A Reluctant Introduction to Dialectology

I got an email yesterday with the salutation A gitn rosh chodesh Elul, a greeting for the new month. The ‘i’ in gitn marks the writer’s Yiddish as originating from the southern part of Jewish Eastern Europe. The spelling of ‘chodesh’ rather than ‘khoydesh’ means she is normal Jew and not a fanatic Yiddishist, a stickler for Yivo transliteration. And, the calendar! The calendar matters. If you want to think in Yiddish, the meshugene Jewish calendar will eventually demand to be reckoned with. But, since Av has thirty days, and it is not actually Elul until the weekend, I’m going to put it off.

So,… Happy September. August 2016 was my blog’s most visited month so far. If you like what you read, please do subscribe, tell your friends, share a post on facebook, write me a comment with a question or a suggested topic, and so on. Spread it around.

Also this August, my picture appeared in the Daily Forverts. Now that would seem to be a marvelous thing. My existence in the small Yiddish world has been tangibly noted. And I love the Forverts. But still, at the time I felt a little odd about it. Why?

The picture was posed. Our teacher Isaac Bleaman brought in The Moment (a Hasidic Yiddish magazine), got our permission, and then snapped the picture of us looking at it, even though we were not actively or thoroughly studying this particular magazine. At best we had flipped though it and noted a few idiosyncrasies. But that in itself was not the problem. Lots of news articles use posed photos to illustrate or reinforce their point.

The problem was the point he was making. But to even explain the nature of my ambivalence, I have to back up a little for the non-initiated. I was at Yivo [link] this summer studying what some people call “Yivo Yiddish” and what they call “Klal” Yidish, or Standard Yiddish. Note that Yiddish has been spoken for a thousand years, and this standard is less than one hundred years old.

Standard Yiddish

Klal Yidish (only one ‘d’ in the standard transliteration) is analogous to what in England is called “BBC English” or, more properly, “Received Pronunciation”. It serves the same role as “Standard French”, or the French of the Académie Française. The invention of this dialect facilitated several things. It standardized spelling, which was, to put it kindly, chaotic. It also enabled a shared writing standard for advanced academic study. We take it for granted, for example, that an English-speaker can go to an English-language university and major in English, but in Europe between the wars such a possibility could only be imagined for Yiddish for the first time. It provided linguists with a comparison point for the study of variations in the language, both through history and across regions. Finally, and crucially for me, it spelled out which Yiddish a student should learn, if he was not learning it at his mother’s knee. Standard English and French provide that same starting point for foreign students.

In fact, there are variations in the way people actually used, and still use, the language. There is a richness of dialects, with Yiddish speakers from southern Poland or Galicia speaking a different Yiddish than that of the ‘Litvaks’ (not just Lithuanian Jews, but those from a broad region). I’m pretty sure the Yiddish from what was then Czechoslovakia was halfway to German. And so on. But as a beginner, and now as an intermediate student, I have been actively uninterested in learning about dialects. I’m confused enough. Why can’t I learn one version first?

Probably no dialect is farther from Klal Yidish than contemporary Hasidish (Hasidic Yiddish). There are several reasons for this. Their progenitors came from the south, while standard Yiddish is closer to the more northern dialects. They live in isolated communities. They do not read in Yiddish. That is, they have the old traditional “internal bilingualism”, where Hebrew is the language of literacy and religious practice, while Yiddish is the less prestigious spoken language of the home. Therefore, Yiddish literature does not exert a pull that might keep them closer to the standard. Additionally, it is a vibrant, living, continuously transforming language. There are still many, many first language Yiddish speakers among the Hasidim, and no language stands still. Finally, while retaining more Lozhn Koydesh  (Hebrew-origin words) than secular Jews have in their Yiddish, the surrounding English is also strongly infiltrating Hasidic speech.

Now in the case of Hasidic Yiddish, I was not only uninterested, but hostile. Some of this comes from a secular Jew’s distaste for any religious fundamentalism or extremism. But more than that, even those of my ancestors who were orthodox were misnagdim (mainstream, anti-Hasidic Jews). For my Christian readers, imagine being non-practicing, but respectful of your Presbyterian roots, in a world where people don’t know much about it, but assume that snake-handling Pentacostals more or less exemplify Christianity. Lehavdil.

