I Understand Thee, and Can Speak Thy Tongue: California Unlocks Shakespeare’s Gibberish

By Frank BergonApril 23, 2024

I Understand Thee, and Can Speak Thy Tongue: California Unlocks Shakespeare’s Gibberish
APRIL IS NATIONAL Poetry Month, and on April 23—celebrated as National Talk Like Shakespeare Day in honor of the dual anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death—we’re encouraged to speak like the Bard and his characters. This playful task becomes both challenging and illuminating in face of perhaps the most puzzling speech in all of Shakespeare’s plays, typically heard as gibberish except in a few places, like rural California.

Shakespeare toys with numerous European languages throughout his work, including Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Often, these are spoken in thick accents, with comedic pronunciation. The same holds true for his use of the various British dialects—Scots, Welsh, Cornish, and Irish—heard in scruffy taverns or high courts. In Henry V, soldiers fracture the King’s English while the king himself and a French princess descend into a comical Franglais courtship. Yet, no matter how garbled the speech, playgoers can usually identify distinct languages and dialects—that is, until they bump up against what scholars have called the “invented language,” “unintelligible gabble,” and “‘Boskos thromuldo boskos’ mumbo-jumbo” in his comedy All’s Well That Ends Well.

Here’s the situation: seeking to fool a potential traitor, a French lord and some soldiers make what seem to be nonsense sounds, as though speaking a foreign language only they can understand. While the possible traitor, Parolles, “hath a smack of all neighboring languages,” he’s unable to make sense of the lord and soldiers’ conversation, and mistakenly concludes that his captors are Muscovite mercenaries speaking Russian, which he doesn’t know. He wishes a soldier would use German, Danish, Dutch, Italian, or French so he’d be able to understand:

SCENE I. Without the Florentine camp.
Enter Second French Lord, with five or six other Soldiers in ambush. […]
Sec. Lord. Throca movousus, cargo, cargo, cargo.
All. Cargo, cargo, cargo, villianda par corbo, cargo.
Parolles. O, ransom, ransom! do not hide mine eyes.
They seize and blindfold him.
First Soldier. Boskos thromuldo boskos.
Par. I know you are the Muskos’ regiment;
And I shall lose my life for want of language:
If there be here German, or Dane, low Dutch,
Italian, or French, let him speak to me. […]
First Sold. Boskos vauvado: I understand thee, and can speak
thy tongue. Kerelybonto […]
Par. O!
First Sold. O, pray, pray, pray! Manka revania dulche.
Sec. Lord. Oscorbidulchos volivorco. […]
First Sold. Acordo linta. […]
Exit, with Parolles guarded. A short alarum within. […]

SCENE III. The Florentine camp.
Enter the two French Lords and some two or three Soldiers.
First Lord. Hoodman comes! Portotartarossa. […]
First Sold. Bosko chimurcho.
First Lord. Boblibindo chicurmurco.

Some of these invented words in the play may correspond to actual neo-Latin words from Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Spanish, but these are few. Yet several phrases strike the ear as Basque, a language I grew up hearing in the San Joaquin Valley.


In Shakespeare’s time, Basque was spoken on both sides of the Pyrenees, as it is now in four provinces of Spain and three in France. It survives today as the oldest language in Europe, with no connection to any other language in the world. Basques call their language Euskara; a speaker of Basque is called an Euskaldun.

Like many Basque Americans, I came late to a clear understanding of my heritage. I knew from a young age my ancestry was Basque, and published a short story in my high school magazine about a Basque sheepherder who lost his band in a San Joaquin Valley flood. I’ve since written four novels about Basque American characters. In a book of essays and a memoir, I wrote about Basque friends, as well as my own Basque family—in Nevada, where I was born; in the California ranch country where I grew up; and in the Basque Country itself, where I continue to visit and keep in touch with relatives.

Still, a broader understanding of Basque history and culture eluded me until recently, and my awareness continues to expand with ongoing discoveries. Just as a recent genealogical test interpreted my DNA as 98 percent Basque, archaeologists in 2015 discovered that some modern Basques share DNA links with ancestral Basque farmers buried 3,000 years before the Roman Empire. When Romans encountered these ancient people in the first century, they identified them with Latin terms like Vascones or Vasconum. (I didn’t know why the Romans came up with these names for the inhabitants in my grandparents’ ancestral homeland until I started work on my memoir. Then, I dusted off my high school and college Latin and Greek to discover that early Roman historians were phonetically reproducing what the local inhabitants called themselves.)

Two thousand years ago in his Geography, the Greco-Roman historian Strabo recorded the earliest surviving names of these pre-Roman people as Οὐασκώνων and Οὐάσκωνας. The Roman historian Livy called them “Vasconum.” In the next century, Ptolemy wrote “Ouascones”; others wrote “Vascones.” Despite differences in appearance, the words have similar sounds if we remember that v in Latin was probably pronounced like a soft w or ou. Both the Greek (Ouaskonas) and Latin (Vascones) become close phonetic spellings of what an early 20th-century Basque woman like my grandmother might have called herself in her Markina dialect: “Ouskunan,” or “Euskunan,” meaning someone who speaks Euskara.


Even now, the survival of this ancient language remains as mysterious as its origin. As recently as the summer of 2021, archaeologists discovered the oldest authenticated writing in the language of ancient Vascones on a flat bronze hand probably hung from the door of a house 2,100 years ago. The artifact was inscribed with approximately five words; the first word, “sorioneku,” is a forerunner of “zorioneko,” spoken by modern Basques to mean “good luck.” Except for a few other surviving fragments of early writing in the form of letters, songs, charms, and proverbs, Euskara remained primarily an oral language for centuries. The first book in Basque, a collection of religious and secular poems by Bernard Dechepare (Bernat Etxepare in Basque), was published in 1545, only 19 years before Shakespeare was born.

