Primo Levi, Linguist

We all know Primo Levi was a chemist and a writer. Few people ever think of him as a linguist. But he wrote an important linguistic work, "Argon," the first chapter of The Periodic Table. Furthermore, he wrote a fantasy, "Lead," also in The Periodic Table, that shows a remarkable knowledge of historical linguistics and is an incentive to further study.

Primo Levi found the world very interesting. He succeeded in describing the horrors of his Auschwitz experiences so very well because he found even horror interesting. Needless to say, he found language and languages interesting, not only because of their own fascinating structures and history, but because language is the way we pursue our insights and communicate our experiences.

The word "linguist" has at least two meanings. A linguist may be a person who speaks several languages. A linguist is also a person who studies linguistics. Primo Levi was both. He was not a student of linguistics per se, but he wrote about the etymologies of the names of the chemicals he studied. More notably, he wrote about the fascinating dialect of the Jews of Turin and of Piedmont in general. Although The Periodic Table is a memoir, to a large extent, the information in "Argon" is important enough to have been cited by professional linguists (see Jochnowitz 1981 and Massariello 1980 and 2000).

A century or so ago, Jews in Italy were typically bidialectal or even tridialectal. They could speak standard Italian or the local dialect or both, and they could also speak their own Jewish dialect of Italian. Judeo-Italian dialects at one time were written in the Hebrew alphabet. In many ways, Judeo-Italian is analogous to Yiddish and Ladino.

Judeo-Italian dialects, like dialects everywhere in the world, varied from city to city and region to region. Nevertheless, they are more similar to each other than are Italian dialects in general. Judeo-Florentine, for example, is closer to Judeo-Ferrarese than Florentine is to Ferrarese. The exception is Judeo-Piedmontese, which stands out among the Judeo-Italian dialects of northern Italy by being the most northern.

Levi's "Argon" is essentially about the language of the Jews of Piedmont, a north Italian dialect that doesn't quite correspond to the dialect of any other region and includes words of Hebrew origin as well as other words, some of whose etymologies are not apparent. Levi, in passing, tells us that the speakers of this dialect often called it "Lassòn Acodesh," (the language of holiness). We would expect this term to refer to Hebrew, the obvious sacred language in a Jewish community. We know that in Yiddish, the analogous term, "Loshn Koydesh," does indeed refer to Hebrew. The fact that the Jews of Piedmont--and also of Rome, by the way--referred to their language as holy could be understood as a term of respect for their speech, but more likely, it was a joke, a sarcastic way of saying that their daily speech was not holy at all.

Judeo-Piedmontese was very much closer to Piedmontese than other north Italian Jewish dialects were to their coterritorial languages. If we look at the pronunciation of Judeo-Ferrarese or Judeo-Mantuan, for example, we do not find the front rounded vowel ü, despite the fact that ü exists in the local speech of Mantua and Ferrara just as it does in Turin. Yet, despite its closeness to the dialect of its neighbors, Judeo-Piedmontese shows a remarkable number of parallels to Yiddish, which is interesting, since there was little if any contact between the Jews of Piedmont and those of Central and Eastern Europe.

Levi makes an important point in "Argon": "there exist a good number of disparaging words"(p. 9). This is one of the many parallels we find between Judeo-Italian and Yiddish--and among Jewish languages in general. Many of the words of Hebrew origin in both Judeo-Italian and Yiddish have negative connotations: e.g., Yiddish khazeray and Judeo-Piedmontese hasirud, both from the Hebrew word for "pig," and both referring to anything of low quality. The Hebrew word for "trouble" or "misfortune" is tsarah, but in both Judeo-Piedmontese and Yiddish the plural form is generally used as a collective noun, saròd and tsoris respectively. Judeo-Piedmontese medà meshônà and Yiddish mise meshune both come from the Hebrew words for "strange death," and both are used in everyday curses, perhaps the equivalent of "May he drop dead."

