All Languages, None Correctly

“He spoke not one, but all languages, none correctly…”

Early in the magnificent novel The Name of the Rose, Brother William the detective, along with his assistant Adso, are called to a monastery to solve a murder. Among the first people they encounter is a man whose character is portrayed through his unique way of talking. Here are Salvatore’s first words:

“Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in futurm to gnaw your anima! Death is super nos! Pray the Saint Peter come to liberar nos a malo and all our sin! Ha ha, you like this negromanzia de Domini Nostri Jesu Christi! Et anco jois m’es dols e plazer m’es dolors.. Cave el diabolo! Semper lying in wait for me in some angulum to snap at my heels. But Salvatore is not stupidus! Bonum monasterium, and aqui refectorium and pray to dominum nostrum. And the resto is not worth merda. Amen. No?”

I was reminded of Salvatore and that magnificent monologue last fall as I tried to trudge my way through an article in a 1911 labor newspaper. The article was a glowing bio of Louis D. Brandies who is geven di nayer Tcherman fun Unzer KHoard ov Arbitreyshon.

The Tsherman

OK, the khaf [Kh] is a typo. Put a beys [B] there. He has become ‘The Chairman of Our Board of Arbitration’. Reading this article had a strange effect on me. Apart from the glowing and extended praise of the man that does not strike one as altogether journalistic, the piece was a tsimmes [hodgepodge] of Yiddish, German and English words.

Instead of ‘several’ or ‘many’ being ‘a sakh’, for example, we get the German ‘manche’. There are also a sakh German spellings—gelt as geld געלד, for example. In German the final ‘d’ is pronounced ‘t’, but in Yiddish gelt is gelt געלט. And there are extra ayins and heys throughout: נעהמען, וויעדער, and so on. Rendered in English letters, the equivalent of spelling ‘vieder’ for ‘vider’, ‘nehmen’ for ‘nemen’. The pronunciation is the same, and once you get used to it, it does not cause particular problems, but it retains an odd feel throughout, and dates the piece as being 100 years old.

The English intrusions are even more frequent and jarring. Obviously some names in English, such as the Trimont Strit Subvey probably should be transliterated as is into Yiddish spelling. Many words refer to American institutions, such as the Trusts, the State of Oregon, and, as above, the Board of Arbitration. But at some point, a ‘strayk’ iz geven ‘gesetlt’ (the strike was ‘settled’), a lawyer is asked to derlangen zayn ‘bil’ (to present his ‘bill’). These seem gratuitous.

My first reaction to all this was confusion. Did the writer even speak Yiddish? Was it street Yiddish? No, actually, the reverse, my teacher D told me. The German, and even the English, are in there to show off. I have spent a lot of time with my grandfather’s Yiddish, and perhaps too little with other people’s. I really haven’t read enough different kinds of material yet. But what interests me about that article is how one needs some kind of context to understand what the different kinds of language use meant.

My mother’s first reaction was distaste. English sprinkled into Yiddish is a corruption. What Second Avenue did to Yiddish, by her father’s lights and by hers, was a coarsening. [Let’s just say she’s not particularly a fan of the language in the “Joe & Paul” parodies of advertising Yinglish]. And, from her point of view all those German words don’t belong there at all.

As an aside, the narrator does not take kindly to Salvatore’s language stew either. “…he had invented for himself a language which used the sinews of the languages to which he had been exposed—and once I thought that his was, not the Ademic language that a happy mankind had spoken, all united by a single tongue from the origin of the world to the Tower of Babel, or one of the languages that arose after the dire event of their division, but precisely the Bablish language of the first day after the divine chastisement, the language of primeval confusion.” I can’t help but think of how Yiddish was demeaned as ‘jargon’ because it borrowed from multiple surrounding languages. I also wonder whether the date matters. The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, a year after the first European Union elections were held.

As for the labor newspaper, I think the date matters tremendously in understanding how the various languages are used, and why. The 1911 article is long after the huge wave of immigration began, and well after the Forverts began publishing, but still before the founding of YIVO in Europe. Jews in America were almost universally eager to learn English. Abe Cahan welcomed some Anglicisms into his newspaper’s Yiddish, first, because he did not want the language to be artificially separated from that of his readers, and second, because he was avidly pro-assimilation.

There was not yet a coherent counter movement. As for the German, a lot of German vocabulary and German spelling had crept into the language following the enlightenment [see my post on ‘Daytshmerish’] when many European Jews were educated in the gymnasium (secular high school). They brought these over with them. It’s true that literary writers in Europe had been working for at least twenty years to remove all that extra German. But YIVO standards that removed the Germanized spellings had not been published yet, let alone disseminated.

