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Don’t knock Yiddish — it plays a vital part in English grammar

By David Crystal, May 21, 2009

In his 1965 composition, A Yiddish Poet, Menke Katz wrote: “My mother tongue is as unpolished as a wound, a laughter, a love-starved kiss...”

When I first read this, I was struck by the word “unpolished”. As a linguist, I would never use this word about a language. It suggests that some languages are superior to others. More useful on the world stage some of them may be. Spoken by more people some of them may be. But to say that one language is intrinsically inferior compared to another is just plain nonsense. And to dismiss languages or dialects by calling them rude names says more about the namer than the named.

Yiddish English has attracted quite a bit of rudeness, as labels such as Yinglish and Yidgin show. But those who use such names are committing two major errors.They are forgetting the crucial role that languages and dialects play in expressing a community’s historical identity. And they are ignoring the remarkable influence that Yiddish has had on other languages.

Many loan words have come into English from Yiddish. Some of them are so naturalised that their origins are forgotten --- such as bagel, nosh and glitch. Others, because of their distinctive sounds or spellings, retain their Yiddish resonance — as with mensch, kvetch, and chutzpah.

Yiddish has even altered the letter balance in one part of the English alphabet. Formerly, you’d see next to nothing under SHM- or SCH-. Now we have quite a list —- spiel, shmaltz, schlock, schmuck, and many more. Dictionary-writers find them a pain to handle, because of their alternative spellings. Is it schlock, shlock, shlok…?

What is unique in the history of English is the way Yiddish has given the language a new sound pattern. English loves reduplicated words, such as helter-skelter and willy-nilly. Now we have a dismissive reduplication using shm-, as in pretty-shmitty, and thousands more. There’s nothing like this elsewhere in the language.

Languages borrow words from each other all the time. Grammar not so often. And this is where Yiddish has had most influence. Especially common is a strategy which brings the important words to the front of a sentence, as in “Worries you have”, “A Brad Pitt he isn’t”, and “On you it looks good”. It even influences aliens. Yoda, in Star Wars, speaks like that: “Full of the force I am”.

It would take a book to go through all the ways Yiddish has affected English grammar. One of the chapters would certainly be on the distinctive use of “should”: “You should worry”, “I should live so long”. Another would be on questions: “So what else is new?” “What’s to know?”, “What’s with you?” Another would be on commands: “Go figure it out!”, “Don’t ask!”, “Enjoy!”

Then there are the idioms. Oy vey, such idioms! “I need it like a hole in the head”, “Give me a for-instance”, “He bought it for a little nothing”. Enough, already.

Dovid Katz, Menke’s son and my fellow scribe on this page, gives his book Words on Fire a sub-title: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.

He’s talking about Yiddish as a language in its own right, of course. But for me there is no better evidence of its ongoing relevance than the impact it has had on the world’s number one lingua franca.

David Crystal’s latest book, ‘Just a Phrase I’m Going Through’, is published by Routledge at £14.99

Last updated: 2:16pm, May 21 2009