But not all Judeo-Piedmontese words are negative. In addition to words of Hebrew origin, there are terms connected with religion that are not Hebrew, most notably scola, meaning "synagogue," obviously analogous to Yiddish shul. A scola is not the same thing as a scuola, "school," though clearly they are variants of the same word.

Among the things Levi is doing when he classifies and explains these expressions is engaging in sociolinguistics. The fact that Jews often have their own versions of the local language is by its nature an area of sociolinguistic research. Sociolinguistics is a relatively young field. Levi, writing independently and probably out of touch with researchers in sociolinguistics, explores questions that linguists have decided are worthy of study: domain - which subjects are discussed in which language; code switching - when you go from one language or dialect to another and when you don't; bidialectalism - how people master and keep apart dialects that may be quite similar; euphemism and dysphemism - talking about unpleasant subjects; identity, etc. Levi's "Argon" is an important work of sociolinguistics that was written at the same time that scholars elsewhere were defining this subject as an area of linguistic research.

Levi writes about events and people with great sensitivity and understanding. Linguistic change is one aspect of history; sociolinguistics is one aspect of sociology; and Levi combines his analysis of history, language, and sociology with his skill as a writer.

The history of the Jews of Piedmont is reflected, to a certain extent, in their surnames. Levi lists the names Bedarida, Momigliano, Segre, Foà, Cavaglion, and Migliau. Except for Segre, which is the name of a river in Spain, the names are all places in southern France: Bédarides, Montmélian, Foix, Cavaillon, Millau (Milhaud). Then there is Jarach, a surname based on the Hebrew yareakh meaning "moon," a translation of sorts of Lunel, a town in southern France whose name suggests French lune or Italian luna.

Levi says that the Jews in Piedmont came from Spain by way of Provence. Some did. But there were Jews in southern France before there were Jews in Spain, just as there were Jews in Italy before there were Jews in Spain. Levi may possibly have fallen into the trap of thinking that all Jews who are not Ashkenazic are Sephardic, which means "Spanish." France was one of the major centers of Jewish life until Jews were expelled, for the third time, in 1394. The Jews of Provence, however, were not expelled until 1498 and didn't have to leave until 1501. They had their own pronunciation of Hebrew and their own rituals. The fact that many Jews arrived in Piedmont from southern France may explain why Piedmont is the only area in Italy where Jews use the front rounded vowel ü.

Society, psychology, language, and history are all linked to each other. In order to understand one subject, you must know something about the others. Levi moves effortlessly and beautifully from one field to another, thus showing us the vastness and complexity of human experience and the human soul.

Despite his discussions of language and history, Primo Levi was a professional chemist, and much of what he tells us about language relates to chemistry. He opens "Argon" by telling us that the noble gases have Greek names: he is referring to the elements neon (the New), krypton (the Hidden), argon (the Inactive), and xenon (the Alien). Elsewhere in the book, there are discussions of etymologies referring to chemistry.

Every profession has its own terminology. Levi, a chemist, introduces chemical terms to his readers. In a book where every chapter is the name of an element, Levi, in the chapter called "Iron," tells of his own reaction to a particular word: "I was just beginning to read German words and was enchanted by the word Urstoff (which means 'element': literally, 'primal substance')" (p. 39.) Levi enjoyed this word, the way an English speaker might enjoy a hypothetical equivalent like "oldest stuff." Levi was equally happy with the names of elements built on Greek roots. He says that "phosphorous has a very beautiful name (it means 'bringer of light')..."(p. 120).

The study of language, for Levi, was beautiful and important because language is concrete. Levi's writing is at times quite abstract, but he always believed in being concrete. He tells us that his philosophy classes were unsatisfying because philosophy is a way of ignoring the complexity of reality: "It was enervating, nauseating, to listen to lectures on the problem of being and knowing, when everything around us was a mystery pressing to be revealed: the old wood of the benches, the sun's sphere beyond the windowpanes and the roofs, the flight of the pappus down in the June air"(p. 23). Etymology, for Levi, is reality, not theory: "The hour of the appointment with Matter, the Spirit's great antagonist, had struck: hyle, which, strangely, can be found embalmed in the endings of alkyl radicals: methyl, butyl, etc."(p. 33).

