Class started again on Tuesday. It was great to see my classmates from last year. Also a little discouraging, as we lost a couple of students, and there were already too few of us. One new student came– a fellow poet and friend who also happens to be a cousin of Jacob Glatshteyn. I love the company of my fellow students, most of whom are older, and heard Yiddish as children. The majority still have the music of the language in their heads. Where will the Yiddish students come from when even those who never spoke it, but who at least heard it, are gone? And why do we always jump immediately to this same question? Meanwhile, we’re here, we’re learning, and we’re having fun. Nu?
For continuity with last year, we started off with one more letter from the Bintel Brief. This newspaper advice column from a century ago formed the core of last year’s curriculum. It needs to be the subject of its own blog post or three. Many people know something about it, but it’s well worth saying more. For now, though, I want to pick up on a comment from my last post. “I’m eager for class to get going again,” I said there, “because there are some things that even the best word finder cannot get from the dictionary.”
One of these intangibles has to do with nuances of tone and word choice, and what they say about the mentality and social address of the writer. Reading the letter Tuesday, our teacher remarked that it’s written in “the kind of language that uneducated people think educated people use.” What a perfect capsule description of a whole ocean of bad writing. I used to teach college, and anyone else who has can immediately relate. In particular, writers who are young and trying too hard to impress so often use big words where small words will do, but also then go and use them wrong. Not that the letter writer was stupid. His question, about socialism, cultural continuity, and the utility of teaching Yiddish to American children was the right one to be asking in 1906.
One time last year our teacher similarly pointed out how “Daytshmerish” the writing in a different letter was. The word Daytshmerish means, roughly, Germanified, or “over-German”. The implication is that the delivery comes across as pompous, or inauthentic, or both. This is the kind of thing that is extremely hard for a novice or a cultural outsider to pick up on.
Yiddish, like English, is a syncretic language. In English, because our language has both Germanic and Romance language roots, and borrows heavily from other languages as well, we often have more than one word to pick from to refer to the same thing. The different words have different tones. We can choose to go, leave, exit, quit, or depart from a place or locale. ‘Go’ and ‘leave’ have German origins, and the other three Latin. To ‘exit’ seems oddly formal. Unless you’re at an airport, saying you’re going to ‘depart’, the option which came most recently into English from French, can seem stuffy. Similarly, if we want to sound like regular people, we might eschew ‘locale’, which came more recently from French, for ‘place’ from Old French, or the even homier ‘spot’, which came in from German via Dutch. Most of us don’t pay attention to where the words we use originate or come from, of course, but we all have some feeling for tone. We can tell, for example, the difference between a ‘feeling’ and a ‘sensation’.
The majority of Yiddish words come from German, but there are also many Hebrew and ‘Slavic’ words (most via Russian, Polish, Lithuanian or Ukranian), and bits from French, Spanish, Aramaic, English, and probably other sources, too. American Yiddish, naturally, picked up more English over time. One thing that we have talked about in class is the general tonal ‘feel’ of the donor languages.
I think, though I use the word ‘tone’ or ‘tonal’, it’s not purely something about the sounds of words I’m talking about, but the feelings that attach to those sounds because of their history of use. Jews always prayed and read Torah in Hebrew, so the religious feel rubs off. Via the Talmud, they argued over legal matters in Hebrew (with a dose of Aramaic on the side). Additionally, high intellectual discourse, whether about religious matters or not, was conducted in written Hebrew for hundreds of years, just as Latin was used for centuries in Christian societies for all learned discourse, whether religious or not. Because of this history of use, Hebrew origin words are often used to refer to spiritual matters, legal concepts, matters of life and death, and family. Even though many individual Hebrew words are common words for everyday matters, something of that elevated and poetic tone tends to come through in the use of a Hebrew-rich Yiddish vocabulary.
Slavic words tend to have a homier feel. For example, many basic food words come from Slavic languages, just like the prepared dishes we wish we could to take credit for. Sorry, blintzes and latkes are not our invention. Many words mix and match their root origins. An example people often give is ‘boychik’, which is an English word with a Slavic ending.
Back to ‘Daytshmerish’. So many Yiddish words are German in origin, or rather Middle German, that they are not cause for notice. In fact, what Daytshmerish actually means is using too many modern German words, when perfectly good Yiddish ones will do. For example, using the German word ‘varum’ to mean ‘because’ in place of the perfectly good, and equally Germanic, ‘vayl’. This is the kind of thing you need a native speaker to point out. To me, they don’t ring any differently.
But even I laughed at one specific word choice– when the letter writer talked about how Yiddish might come in handy to his child for talking about Socialism with ordinary Jews, or with less Americanized Jews. Because (Varum), he writes, “Yiddish iz di mutter shprakh, un er iz dokh fort a Yid.” “Yiddish is the mother tongue and the child is after all, a Jew.” Even I know how stilted and pompous it sounds to use the phrase “mutter shprakh” for “mother tongue”. The commonly used phrase mama lozhn must have sounded too warm and homey to the writer for him to employ it in his important intellectual discourse. Harumph.
With the enlightenment movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, modern German did contribute many words to Yiddish. Some were necessary, precise and useful in referring to modern scientific or academic concepts that did not then exist in Yiddish. But some Yiddish writers felt that this borrowing was overdone, and went out of their way to try to use a more direct, homier Yiddish, which they felt to be the more authentic language of everyday people.
But if Daytsmerish reveals a speaker or writer to be pompous and/or inauthentic, that causes problems for me. Since I learned some German first, and younger, so that whatever small vocabulary I got sank in pretty well, I not only often grab too many German words, but I also tend to speak with a German accent. This is not good.
But the issue of authenticity is big and has many parts to it. For example, a native speaker describes the young Americans who have learned Yiddish in college as speaking a gekeyfte Yiddish (a ‘bought’ Yiddish). Everything is correct, but it’s textbook correct. They have no accent. They don’t speak a particular Yiddish from a particular region of the world. It all feels a little too proper and bookish. I have to say, I aspire to that, just as an immigrant to England would be extremely happy to be able to speak “BBC English”. To achieve nondescript competence would be an enormous accomplishment. For now, one far in the future.