acrimonious response of his Romanian years. Conflict was rife in Romanian lexicography, and he had already described it in his Istoria. The “exaggerations” of the Latinist school infused the volumes that August Laurian and Ioan Massim had published in 1871–1876, sponsored by the Romanian Academy itself. Their Dicționar included only words with a Romance origin, and even with these, any “foreign” suffix was altered. Any Romanian word with a non-Latin origin was consigned to a Glosar, a Glossary, an entirely separate book. Out of date in its etymologies, their work represented, said Şăineanu, “the funeral of hyper-Latinism.”

In contrast was the Dictionnaire d’ étymologie daco-romaine of Alexandru Cihac, also from the 1870s, which documented multiple origins for the language and which, we recall, had inspired Şăineanu’s own Turkish Elements in the Romanian Language back in 1885. Cihac had even made a start toward incorporating one of the Romanian dialects. Additional non-Latin sources for Romanian had been found by Miklosich and Schuchardt, while other scholars, including Moses Gaster, had produced dictionaries of Romanian topographical and historical terms. As for the weighty tomes of Hasdeu’s Etymologicum magnum Romaniae, with their attention to even pre-Dacian times, they were “inaugurating a new era in the search for the origin of Romanian words.”

Moses Schwarzfeld, Moses Gaster, and Lazăr Şăineanu in 1885
Moses Schwarzfeld, Moses Gaster, and Lazăr Şăineanu in 1885Courtesy of the Cabinetul de Stampe, Library of the Romanian Academy, Bucharest

The time was ripe, then, for the kind of dictionary Şăineanu was creating for “a deeper knowledge of the mother tongue”: one that he intended to be accessible to a wide public and useful for teaching in the schools. (For this, the Samitcas were the perfect publishers.) His Dicționar universal would be a treasury of popular speech and would also include the special terms used in talking of literature, science, art, politics, and commerce. It would include archaic and “indigenous” words along with words of foreign origin and neologisms: these had become part of “our culture” by use. Such breadth was what he was invoking by the word universal in his title. From the dialects spoken in Romania, however, he would include only those words which had found their way into the written or literary language. Bawdy words and obscenities he would omit entirely.

Şăineanu carefully listed all his sources for citation and the dictionaries that he was consulting, including that of Hasdeu and the recent Romanian-French dictionary of Frédéric Damé. He recognized that this first edition of his Dictionary “probably has omissions and errors”; he would welcome hearing about them in order to correct them for a later edition.

Şăineanu was in his element here, using his skills as a philologist to describe the “national tongue” and its sources, as he had also in his Semasiology, and as he had seven years earlier for Yiddish. (Interestingly enough, he did not include the Dialectological Study of Yiddish in his list of publications in the dictionary.) Şăineanu was working, however, under great pressure. Though he already had at hand much lexicographical material from his German-Romanian/Romanian-German dictionaries, his Turkish Elements, and his Semasiology, he seems to have rushed the Dictionary into print to affirm his merit as a Romanian scholar and to add to the income of his growing family. Alas, there turned out to be some errors in its 900 printed pages, jubilantly noted by his enemies. He was to correct them in a second edition some years later.

Positive reviews began right away, with one of the first coming from the pen of Ion Luca Caragiale, a leading dramatist and writer. Caragiale had won laughter from readers in 1893 through his satirical portrait of a professor from the hyper-Latinist school trying to get his pupils to talk with ridiculous pronunciation. Now he contrasted the enormous interest aroused by Şăineanu’s Dicționar with the tiresome school dictionaries of the day. Caragiale lauded the dictionary’s breadth, covering both archaic and newer terms, and its biographical, historical, and geographical reference to Romania and beyond. “Şăineanu is one of our younger scholars in whom sound scholarship is associated with a true talent for popularization.” From Prague, the eminent philologist and Romanist Jan Urban Jarnik praised the Dicționar’s definitions as “pithy and clear,” with multiple meanings presented in “logical sequence,” and noted its impressive use of “the entire production of Romanian folklore.” Jarnik hoped that Romanian philology would continue to progress in such a fashion.

