It’s been said that one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. It looks like some women in central Gaul were up to snuff in their Latin.
The evidence comes from a set of loom weights with Gaulish and Gaulish/Latin inscriptions. Loom weights are small weights, often made from stone, pottery, or metal, used to keep tension on the fibers in certain types of loom. They are a very common find in archaeological sites because they were simple everyday objects that lots of people used, people needed a lot of them, and they were easy to replace if they got damaged or broken. (So many loom weights turn up in archaeological digs that there’s a joke among archaeologists that if you find something you can’t identify it’s probably a loom weight.) Most loom weights are quite simple objects, like the Saxon examples in the illustration here, but a collection of loom weights with inscribed texts have been found in France, dating from some time during the Roman period.
The texts on these weights are short sayings, often with a good rolling rhythm like these:
Nata imi daga uimpi
Gaulish for: ‘I am a good and pretty girl.’
Nata uimpi curmi da
Gaulish for: ‘Pretty girl, bring me beer.’
But then there are some like this one:
Nata uimpi uim pota
Now, nata uimpi is Gaulish for ‘pretty girl,’ like in the previous examples, but uim pota is Latin. Pota means ‘drink,’ which is clear enough, but uim is a little trickier. Uim is abbreviated from a longer word, and there are two possibilities. If it is shortened from uinum (more typically written as vinum), then the inscription says: ‘Pretty girl, drink wine.’ On the other hand, uim could be short for uirum (or virum), in which case the meaning gets a bit naughtier: ‘Pretty girl, drink the man.’ (Which probably means exactly what your dirty mind thinks it means.)
Early researchers concluded that this naughty loom weight must have been made by a man and given to a woman who didn’t understand the double meaning, because women are delicate flowers who would never say such a thing. More recent scholarship has pointed out that those earlier researchers clearly haven’t spent enough time around women.
These and other (even naughtier) loom weights suggest that there was a community of Gaulish-speaking women who were also sufficiently familiar with Latin to make dirty jokes. Textile work was traditionally a women’s activity and would have taken up a significant part of their time. It could also be a social activity. We should imagine these Gaulish women gathered together weaving, sewing, and chatting, not unlike a modern craft circle. In that context, these loom weights with their rhythmic sayings and naughty suggestions would have been a playful accent to enliven the working day.
Image: Saxon loom weights, photography by Simon Speed via Wikimedia (currently Bedford Museum; stone)
On, of, and about languages.
Hah, that is so weird and fun at the same time. I had no idea of that saying – the “one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. ” I now realize, I master NO languages at all then :p
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Heh heh, that’s all right– almost anything can be a dirty joke if you wiggle your eyebrows right. :p
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Haha, wiggling eyebrows right. Gave me a chuckle 😛