“Yiddish” is an emotive word. To many “Anglo-Saxon” Jews it stands for the name of a detestable language, if indeed they would concede to Yiddish the dignity of a language. To them it is simply “jargon”, “just bad German, ungrammatical, debased, corrupt German.”
At the opposite extreme are those Yiddish enthusiasts, often with a knowledge of Yiddish as scanty as that of its snooty detractors, who “go all gooey” at the mere sound of the word “Yiddish”. For these, Yiddish is “so expressive”, “so comic”, “so quaint”. I mean: gehukt’ene tsoohriss, gey in drehrt. Ah yes, where would be we without our “chopped up troubles” (= “acute misery”) our “Go in the earth” (= “Get lost, get knotted” ) – themselves not unquaint.
Well, Yiddish can be comic and quaint. So can English, French, German, Hebrew and, I suspect, Gujarati. But there is nothing quaint about a Yiddish translation of Isaiah, or about the tkhinnes, the Yiddish prayers written for women as a complement to the standard Hebrew liturgy. Anyway, quaintness is not all.
In this book, I have tried to analyse the various strands: German, Hebrew-Aramaic, Polish-Russian, that have gone into the making of Yiddish. I try to bring out the strength of the Hebrew element and to show that the German element is not bad or corrupt German, but normal Middle High German, or normally developed Middle High German, and that where it is “bad” German, it does not matter. (Good American English does not have to be good British English, good Flemish or Afrikaans Dutch does not have to be good Netherlands Dutch, good Jewish-German, which is what Yiddish basically is, Jüdisch-Deutsch, or ivvre taatch, Hebrew German, does not have to be good Teutonic German).
This is the first linguistically oriented book on the Yiddish language as a whole, as opposed to monographs on specific aspects of Yiddish linguistics, to be written in English. In fact, it is the first such book in any language, with the exception of the late Max Weinreich’s Geshikhte fun der Yiddishisher Shprakh (“History of the Yiddish Language”), New York, Yivo, 1973. It is fair to say that this brilliant four-volume work is accessible to only a small minority of those interested in Yiddish, and this will hold good also for the English translation which has been commissioned, but which has yet to appear. Leo Rosten’s admirable The Joys of Yiddish and Lillian Mermin Feinsilver’s no less admirable The Taste of Yiddish do not indicate in any systematic manner the provenance of the basic Yiddish lexis or survey the language in any of its philological aspects.
The Yiddish recorded in this book is that spoken by my mother, mumme loohshen. In the few instances where this deviates, or seems to deviate, from “printed” Yiddish I still record what I heard my mother speak. In putting together, painfully at first, the Hebrew graphemes in the pages of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz it was with the shock of surprise that I found them forming words and phrases familiar to me from my mother’s speech. I had been so conditioned to regarding Yiddish as a “jargon” (my mother herself referred to it, unscientifically, as a zhaargohn’) that the cachet of the printed word I found bestowed on it caught me unawares.
The restriction of the Yiddish lexical material recorded in this book to the “Yiddish my mother taught me” strengthens some of the contentions advanced in it. Thus, in stressing the importance of the Hebrew elements in Yiddish, I adduce only the Hebrew words and phrases I can recall actually hearing from my mother, (my father, also a native of Zbaraz, died when I was twelve, but even before that his illness was such that he was able to speak very little to me, and I recall almost nothing of what he said. For reasons which are discussed later I have no doubt his Yiddish would have been much more Hebraic than my mother’s) not the hundreds more that can be encountered in Yiddish literature and that are listed by I. H. Taviov at the end of his monograph (Hebrew) “The Hebrew Elements in Yiddish” (in Writings of I.H Taviov, Berlin 1923, pp 214-278). When I write in praise of Yiddish proverbs I quote only those I heard from my mother; I have not just picked out those I fancied from the thousands in Bernstein’s collection. In discussing the Slav elements in Yiddish I omit the great majority of words recorded by Taviov in his “The Slav Elements in Yiddish” (op. cit.), since I do not remember my mother ever using them. This is not to say that these Polish-Russian components of Yiddish may not have been part of my mother’s active vocabulary, nor that they are not an integral part of normal Yiddish; simply that, with insignificant exceptions, nearly all of which I have moreover indicated ad loc; I have written down only what I can remember having heard spoken naturally by my mother.
Whatever can be said about the Yiddish recorded in these pages, the reader can rest assured that it is not factitious. I would claim it to be normal, authentic (not Standard) Yiddish. “Standard” Yiddish was laid down by Yivo, the Yiddish Scientific Institute of New York, too late, alas; after the Holocaust. The slaughter of millions of virtually unilingual Yiddish speakers, together with the loss by natural causes of millions of Jews in the USA and the USSR who spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue, meant that those who could have been expected to adopt a “Standard” Yiddish were a fraction of those who had spoken it for generations previously without benefit of “standards”.