Life & Culture

No one speaks it, and it’s not even a language. So say the detractors. But they’re so wrong, insists one famous fluent speaker


I’ve always been fascinated by Yiddish. Though it wasn’t my mame-loshn (“mother tongue” — the name Yiddish speakers give to Yiddish), it was my Mama’s loshn. As a kid she used to do things like stand over me when I was eating and say: “Shlof gikher, ikh badarf dos kishn” (“Sleep quicker, I need the pillow”).

I didn’t actually learn the language till I was at Oxford — so technically I speak Oxford Yiddish or, if you prefer, the Queen’s Yiddish — and I’ve loved it ever since. But as every Yiddishist will tell you there are certain prejudices and kvetches that constantly crop up when discussing this language which one 18th-century scholar felt should really be called Hebreo-barbarish. So here, for Hebreo-barbarish lovers everywhere, are my attempts at crushing the Top 5 Yiddish kvetches.

Kvetch 1: It’s just a bastardised German.
About 1,000 years old, Yiddish is approximately 70 per cent Germanic, 20 per cent Hebrew/Aramaic and 10 per cent Slavonic, served with a cheeky seasoning of Romance elements (bentshn, to bless, comes from the Latin benedicere; cholent from the medieval French for “hot”, as in the modern chaud). So yes, Yiddish is, to use the Yiddish term, a mish-mash. But then so are many languages; so is English. In fact you could say of Yiddish and English that one of them is a crazy if expressive bastardised German with a highly irregular grammar, and the other one is Yiddish.

Kvetch 2: It’s not a language, it’s a dialect.
It’s easy to identify a language when it’s tied to a country. In fact, some clever linguist with time on his hands once said that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. But it’s part of the miracle of Yiddish that there has never been a “Yiddishland” yet at its peak the language was spoken by 11 million people from New York to Krakow to Cape Town, and they were all capable of understanding each other. Surely that qualifies as a language.

Kvetch 3: Yiddish is sorely lacking in vocabulary.
Granted, there are certain areas where Yiddish vocabulary is a bit shvakh (weak), areas where Jews had less involvement or interest such as warfare or DIY (I jest about the latter, though the Yiddish for “Allen key” escapes me just now). But it’s important to remember that linguistic truism about Eskimos having 40 different words for snow. Your average Eskimo might well laugh at English for its impoverished frozen rainwater lexicon. And there are other areas where Yiddish vocabulary is particularly rich compared to English or (and I’m guessing here) Eskimo: words for “God” or “fool”, where each Yiddish word denotes something slightly different. Thus, the shlemil is the one who spills some soup, the shlimazl has soup spilt onto him, and the nar just laughs instead of getting a J-cloth.

Kvetch 4: It’s nothing but swear words and curses.
It’s true Yiddish is incredibly rich in colourful expressions and curses. I’d share some of my favourites but that wouldn’t do my side of the argument much good. But it’s also a language in which you can express every possible shade of love, tenderness, humour, political commitment, religious fervour, passion, philosophy, science, sex. It also has a rich literature — not just Bashevis Singer or The Dybbuk or Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye. There’s a wealth of world-class poetry, drama, novels and short stories just waiting to find a wider audience — Ash, Leivick, Bergelson, Peretz. So it’s not just curses. And if you don’t believe me, zoln dir ale tseyn aroysfaln nor eyner zol blaybn – oyf tsonveytik (may all your teeth fall out except one — and from that may you always have toothache).

Kvetch 5: It has no future.
Yiddish is still evolving. Many speakers exchange blitspostn on dos internets (emails on the internet), chat on their tselkes (mobile phones) and even use shmekldekers (condoms — from shmekl, the affectionate diminutive of shmuk, and dekn, to cover). Maybe the battle to keep secular Yiddish alive has indeed been lost. But there are an estimated half-a-million native speakers of Yiddish of child-bearing age in the strictly-Orthodox community who are bringing their children up in Yiddish. Within 50 or so years the language could once again be the mame-loshn for millions. The future of Yiddish is safe in their hands.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, here’s a bonus kvetch… Why, when you write Yiddish in English letters, do you use that strange spelling?

I’m following the spellings of YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute — a sort of Academie Française with a beard and payes. Writing ikh instead of Ich, or blitspostn instead of Blitzposten reflects the way the language is pronounced and stresses the fact that Yiddish isn’t just German-gone-meshuge (meshuggah?). You can find out more in my Radio 4 documentary My Yiddishe Mother-Tongue which goes out on October 15 at 11.30am. Now, what’s the Yiddish for “shameless self-advertising”?

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