Levi's commitment to reality as opposed to theory is very closely linked to his opposition to fascism. Levi hated fascism because of what it was doing to him and to Italy, and after the imposition of the racial laws, because of what it was doing to Jews. He also hated any totalitarian system, any political regime based on faith. Levi never builds up a coherent argument against faith. Doing that would be something like being a philosopher. He comes close to doing it, however, in his account of his dialogue with his heroic friend Sandro Delmastro, whom he admired as much as he admired anybody.

He tells us he asked Sandro about faith: "Did he not perceive it an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking?... [H]ow could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to fascism which he and I were seeking ...?" (p. 42).

A commitment to the world of fact and reality in no way prevented Levi from writing fiction and fantasy. His story "Lead" is an excellent example. Fiction does not imply faith; it merely calls for the willing suspension of disbelief. Suspension is nothing more than suspension--not abandonment. "Lead" is in a way the most learned of Levi's stories. Furthermore, it is the only story including a great deal of technical detail in which he is not teaching.

A linguist may do field work, studying the speech of a community; historical research, seeking and comparing ancient texts; or theorizing. Levi wrote nothing about theoretical linguistics; it would be too much like philosophy. He certainly did fieldwork; "Argon" is a description of a dialect Levi knew personally. "Lead" is a fantasy that necessarily involved a great deal of research in historical linguistics.

The narrator of the story, Rodmund, who searches for and processes lead, begins as follows: "My country is called Thiuda; at least we call it that, but our neighbors, that is, our enemies, use different names for us - Saksa, Nemet, Aleman"(p. 79). He is talking about a Germanic tribe; we can recognize cognates of Teuton, Saxon, Allemagne, and the Slavic and Hungarian word for "deaf-mute" which was applied to German and Germans. Rodmund moves to another area and says of the people that "they called mountains 'pen,' meadows 'tza,' the snow of summer 'roisa,' sheep 'fea,' their houses "bait,'...."(p. 85). He is probably referring to a pre-Roman language spoken in northern Italy.

Rodmund winds up in Sardinia, which he refers to only as Icnusa, an ancient name for the island meaning "sandal." He talks about the planet of lead, "the slowest of the planets," which he calls "Tuisto"(p. 87). The name suggests Tiu, the Germanic god of war and analog of Mars, whose Germanic name gave us Tuesday and whose Latin name gave us martedì. But according to Tacitus, Tuisto is the Germanic god analogous to Jupiter, god of thunder, like Thor, after whom Thursday is named, just as giovedì is named after Jove.

"Lead" ends when Rodmund settles in a place where he has discovered deposits of lead. He names the place Bacu Abis, which even today has lead mines.

In "Lead," Levi is the linguist at his most scholarly. Since the story is a fantasy, footnotes and explanations would be out of place. To benefit from Levi's research we have to do our own scholarship. Learning involves both being taught and making one's own discoveries. In either case, learning is the most exciting thing in life, the way to celebrate the glory of the creation. Learning, for Levi, is the negation of faith, just as reality is the negation of totalitarianism.


I am grateful to Seth Jerchower for his knowledge, skill, and assistance.


Jochnowitz, George. 1981. Religion and Taboo in Lason Akodesh (Judeo-Piedmontese). International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30: 107-117.

Primo Levi. The Periodic Table. 1984. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken.

Massariello Merzagora, Giovanna. 1980. "La parlata giudeo-piemontese. Contributo alla conoscienza del lessico impiegato nelle communità ebraiche d'area piemontese," Archivio Glottologico Italiano 65:105-136.

------. 2000. Da cucitore di molecole a cucitore di parole: il percorso plurilingue di Primo Levi. Documenti letterari del plurilinguismo / a cura di Vincezo Orioles, Lingue, cultura e testi, 2: 85-100. Rome: Il Calamo.