Critical reviews followed apace. Among their authors was Ovid Densușianu, the son of Aron, who now had revenge for Şăineanu’s attack on his father. Fresh from his studies in Berlin and Paris, Ovid had returned to Romania in 1897 to take up the position in the history of Romanian language and literature at the University of Bucharest, that is, the post which had originally been created for Lazăr Şăineanu and for which Densușianu, with his previous focus on the medieval French romance and chanson de geste, had little background. (In later years, Ovid would have a distinguished career writing on subjects on which Şăineanu had been a pioneer.)

Ovid’s review appeared in early 1897 in a journal founded and edited by his father. He opened it proclaiming, “The author lacks the qualities of a true lexicographer. The material is badly organized and the lack of system is seen at every step.” He then listed some twenty definitions in the Dicționar that he found wrong. Some had typos or unrealized cross-references or inadequacies, and these Şăineanu corrected in the second edition. Others Şăineanu left the way they were. For instance, Densuşianu thought it insufficient to define “alliteration” as “the repetition of the same letter or the same syllable.” Şăineanu should have specified that alliteration meant repeating the sound at the beginning of the word. Since Şăineanu had provided an example showing just that, he did not make a change.

Urechiă waited till the spring of 1898 to mount his review of the Dicționar, a violent and openly anti-Semitic denunciation of Şăineanu’s scholarship and character. He delivered it first as a public lecture at the Atheneum before an audience patient enough to sit through several hours of exposition, and then published it with a supporting dossier. Şăineanu had plagiarized Frédéric Damé’s Romanian-French dictionary, Urechiă alleged, and gave several instances where Şăineanu had given the same quotation as Damé to illustrate word usage and where Şăineanu had employed the same words as Damé for a definition. (As for the former, Şaineanu had specified in his Preface that Damé’s dictionary was one of the sources for his quotations; as for the latter, Şăineanu noted in a subsequent answer to Urechiă that he was using definitions already present in his Semasiology, published years before Damé’s dictionary.)

Urechiă went on to illustrate errors in Şăineanu’s synomyms, antonyms, and definitions, making his points not in in the tone of ordinary academic critique or even scholarly polemic, but with mockery and insult. For instance, Şăineanu had defined “macaroni” as an Italian pasta of cylindrical form, “in which enter almonds and sugar.” (Either Şăineanu was thinking of a dessert pasta, or more likely was confusing macaroni with macaroons, which are made with almonds and sugar.) “Macaroni stuffed with almonds and sugar!?” Urechiă exclaimed. “It seems as though Şăineanu has not been able to eat genuine macaroni. Surely macaroni is not treif.”

Urechiă’s sarcastic treif (the Yiddish word for “non-kosher”) was not the only anti-Semitic moment in his review. The very title of the book was Şăinizme, “Scheinism,” a clear reference to Şăineanu’s Jewish birth name. Plagiarism and scholarly incompetence were characterized as “Scheinism,” that is, as Jewish traits. Urechiă quoted, sometimes at length, from all the negative reviews of the Dicționar universal. Of the positive assessments, he referred only to one that had appeared in the Jewish periodical Egalitatea: that of “Ițic Schvartzfeld” (as he called Moses Schwarzfeld in one mention), and that of “Şloim Schvarzfeld” (as he called him in a second). Was Şăineanu’s work “monumental,” as Schwarzfeld claimed, its author being cruelly targeted as so often happened to “men of merit”? In the view of true Romanian reviewers, said Urechiă, absolutely not.

Urechiă ended his Şăinizme with a quotation from Şăineanu’s Preface, where he had talked of his goal “to create an instrument ... for a deeper knowledge of the mother tongue, “pentru cunóscerea maĭ aprofundată limbeĭ materne.”

Our language, the “mother tongue” of Lazăr Şăineanu? “Leizer Şein,” a son of the Romanian language? A stepson, at the most, because only a stepson could so treat, could so mistreat the mother tongue as Şăineanu has mistreated the Romanian language.
From such stepsons, the Romanian tongue needs redress ...

Urechiă delivered his speech on the evening of March 29, 1898. On April 1, Şăineanu published a letter in the left-wing Adevărul. He expressed surprise that the Athenaeum would lend its august tribunal to a performance of “insults alternating with the famous obscenities of Dr. Urechiă.” On June 5, he, his wife, and daughter arrived in Paris. As he wrote Gaster months later, the “deadly milieu in which [he] had been living” had overwhelmed him. He needed to be away from Romania, from his “continuous troubles” there, at least for a time.

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. She is the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins, and Trickster Travels, among many others.