A convenient shibboleth for separating speakers of “Polish” Yiddish from those who speak the “Lithuanian” variety is the pronunciation in the two dialects of Middle High German vrum/vrom, New High German fromm, meaning “pious.” A Polish Jew talks about being frim, a Lithuanian Jew about being froom. Similar contrasts are shtimshtoom, New High German stumm “dumb”; krim-kroom, New High German krumm “crooked”; hint-hoont, New High German Hund “dog”; finnt-foont, New High German Pfund “pound”. The distinction applies to words of Hebrew-Aramaic and Polish-Russian origin, as well as to the German components of Yiddish: shim-shoom, Aramaic shum “not any”; nidnik-noodnik, Polish nudnik “bore”.

The other principal vowel opposition may be subsumed in the contrast voohss-voss, Middle High German waz, New High German was “what”. Similarly doohss-doss, New High German das, neutral definitive article; shlooffen-shloffen, New High German schlafen “to sleep”; loohshen-loshen, Hebrew lashon “language”; kepoohrre-keporre, Hebrew kapparah “atonement”; shoohlem-shollem, Hebrew shalom “peace”. But “Polish” as well as “Lithuanian” Yiddish retained the o of Polish words: blotte, Polish bloto “mud”; prosste, Polish prosty “ordinary”.

Chiefly on the basis of these two vowel oppositions Yiddish is generally divided into two main dialects:

I. The ooh or Southern dialect, comprising the Yiddish spoken (in 1919) by about nine million Jews living in Poland, the Ukraine, South-west Russia and Roumania.

II. The o or Northern dialect, spoken in 1919 by about three million Jews in North-west Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and White Russia. [i]

There are other dialects which have been the subject of research, [ii] but these need not detain us here.

The claims that have been made for the “primacy” of the Northern dialect seem passing strange, in view of the fact that Northern speakers were outnumbered three to one by Southern. Harkavy, in his dictionary, says: “The Lithuanian dialect has best preserved the elements comprising the Yiddish tongue and may be regarded as the leading branch.” Dr A. A. Roback, an American Jewish psychologist who wrote on and in Yiddish, went so far as to urge the greater “folkishness” of the Jews of Minsk, Vilna and Bialystock, compared with those of Kiev, Odessa “and even Warsaw and certainly Lemberg,” as a reason for fixing the Lithuanian pronunciation as the basis for the transcription of Yiddish into English. His views were effectively rebutted by Dr S. Birnbaum, [iii] but they remain interesting as an example of not untypical, I am afraid, Litvakish hubris.

Reverting to Harkavy, the first part of his statement – that the Lithuanian dialect had best preserved the elements comprising the Yiddish tongue – is true, inasmuch as Polish Yiddish “branched off” from Eastern Yiddish (Judaeo-German as developed by the Jews who had migrated to the countries east of Germany, as opposed to western Yiddish, the Judaeo-German of the Jews remaining in Germany and Alsace) somewhere about 1730; but from thence to conclude that therefore it “may be regarded as the leading branch” is a non-sequitur. Of the Romance languages Italian has “best preserved the elements of the Latin tongue”; it is not thereby the “leading branch” of the languages descended from the Latin tongue.

The period when Polish Yiddish diverged phonologically from the existing Eastern Yiddish has been fixed in a fascinating, cliff-hanging lecture delivered by Judah A. Joffe in January 1947 at the twenty-first annual conference of the Yiddish Scientific Institute.[iv]

By comparing close on two thousand thymes in Iyoon Yitschok, a collection of adages, maxims and proverbs gleaned from Hebrew and Aramaic sources and translated into Yiddish circa 1734, he was able to show that a Polish dialect had formed in Eastern Yiddish in which oo had become i (for instance, Yiddish kehille “congregation rhymed with gedille “greatness” – Heb. kehillah, gedullah; Yiddish kinnder “children” rhymed with bezinnder “separately” – Middle High German kinder, besunder). This was a break-through, but not enough in itself. It remained to find evidence, if possible, of Eastern Yiddish o diverging to oo in a Polish dialect. In his lecture Joffe went on to describe how, some thirty-five years previously, he had conceived the idea of utilising historical records in a Slavic language dealing with Yiddish (=Jewish) names. “I obtained the bulky Bondy-Dworsky book, but … all the Jewish names were given in the records (many in German, mostly in Slavic) in their classical, or biblical, form, and remained standard (or well-nigh invariable) throughout the two volumes. Though checked I did not give up and sought to secure a similar book (in Russian) of Registers and Records, municipal, administrative, juridical documents and decrees in South Russia, Lithuania, Poland and White Russia. I procured Vol. I (until 1670) of the three volumes published. This contained mere crumbs.” (Vol. II was little more helpful.)