Another detail I observed was that while many of the English words in my article have no equivalent, and some are clearly gratuitous, there are also many English words specifically related to labor and labor issues [סטרייק (strike), קאָמפּאַני (company), פעקטאָריס (factories), טראָסטס (‘trusts’), and so on]. This vocabulary was important to a workers union that was actively trying to create solidarity among workers of different linguistic backgrounds. Taking these issues together, it seems to me the language of this article is probably not a street Yiddish, or a bottom-up mixing of languages, but the language of a leader educating the less erudite workers.

So, those are some impressions about what I think this language tsimmes might have meant in its original social context. But there’s one additional twist. The labor newspaper in question was published trilingually, in Italian, Yiddish and English. It would therefore be extremely useful to know whether the original was written in Yiddish, or whether it was written first in English and then adapted for the Yiddish-language edition.

I also had two other personal reactions. First, to me as an English speaker who knows some German words, I am in the opposite position of the original reader. The words that would have popped out at them because they were new, pop out at me because they are familiar. English words meant to arouse in the reader an eagerness to assimilate and an ambition to master the lingo of socialist activism are amusing to me, but the new thing to be mastered is the Yiddish. The German, sprinkled in to command respect, is merely a nuisance. Sometimes, I can’t tell the pompous German words from the natural German-origin Yiddish words. When I can, the writer loses my respect by trying too hard to impress.

My other reaction was, HOW COULD ANYONE POSSIBLY TRANSLATE SOMETHING LIKE THIS?? Of course it’s not that hard to translate the words, and the sense that the writer was trying to convey. A labor historian would probably only care about what the Jewish press had to say about Brandeis, or about the subway fare structure, or about the struggle between the locals and the larger union. But there is a unique feel that one gets from reading this material in its own idiom.

The thickness of the spelling [טהון, for טון] slows the reader down and immediately pegs the writing as 100 years old. Here, I think about reviews of the recent British novel The Wake. To tell this story, the writer invented a language, because he believed it was the only way to make the reader feel as though they were in a time and place (pre-Norman England) with a completely different pace of life and a different world view. Not all of this effect was due to spelling. There are vocabulary and vowel shifts, too. But, though I have not read The Wake, I can easily see how the spelling in “When i woc in the mergen all was blaec” puts you in a very specific imaginary landscape. In the case of the labor newspaper, even though it would clearly be ridiculous to write about the ‘brenthches of a yoonyin,’ or the ‘werkers at theyr shoppes,’ either of those would actually feel more similar to the experience of reading this Yiddish than a normal translation would.

So, while this unique scrambling of languages can’t, by definition, be rendered in English, I continue to wonder whether there might be some way to communicate what it feels like to read. After all, the excerpt from The Name of the Rose, with which I started this piece, is a convincing translation from ‘Italian-based, pan-European garble’ into ‘English-based, pan-European garble’. Kudos to the translator, William Weaver.

I should have said at the outset that I offer tonight’s blog post as my tribute to Umberto Eco who, I just learned, died today at age 84, I recommend his novel to you. It’s possible that I might love it out of proportion because it takes place in a scriptorium, and I was a calligrapher when I first read it. But there is much more to it than that.

And, so, though I have already run overlong, I can’t resist sharing one more tidbit from that vignette in The Name of the Rose, about how language is bound to social context. It provides a distant parallel to the labor-union lingo being all in English, as I described above. Adso, the narrator, tries to tell whether Salvatore’s is no language or every language. After thinking about it, he decides that he is not using words systematically or as independent entities, but in chunks tied to concrete experience. “…not so much his own sentences as the disiecta membra of other sentences, heard some time in the past, according to the present situation and what he wanted to say, as if he could speak of a food, for instance, only in the words of the people among whom he had eaten that food, and express his joy only with sentences that he had heard uttered by joyful people the day when he had similarly experienced joy.”

I leave it to you to decide whether we all learn language that way at first. And, in our multicultural world, maybe not only at first. I remember Leslie once had a friend who had spent nearly a decade of her young adult life in Germany. “Is there anything,” she wondered, “that you only know how to talk about, or only know how to do, in German?” Her friend thought for a moment. “I only know how to give birth in German.”

Name of the Rose cover

My beat up copy. RIP, Umberto Eco

2 thoughts on “All Languages, None Correctly

    • Nah, I think there must have been a way to make this shorter and clearer. I’ve had all these impressions kicking around for a while, and they just didn’t come together neatly. But then when Eco died I decided to put it out in whatever form I could manage.

      I think these questions are useful: When is bringing in words or phrases from another language effective? How can an outsider tell whether it’s being done to build intimacy or to show off? When is the loading on of foreign words too much? How might a translator communicate a quirky text like that, or should (s)he even try?

      But like the “too-muchness” of all that language jumble and idiosyncratic spelling I think this post itself tried to do too much. Thanks for your faithful reading, and for trying to get your head around it all!


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