During the 16th century, Basques were known less as writers than as Europe’s earliest whalers, who taught the skill to the English, Dutch, and Danish. Basques fished for cod as far away as the Newfoundland coast and maintained tryworks for processing whale blubber in Labrador. In 1534, after the French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and claimed the “New Land” for France, he encountered natives who knew Basque words and expressions. Most ships sailing across the Atlantic from Spain to the Americas were built in Basque shipyards. Iron mines and foundries south of the Pyrenees, especially those of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque), had long been the main European suppliers of metal for shipbuilding, as well as for nails, anchors, farm tools, firearms, and swords. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare uses the Basque word “bilbo” to denote the famous sword of flexible steel. In Hamlet, iron shackles are called “bilboes.”

An early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, takes place in the Basque areas of Basse-Navarre and Béarn. The main characters in the play are based on historical figures—namely Henri of Navarre, later King Henry IV of France, whose mother, Jeanne d’Albret (Joana Albretekoa in Basque), not only had the New Testament translated into Basque for her subjects in 1571 but also tried to institute Euskara as the region’s official administrative language.

Basque regions again play a role in All’s Well That Ends Well when the heroine, Helena, shadows her runaway husband from France to Italy. The fanciful plot of Shakespeare’s folkloric source requires Helena to be in Florence, disguised as a barefoot penitent. The source doesn’t mention, yet Shakespeare does, that she’s purportedly on her way “To Saint Jacques le Grand” at Compostela in Spain—that is, the Camino de Santiago and its trails through the Basque Country to the shrine of Saint James the Apostle. In the mid-12th century, the French cleric Aymeric Picaud circulated a travel guide for pilgrims and recorded in his journal the earliest known glossary of what was, in his censorious view, the “barbarian language” of Basques as opposed to “Christians.” By the time of Shakespeare’s birth, pilgrims had encountered Basques for seven centuries on their way to what had become the most visited shrine in Europe.

Meanwhile, north of the Pyrenees for 250 years until the mid-15th century, Basque ships and sailors from Bayonne hauled wine from Gascony to England. (The words “Gascons” and “Vascones” share the same Latin root.) Gascon merchants and Basque shippers stayed at ports and fairs in the cities of Bristol, Sandwich, and especially London for up to three months to sell wine and salt before sailing home with grain and hides. Despite English suspicions about aliens and their unintelligible tongues, the lucrative wine trade allowed “Gascon-speakers” to stay longer than other foreigners—and to live where they wanted. By Shakespeare’s time, some remained permanently as “Gascon émigrés.”


Until now, the mystery of Shakespeare’s “gibberish” has gone unsolved in part because it doesn’t look like Euskara. For starters, the Basque alphabet doesn’t use the letters c, q, v, w, or y. Transcribed into the Basque alphabet, though, the babble in the play begins to look like misspelled Euskara:

Troka mobutzus, kargo, kargo, kargo.
Kargo, kargo, kargo, biliando par korbo, kargo,
Boskos tromuldo boskos.
Boskos baubado.
Manka rebania dultxe.
Otzkorbidultxos boliborko.
Akordo linta.
Bosko tximurtxo.
Boblibindo txikurmurko.

I sent the original passages to native speakers, professors, and translators in the Basque Country and in the United States. Everyone confirmed that, while they couldn’t hear any actual Euskara words, they did hear its sounds. At Mondragon University, Professor Monika Madinabeitia read the lines to six colleagues and 10 students from places in the Basque Country with differing dialects. The professors noted nine places in the reading that sounded Basque. The students agreed, particularly on those with the tx-sound of ch. “Euskara is a very sibilant language,” Monika emailed, “and there are loads of [z] [s] [tz] [tx] sounds. These are the ones that sounded like Basque to my students.” Amaia Gabantxo, a translator of several Basque books, summed up the consensus of my various respondents by observing that “some of the syllabic progressions in those ‘words’ do sound like Basque to someone who doesn’t understand or speak it. It would seem that it is an attempt at something that sounds like Basque.”

For me, the clincher is the way Shakespeare emphasizes the word “Boskos.” From Latin came the words “Vascos” in Spanish and “Basques” in French and later English. Their similarity in sound is apparent when we remember that v in Spanish is pronounced much like b. Growing up in rural California, I regularly heard those of my ethnicity called “Bascos.” In All’s Well That Ends Well, Parolles, “the manifold linguist,” thinks the soldiers are Russian-speaking “Muskos.” But he’s wrong. Their shouted response implies the correction: No, we’re “Boskos.” And, in case we miss the phonological significance of “Muskos” and “Boskos,” Shakespeare repeats the word four times: “Boskos […] boskos […] Boskos […] Bosko.”

I think he knew what he was doing: capturing the sound of a rare, ancient language, surviving nearly intact today—the speech of Basques. On National Talk Like Shakespeare Day, it might be best to listen. After all, Shakespeare had a good ear.


Some context has been adapted from Frank Bergon’s The Toughest Kid We Knew: The Old New West (2020), available now from University of Nevada Press.

LARB Contributor

Frank Bergon is a novelist, critic, and essayist whose writing focuses primarily on California and the American West. He has published 12 books, most recently a memoir about his Basque American heritage, The Toughest Kid We Knew (2020). His novel Jesse’s Ghost was selected in 2024 for The New York Times’ “Best Books About California.” He is an emeritus professor of English at Vassar College.


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