The only completely satisfactory system is that of the International Phonetic Association, but in a book designed for the general reader this would have been impracticable.
I should have liked, particularly, to be able to use the inverted e to indicate the “murmur” vowel in the initial syllables of obey, upon, and the medial and final vowels of camera, as well as the inverted u to represent the vowel in the “Received” British (Southern) English pronunciation of but and hut. In the event, I have settled for e, and u, respectively. Yiddish Shoohlem “peace”, rhymes with fool ‘em; hunt “hand”, is pronounced exactly as British Southern English (BSE) hunt.
In the transcription e is never mute, as it is in same time, but to ensure that a final murmur vowel is not muted I have, unless there are contra-indications, doubled a preceding consonant: tutte “father”, and schmutte “rag”, rhyme with BSE butter. But there is no grotesque doubling of kh or sh; in brookhe “blessing”, and droohshe “sermon”, the final e is a murmur vowel. “Syllabic” l, m, n are indicated by -el, -em, -en, respectively: meydel “girl”, not meydl; beyzem “broom, not beyzm; vushen “to wash”, not vushn. Where e is followed by a double consonant it is sounded as in fell (though my mother, influenced presumably by the peculiarly British Southern English a sound in cat, sat, mat, etc., tended to make this vowel more “open” – her pronunciation of kepp “heads”, almost rhymed with BSE cap).
The reader with a knowledge of German must not expect Yiddish words of German origin to be written in the Germanised manner. Thus, he must expect to find dee Yiddishe shpraakh “the Yiddish language”, and not die jiddische Sprach; tokhter “daughter”, not Tochter; lukhen “to laugh”, not lachen.
Note bene, too, that the transcription is based on the Southern British English pronunciation: hunt “hand”, not hant. To denote the long German a as in Vater I have used aa: u sheynne maasse “a nice story”.
Ooh represents approximately the long oo in boot: khoohlem “dream”; oo the short sound in foot: took “day”. O is always short, as in hot: kol “voice”. The long sound of o in German Sohn is denoted by oh: erohss “out”. Ey represents the vowel in they: beheymme “beast”. I is always short, as in pin: ekh bin “I am”. Ee represents the vowel in tree; meess “ugly”. The vowel sound in try is denoted by ai: the last syllable of ullevai “would that!” rhymes with why.
The guttural ch in German Loch, Scottish loch is denoted by kh: khokhme “wisdom”. G is always hard, as in gun, and s is always voiceless, as in sun, though again, unless there are reasons to the contrary, I have often written ss and gh “to make sure”: gett “divorce”, and sinne “hatred” are pronounced as English get and sinner; in broighiss “not on speaking terms”, the last syllable is as in haggis.
It should be noted that the pronunciation of vowels, even in the same dialect and by the same speaker, can vacillate. Thus broighiss is also pronounced broighes; uffille “even” (adverb), efille; eppiss “something”, eppes, eppess. Compare the varying pronunciation of BSE English pretty (pretee, prittee, prettee), separate (adjective) (sepp (e) rit, seppret).
For the rest, I have represented Yiddish sounds by what have seemed to me to be the most appropriate English equivalents. Except for those likely to be familiar to English readers: diaresis (Umlaut), grave and acute accents, I have avoided diacritical signs (no Polish “crossed l”, “dotted z”, “nasalised” a or e).
Hebrew words are represented by a loose, conventional English transcription (actually a transcription-cum-transliteration, v. infra) of the “General Israeli” pronunciation, e.g. shalom “peace”, not shulom. This is inconsistent, I know, both because Hebrew-in-Yiddish is always pronounced in one of the Ashkenazic variations of Hebrew pronunciation: shoolem, shollem and because the vowel in the first syllable of shalom is much nearer that of BSE hull than that of BSE shall (Hebrew text-books say it is the sound of a in English BSE father). However, I believe people are used to this kind of transcription nowadays and will more readily recognise the Hebrew origin of Yiddish words by it.
A word about transcription and transliteration. Transcription aims to represent sounds, transliteration letters. The Hebrew word for “blessing”, berachah, is spelt exactly the same in Hebrew and Yiddish The sound of the word in (Polish) Yiddish is transcribed by brookhe, its Hebrew letters and vowel signs are transliterated by b, e, r, a, ch, a, h (the last letter being sounded neither in Yiddish nor in “General Israeli” Hebrew). Transcription does not distinguish between Hebrew Kol Yissrael, “all Israel”, and Kol Yissrael “the voice of Israel”, because the two kols sound the same, as pronounced by the great majority of Hebrew speakers, but as they are spelt differently transliteration has kol for the former and gol for the latter. In transcription, elision is not indicated. Thus ziz (= German sie ist) yink “She’s young”, not z’iz; ehrz (= German er ist) ult “he’s old”, not ehr’z.
Stress is not usually shown. The reader will not go wrong, usually, if he pronounces disyllables as “trochees” (as in cabbage) and trisyllables as “amphibrachs”) as in potatoes). Exceptions will be indicated, as will the stress in polysyllabic words. “Murmur” e is never stressed.
Finally, as readers with some knowledge of Yiddish will have gathered, the Yiddish I reproduce is that of the ooh or Polish dialect, as opposed to the o or Lithuanian dialect. The reason is quite simply that this book is about mumme loohshen “mother tongue”, which for me is literally the language my mother spoke; the ooh dialect of Eastern Galicia, formerly in Poland, now in the Ukrainian SSR, where she was born and lived (in the town of Zbaraz, to be precise) until her marriage in London.
I know that the question of dialect is a contentious subject which arouses fierce passions, but I would ask “Litvacks” who are committed to the Lithuanian pronunciation to bear with me and make the necessary substitutions: shollem for shoohlem, brokhe for brookhe, tsorres “troubles” for tsoohriss, gezoont “healthy” for gezinnt, vain (pronounced as BSE English vine) for vaan “wine.”
If the Litvack reader is a Lancastrian into the bargain, who pronounces hat in as near as makes no difference to the way in which I, in my benighted Southroon fashion, pronounce hut, I can only ask for a double measure of indulgence, though I am not too optimistic about my chances of getting it. U nekhtigher took, as the Yiddish has it, literally “a yesterday’s dig”, – “not a chance.”
(Incidentally the Yiddish expression does not mean, as stated s.v. by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish “a nightly day”, from German nächtiger: “nightly.” Yiddish nekhtigher is from the Middle High German neytic, meaning “of yesterday.” German nächtig (er) “nocturnal, nightly,’ is used only in elevated style; the usual word is nächtlich (er). William Chomsky, in Hebrew: The Eternal Language, Jewish Publication Society of America, N.Y, 1958, p 225 points out that “a nechtiger tag” is a literal translation of the Hebrew yom etmol and is suggested by the verse in Psalm xc, 4, ‘For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.'”).
Recapping alphabetically (“English” refers to “British Southern English”)
a – not used alone
aa – as in German Hahn
ai – as English why, sigh
b -as English
c – not used alone
d – as English
e – at end of word, or followed by single consonant, “murmur” vowel, as in BSE English among, submit, opera; followed by double consonant, as English well, dress
ee – as English feet
ey – as English they
f – as English fin
g – as English go, get
h – as English hand
i – as English it, is
k – as English
kh – as Scot. loch, German ach
l – as English
m – as English
n – as English
o – as English hot, pot
oh – as English boat (better, as German Boot)
oi – as English void
oo – as English look
ooh – as English soon
p – as English
q – not used
r – as English
t – as English
tch – as English church
u – as English cut
v – as English
w – not used
x – not used
y – as English yes
z – as English