I should admit, though, that some of my hostility comes from a mix of envy and frustration. Here are Yiddish speakers who share few if any of my values, and have no interest in my worldview. Here is a critical mass of children who speak Yiddish, and they don’t read my grandfather’s books. Why should I make an effort to understand them? I’m not particularly proud of this attitude, just reporting it. Maybe something will come along some day and melt my heart. Or not.

The Article

In his article, Bleaman addresses those readers of the Forverts who write in, arguing for Hasidic, rather than Standard Yiddish. He admits that most secular academic classes give short shrift to the living language of Hasidic Jews. He calls these dialects a source of linguistic wealth. He expresses the sentiment that the separation between communities comes from both sides, and that secular Yiddish learners should know about how Yiddish is spoken on the streets of Brooklyn and Muncie. Perhaps this ability to understand contemporary spoken and written Yiddish of observant Jews could even help bring communities together.

A noble sentiment, but, as I say, I resist it. Still, Bleaman is a brilliant teacher and a persistent one. Even though it was not the central subject of the class, his enthusiasm for dialects was by no means limited to Hasidic Yiddish. He also told us about Sabesdike Losn, which is what non-Litvaks called a dialect from near Vilne. The name makes fun of how the letter shin (such as the one that makes the ‘sh’ sound in Shabes) would often be pronounced like the letter samekh (‘s’). There are also shifts in vowel sounds in this dialect. When he described the vowel shift in the converb (we’ll get to that can of worms eventually) ‘oys’ so that it sounds more like ‘oois’, I recognized my teacher from Rochester. In other cases, the sound ‘oy’ becomes ‘ey’. For example, ‘gevoynt’ (lived) may be pronounced ‘geveynt’. This can be awkward, because it sounds like ‘cried’. As in, I cried in Manhattan while studying Yiddish this summer.

Does it seem as though I’m rambling? It gets worse. Because even in something as seemingly unrelated as my handwriting class, the subject of dialects came up again. Maybe it’s best to pause, recap, and finish tomorrow.


I came to Yiddish wanting to learn to read, starting with my grandfather’s books, then to read literature more generally. I’ve also become particularly interested in Yiddish poetry. Speaking was and still is less interesting to me. The Yiddish speakers of today, I thought, are not really who I’m in this for. That was the starting attitude. OK, so learning to speak will help with the reading. One needs to know how people actually use words in the context of their daily lives to appreciate what a writer is doing with those words. As one of thousands of possible examples, it helps to know the natural word order, so you can pick up on when a writer varies it for emphasis. Fine.

But it’s hard enough to learn a language as a not-young person. I’m not old either, but there is a mystique of youth when it comes to language learning. Or maybe Americans are just always looking for excuses to not learn languages. Anyway, it’s legitimately hard to learn in my fifties, and hard to learn without access to an immersion environment. We can add that it’s hard to learn when my old college German keeps interfering, even after all these years. So why, I thought, should I deliberately confuse myself with multiple ways of saying every individual word? Somehow, it seems once it was broached, that dialects are and always were a crucial feature of the language, the subject would not go away.


Yiddish with a yud

No hair, no hitl. For Bleaman’s article, see: http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/198442/yiddish-with-a-yud/?p=all



2 thoughts on “A Reluctant Introduction to Dialectology

    • I’m sorry, my friend. I do go on and on at times. Here’s the version oyf eyn fus:

      A picture of me (and fellow students) appeared in the Forverts last month. We are ‘reading’ a Hasidic magazine. It happened because my grammar teacher, who is fascinated by dialects, was making a point.
      I had mixed feelings. I don’t want to learn dialects yet. Standard Yiddish is enough of a challenge. And even if I was interested in dialects, Hasidic Yiddish is the last place I’d start. He worked on other dialects, too, including ‘Sabesdike Losn’, which is reminiscent of how our Rochester Yiddish teacher, D, talks.
      Between the lines, I’m working my way around to some kind of grudging acceptance. Spoken language varies from one group or one place to another. And, it’s probably artificial to try to separate written from spoken language. Hope this helps with Part 2. The rest, as they say, is detail.


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