Dialectology, Part 2

“If I could speak English. I would give them a piece of my mind.”
“What would you do, what?”
“I would travel to America, and I would go in to the Secretary General of the United Nations, and I would say to him in English, ‘Mister Secretary, I think you ought to know… Feh, Feh, Feh, Feh, Feh!’”
“For that, you need English?”

DzhiganThis snippet of dialog is from “Aynshteyn Vaynshteyn”, a classic comedy routine by the duo, Dzhigan and Shumacher. There’s no point in me trying to transliterate much of it. Let’s just say, it doesn’t sound like what it looks like. The content is funny. I particularly like their description of the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. But the real humor is in the delivery. Timing is definitely some of it. One of the characters drawls impossibly slowly while the other talks a mile a minute. But some of it also comes from the thick Lodz dialect. You can hear the whole routine here:

http://archives.savethemusic.com/bin/archives.cgi?q=songs&search=title&id=Einshtein+Weinshtein  [When you get to the page, find and click the ‘play’ button]

The dialogue above starts at about 2:45, but right from the outset you hear ‘gitn’ morgn instead of ‘gutn’. Then there is a vowel shift in reading a newspaper: ve me lay-ent (in Yivo transliteration, ‘ay’ makes the sound as in the English ‘Aye-Aye’) instead of ley-ent (the ‘ey’ makes a vowel sound as in the English ‘they’).

I admit I enjoyed the comedy, if not all the class time devoted to the specific changes in pronunciation. And I would not have understood even the portion of the material we covered in class if I had not had the transcript, and if we had not gone over the dialect.


It was in my handwriting class that I learned the word ‘ideolect’. Though language is a shared and social activity, people use it in very individual ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in personal letters. Also, if the word ‘ideograph’ didn’t already exist, it would be the perfect descriptor for the barely decipherable squiggles unique to a particular writer.

After the first day, when we looked at some common variations in the forms of individual letters, we didn’t really have a structured curriculum, but would simply communally work our way through one personal letter (correspondence) after another. It was often quite stunning how little our ability to read one person’s handwriting would transfer to the next person. For the hard ones (and they were mostly hard ones), it felt like every word was a riddle. But over time, a couple of principles did emerge.

Expectation affects what you see. Sometimes words are hard to read because they are not Yiddish. In my grandfather’s writing (whether printed or handwritten) I often don’t realize he has switched into Hebrew until I hit the second or third word in a row that I don’t recognize. Many people’s letters contain town names in Russian or Polish. A South American manufacturer whose rubber supply is cut off during the war wonders about how he will make ‘a biznis’ for himself. Above all, in Yiddish letters of one hundred years ago, there is a lot of German. Some words don’t ‘belong’ in Yiddish. Other times it is only a matter of Germanized spelling: אונד for און (und/un), or זאהל for זאָל (zohl/zol), for example.

These are the least of the spelling problems. It became evident at some point how many Yiddish speakers had never formally learned to write in Yiddish. The old-world kheyder (one-room school) emphasized reading, memorization and, at higher levels, the  interpretation of complex texts. Writing seems to have been emphasized much less and, in the traditional khadorim would have been in Hebrew rather than Yiddish anyway. Then, too, there was no standard system for spelling yet.

So what did people do? They wrote words how they sounded. The word חדר (kheyder) itself, for example, appears as חיידער in one letter we read. Nor is this necessarily a mistake. In the Soviet Union, all the Hebrew-origin words were spelled out phonetically. So, whether this spelling was an indicator of low literacy depends on where and when the letter was written.

More than once we saw ‘זאך’ for ‘זיך’ (zakh for zikh) and ‘בא’ for ‘בײַ’ (ba for bay). And, finally, we have worked our way around this long digression back to my main subject. Since people wrote however the language sounded to them, it is extremely handy to have a grasp on the major variations in how Yiddish was spoken. In other words, dialects.


Part of the reason my grammar teacher spent so much time on the Dzhigan and Shumacher routine was that practicing with their dialect would be helpful in understanding a Hasidic rabbi who came to Yivo to talk with us summer students. Turns out I missed that visit, having an urgent need to be up in the archives at that time. Nevertheless, at some point, the utility of knowing various dialects could no longer be disputed. It manifested itself in something as seemingly unrelated as handwriting class. Then, when I attended a class lecture by historian Samuel Kassow on Warsaw between the two world wars, it was extremely helpful to have some familiarity with ‘sabesdike losn’ before he came.

So there’s my grudging admission. Basic knowledge of dialects can open up more of the world of Yiddish, whether it comes to humor, the letters people wrote that are so revealing of day-to-day life, or a scholarly talk about history. Nevertheless, I stubbornly maintain my list of priorities. Reading first, starting with my grandfather’s work. Next, reading poetry and after that, classic literature. Understanding the many variations and uses of spoken language comes after.


Since I got back from my summer, I’ve struggled a bit with focus. There are so many things I want to do, it’s hard to dig into any one at a time. This fall, I plan to continue the work of reading and translating my grandfather’s writings. I am also talking an online literature class. OK, two online literature classes. I admit it, I get overenthusiastic sometimes. I am also starting a Yiddish group here in Ithaca. I don’t know whether people will be more interested in conversation or in reading, but I’m up for whatever other people want. I also have at least one offer of a Skype partner, who wants to read poetry together.

Up to now my favorite Yiddish poet is Mani Leib, and not only because my grandfather was his friend. His work is lyrical and elegant. Simply, it is some of the prettiest writing ever in Yiddish. I have been trained, in English poetry, to value other things apart from formal perfection and beautiful sounds, but I feel no guilt in reveling in them in another language. At my summer literature teacher’s recommendation, I’m also reading the book A Little Love in Big Manhattan, by Ruth Wisse. It focuses on the life and work of Mani Leib and of Moishe Leib Halpern, two Yiddish poets in early 20th century NY.

Early on in that book, Wisse discusses a poem by Mani Leib, published in 1910, that created a stir. It’s a lyric, almost a tone poem, and its placement of aesthetic considerations ahead of ideology or even semantic meaning, caused a stir. Here, the patterning of sounds is inseparable from the meaning, a crucial part of the intended effect of the poem. Her transliteration, mentions Wisse, is not according to Yivo standard spelling, but reflects the poet’s dialect. For example, he pronounces the word רויט (red) [pronounced ‘royt’ in standard Yiddish] as ‘reyt,’ and rhymes it with ‘breyt’ (wide). I mentioned this to my mother. “My parents said reyt,” she said.


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