“For twenty years I sought Vol. III (1740-1799) and on Thursday January 16th 1947 – six days before my paper was to be read – a good friend Dr Isaac Rivkind, assistant librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, finally unearthed the volume we had been looking for. In this treasured book I found what I had been hoping to find for twenty years. It had 64 Jewish names with u (-oo/ooh) instead of the a and o invariably used in the first two volumes: the earliest (1746) was Nuson (Nathan), Duvid (8 times), Srul (6 times 1761, 1763) Usher (5 times 1765) Shulim (5 times 1751, 1758, 1765), Shulimovic (1765 in all 8 times).”

Altogether Joffe lists 64 Southern (Kiev, Zhitomir, Bratslav, Kaminets-Podolsk, Kremenets, etc.) names in which “the proof of the pronunciation in the letter y (= u =oo/ooh) is irrefutable, and the co-temporary rhymes in Iyoon Yitschok settle the date of the formation of the Polish-Ukrainian dialect at the fourth decade of the eighteenth century.”

Polish Yiddish then, it is true, phonologically at any rate, represents a divergence from the previously existing standard. A moment’s reflection, however, will show that a divergent pronunciation is not necessarily inferior to an existing standard pronunciation, and may indeed in course of time itself become standard, leaving the previous standard pronunciation to become obsolete or dialectal, It is English Summer has come (summer ez kum) which, if anything, is now “standard”; soommer ez koom is Northern English.

Polish Yiddish is no more to be regarded as “inferior” because dehr zimmer iz gekimmen deviated from the existing Eastern Yiddish dehr zoomer is gekoommen (which is still the Lithuanian pronunciation), than Standard Modern German (der Sommer ist gekommen) is to be regarded as “inferior” to Middle High German dër summer ist komen. A Polish frimmer yeet is neither a better nor a worse Jew than a Lithuanian froommer yeet, simply because frim diverged from Eastern Yiddish froom, just as, in its time, Modern Standard German fromm diverged from Middle High German vrum. (The ee vowel in Lithuanian as well as Polish Yiddish yeet derives from the modified u in Middle High German jüde “Jew”.

One wouldn’t have made such heavy weather of all this had the Litvacks been content to claim parity of esteem for their own dialect; it is the assumption of superiority that provokes a counter-offensive – cet animal n’est pas méchant … As it is, I think that as far as “official” Anglo-Jewish terminology is concerned, the Litvacks must be left in possession of the field. Khvill zekh misht aan’ shpaaren. I don’t want to dig my heels in (German sich einsperren “to lock oneself in”.) “Shool” magazines – all right (but not, please, the hybrid shul) – though my Polish-Jewish forbears went to sheel. Publish “yohrtseit”s in your shool magazines – but not, please, the Germanised but non-German “jahrzeit” or “yahrzeit”.  En zaat(s) (German seid) mer gezinnt’ (Chapter 4, vi). And good-day to you, Sir!

Perhaps the last word may be left to the late Daniel Jones, Professor Emeritus of Phonetics in the University of London. “And finally a new attitude was adopted in regard to the much discussed subject of standard pronunciation. This was because I found, as I still find, that it can no longer be said that any standard exists, nor do I think it desirable to establish one.” [v] That must go, surely, for Yiddish, too.

[i] S. Birnbaum, Das Hebrӓische und Aramӓische Element in der Jiddischen Sprache, Leipzig, 1922, p.12.

[ii] See, e.g. The Field of Yiddish, 1965: Pavel Trost, “Yiddish in Bohemia and Moravia, the Vowel Question,” pp. 87-91; Paul L. Garvin, “The Dialect Geography of Hungarian Yiddish,” pp 116-146; Florence Guggenheim-Grünberg, “Place Names in Swiss Yiddish,” pp 147-157.

[iii] Un Enter mikoiekh mane trunskriptsee’es (“A Rejoinder concerning my transcriptions”), Yiddishe Shprakh, vol. vii, 1947, pp. 29-36.

[iv] “Dating the Origin of Yiddish Dialects”, The Field of Yiddish, 1954, pp.102-121.

[v] Preface to 4th ed. of The Pronunciation of English, C.U.P., 1967