Units of Meaning: The Joy of Verb Particles

Happy New Year! In addition to the delights of fall, and the holiday season (I sometimes say Season’s Greetings to my gentile friends this time of year, just to see their looks of puzzlement), this week class starts again for the new semester. I joined class some time after the first meeting last year, so it’s not quite my first anniversary as an adult Yiddish learner. But close enough. I’m excited, and so want to write in a lighter vein, and leave the big issues for later in the week.

The talent I have developed best over this last year, primarily outside of the class itself, is the ability to look up words in the dictionary. In late October, soon after I started, and with my teacher’s strong encouragement and help, I began translating my grandfather’s book “Robert’s Adventures” by looking up one word at a time. The fact that I knew the Hebrew alphabet was an enormous help. Equally helpful was my background in German.

On reason that background is such a big help is that often the word you need to look up is not the word on the page. This is particularly true with verbs. First, many verbs are separable verbs. Second, many verbs have reflexive forms that change their meaning.

Let’s take the verb onkhapn zikh as an example, not because it’s perfect, but because it happened to come up yesterday. I read how a child, Jimmy, is standing at the blackboard, unable to think of a thing, and the teacher, wanting to help him out, says something. The word for ‘help out’ is more or less to ‘outhelp’ him (aroyshelfn). Easy enough. If we know ‘aroys’ means ‘out’, we might be able to figure that one out without looking it up.

Then she “says him something under”. Zogt zi im unter. Huh? Knowing how separable verbs work, I look up not zogn, “to say”, but unterzogn. My dictionary gives two meanings— “to whisper” and “to prompt,” both of which work in this context.

There are a large number of prefixes that can be used as part of separable verbs: On, Op, Iber, Arop, Oys, Ayn, Arayn, Oyf, Aroyf, Um, and the two we just encountered, Aroys and Unter, And these are just the ones that start with aleph! I can’t resist telling you that there is, somewhere, a massive four-volume unabridged Yiddish dictionary on which the two authors spent twenty years, and literally only made it through the letter Aleph. Fortunately, about a fifth of all Yiddish words start with that letter, chiefly because of all these prefixes.

Anyway, the prompt is given, and in reaction, Khapt zikh Jimi on. Catches himself Jimmy “on”. Note that the particle ‘on’ does not generally correspond to the English ‘on’. In fact, if it were a stand-alone word, it would more likely mean “Catches himself Jimmy without.” Never mind the word order for now. The question is, what is Jimmy doing?

Zikh is a word (“himself”), but also a particle that makes a verb reflexive, and it can sometimes change the meaning completely. So, between looking up 1.Khapn, 2.Khapn zikh, 3.Onkhapn, and 4.Onkhapn zikh, there are at least three ways to get this wrong. Sometimes members of a verb family make intuitive sense or have very similar meanings, and sometimes they don’t. Here, khapn means “to capture” or “to grab”. So.., does Onkhapn mean “to catch on”? No. It means “to seize” or “to take by surprise”. What about khapn zikh? Does that mean to catch yourself (maybe Jimmy got hold of himself, or caught himself in time to avoid a mistake)? Nope. Khapn zikh means “to jump at, or (if you’re a fish) “to bite”. Finally Onkhapn zikh, which is what we want, means “to grasp at” or “to cling to”. Jimmy grasps at or clings to the individual word in the teacher’s prompt. Of course, that’s not going to be enough to get him to the right answer.

As you see, all of those meanings are within a family of grasping actions, but nothing can be taken for granted. Here is another closely-related example. OYFkhapn (the particle oyf, which sounds a little like ‘off’ actually does sometimes mean ‘on’, or, more frequently, ‘up’). Oyfkhapn means, reasonably enough, to catch on. But oyfkhapn zikh means not to catch onto or grab onto oneself, but rather, “to wake up”. I find this counterintuitive, but also kind of cool. Does waking up entail getting ahold of yourself, or maybe being grabbed out of one world into another? [Wallace Stevens writes of the violence of getting up: “When cocks awake, clawing at their beds / To be again”]

This detailed description of looking up a verb and a few of its cousins is meant to show that the unit of meaning is often not a word as it sits alone on the page. Here it is the particle. What matters is putting the verb stem back together with the prefix and/or the reflexive word/particle ‘zikh’, and translating the aggregate of these units as a whole. Luckily, all of this is rather exactly analogous to German, including the identity of many of the particles. This means, though I don’t know what the words mean, I know how to go find out.

I love to play with words. If you look at the dictionary definition of onkhapn in the picture I’ve attached to this post, you’ll see that one other meaning of the verb is “to take as an example”. It’s not relevant to the translation of the passage I was working on, but it did suggest this would be the perfect example to grab onto, to show how fun and confusing it is to learn a written language this way. Naturally, this is not the optimal way to learn a language, but it is a way. I am first training myself to be a fluent reader. Luckily there is also class, which, though it is only once a week and at a beginner level, is a huge help. I’m eager for us to get going again. Because there are some things that even the best word finder cannot get from the dictionary.

Lastly, a more substantial reason for going into such detail in this instance is because studying these particles can help us to understand English better. We of course have all kinds of verb prefixes in English, too. Because we don’t literally split them apart into their units when we write, we often go without thinking about them. What does ‘understanding’ have to do with ‘standing’? It turns out there is debate (at least via a quick online search) about the ‘under’ part. Are you confident enough to stand under something (understanding as mastery)? Or did the usage migrate from standing ‘in front of’ (an objective view) or ‘among’ (an insider’s view)? In any of these cases, your knowledge is not a thing you have but a relation to the object of knowing, that both reflects and depends on your position or stance.

For a poet, seeing the ‘stance’ in ‘instance’ or ‘substantial’ or ‘understand’ is crucial. It helps not only in creating echoes or internal rhymes, but also in getting at deeper metaphorical and connotative layers of meaning. Working with a different but related language that pulls apart these units of meaning sensitizes you to them. Goethe said “Whoever doesn’t speak foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” Often, we travel to come home.


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