1. Introductory

Before movies became talkies a film called His People was shown in London to predominantly Jewish audiences. I cannot recall the story in detail, but it had a “Cohen and Kelly” background, the “Cohen” in this case having – almost – brought down his father’s grey hairs with sorrow to the grave by falling in love with the comely colleen next door. The father is shown resigning himself to the will of God, and a “live” singer, to an accompaniment of unrestrained sniffing and sobbing from the audience, points the moral:

Gott in zaan mishpet iz gerekht’,

Me toohr keynmoohl nit[i] zooghen uzz Gott iz shlekht,

Gott veyst voohss ehr teet,

Imzist shtrooft ehr keynem nit,

Gott in zaan mishpet iz gerekht’.

“God is righteous in his judgement,

We must never say that God is bad,

God knows what He does,

He punishes no one without cause,

God is righteous in His judgement.”

Powerful stuff, but I am less concerned to discuss its emotional impact than its philological features. It so happens that all the words of the Yiddish song are German in origin except two: mishpet, Hebrew mishpat “judgement”, and uzz, Polish az “that” (relative conjunction). One, however, toohr “must”, is no longer used in Modern German, the “Middle High German” turren “to dare” (the two words are cognate) being replaced by wagen or dürfen. For another, keynmoohl “never”, German keinmal, the more usual German word is niemals, and for keynem “no-one”, German keinen, Standard German has niemand. These examples illustrate the fact that in many cases where a Yiddish word cannot at first sight be “correctly” linked with a Modern German counterpart, this is not because Yiddish is “bad” Modern, Standard German (New High German), but because it is frequently sound “Middle High German” – with or without allowance for Yiddish sound shifts and morphological changes – or archaic New High German.

It will be as well at this stage to define the terms “Middle High German” and “New High German”. “High German” is the name given to the German dialects spoken south of a line (the Benrath line) running West to East from Aachen through Benrath, Düsseldorf, Kassel and Magdeburg to Birnbaum near the Warthe. (Priebsch and Collinson, The German Language, 2nd ed; London: Faber, 1946, p110 and inset map of German dialects.) The High German dialects are divided into Upper German, including Bavarian and Austrian, and Middle German. Owing largely to the influence of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) the East Middle German dialect became the basis of Modern Standard German (New High German,) throughout the whole of what is now West and East Germany and Austria. “Low German” is the name given to the German dialects north of the Benrath line, including Low Saxon spoken in Westphalia, Frisian in the region of Schleswig Holstein, and Low Franconian in present-day Holland.

“New High German” is taken as starting roughly in 1500; the German dialects south of the Benrath line from roughly 750 to 1500 are designated “Middle High German”. When giving Yiddish-German correspondences the Standard German (New High German or German) forms will be cited, as being more meaningful to the general reader, but Middle High German forms will be referred to wherever necessary to account for the phonological, morphological or semasiological divergences of Yiddish from Standard German. It should be noted that there is no “Standard” Middle High German, as there is a Standard New High German. A Middle High German word may vary in spelling, and the variations will often reflect differences in pronunciation. Thus Middle High German eninkel “grandchild”, appears also as enenkel, enikel and enkelinc. In such cases where only one Middle High German form is quoted, it is that which shows most clearly the connection with the Yiddish – in this instance enikel, Yiddish ey’nikel, New High German Enkel.

2 Phonology: 1

The Yiddish corresponding to the Standard German words mein(s), deins, sein(s),Eis, Eisen, fein, Wein “my (mine)”, “thy (thine)”, “his”, “ice”, “iron”, “fine”, “wine”, is maan(ss), dan(ss), zaan(ss), aass, aazzen, faan, vaan (rhyming with German Hahn). The Yiddish for German Bein “leg”, Ei “egg”, Fleisch “meat”, rein “clean”, weinen “to weep”, and nein “no”, is beyn (meaning “bone”, as does Middle High German bein), ey, fleysh, reyn, veynen and neyn (rhyming with English vain). Why the different pronunciation of the same Standard German ei sound? Be-cau-ause (this is the best I can do to indicate the Talmudic sing-song used in answering a self-propounded question) maan, daan, zaan, aass, aazen, faan, vaan are from Middle High German mîn, dîn, sîn, îs, îsen, fîn,wîn (monophthongs), whereas beyn, ey, fleysh, reyn, veynen and neyn are from late Middle High German bein, ei, fleisch, rein, weinen, nein, when dipthongisation had begun to set in, the ei being pronounced not as in Modern German (rein pronounced as English Rhine), but as in English rain. It is for this reason that German Scheitel, Middle High German scheitel “crown of the head”, is sheytel in Yiddish (with the meaning “wig”, German Perücke). Ultra-Orthodox women wore sheytels over their shaven heads in compliance (?) with the Talmudic prohibition on women showing hair; neo-ultra-Orthodox wear a fetcheylle (Chapter VI) over their own hair.

Most Yiddish counterparts of German ei words are vaan words, that is to say their pronunciation is based on the older Middle High German forms with monophthongal î. Examples (Yiddish, German, English): faant, Feind “enemy”; laap, Leib “body”; vaap, Weib “woman”; glaakh, gleich “like”; raakh, reich “rich”; vaass, weiss “white”; blaaben, bleiben “to stay”; laan, leihen “to lend”; maaden, meiden “to avoid”; raaben, reiben “to rub”; shpaan, speien “to spit”; shraann, shreien “to shout”; shraaben, schreiben “to write”; traaben, treiben “to drive”; zaan, sein “to be”.

The guttural pronunciation (as in German ach, Scottish loch) of Yiddish kh follows the Middle High German pronunciation, which was always guttural, never palatal as in Modern German lächeln, brechen, ich. (Modern Swiss German, too, retains the ach sound of ch in all positions.) The guttural ch is retained in Yiddish even where it is replaced by (silent) h in German: Yiddish Hekher, German höher “higher”.

The initial German sh sound before p and t, as in German Stehen, Yiddish shteyen “to stand”, is retained even medially and finally in Yiddish before t and after r, again a usage which finds a parallel in Modern Swiss German (Schwyzertütsch). German erste, Wurst; Yiddish Ehrshte, voohrsht “first”, “sausage”, with the st  pronounced in the German words as in English last, burst.

Sometimes the effect of the Yiddish word being transcribed in Hebrew characters was to create ambivalence in pronunciation. For example, the Middle High German prefix ver, as in Middle High German verstên, German Verstehen (the v pronounced as English f) was sometimes rendered by the Hebrew letters feh, ayin, resh, sometimes feh, alef, resh leading to the word being pronounced both fehrshteyen and faarshteyen in Yiddish, the alef being more readily associated with the sound of the vowel patach than with the sound of the vowel segol.

Moreover, neither the Hebrew alphabet not the Hebrew vowel signs were capable of reproducing the ö and ü “Umlaut” sounds, hence approximations were used and even if the modified (“Umlaut”) vowels were pronounced as such by Jews in the Middle High German period, with the advent of printed Yiddish texts the “approximations” would have ousted the “modifications”. Thus yud represented both short and long ü respectively in German Füllen “to fill”, and fühlen “to feel”, Yiddish fillen, feelen. Ayin stood for both short ö and short open e as in German Löffel (but Middle High German leffel as well as löffel “spoon”), Yiddish leffel, and German besser “better”, Yiddish besser. Short and long ä, as in German Äpfel “apples”, Yiddish eppel and sich schämen “to be ashamed”, Yiddish sheymen zekh, are homophonous with short and long e as in German Bett “bed”, Yiddish bett, and Mehl “flour”, Yiddish meyl – in Mehl the h is purely orthographic – so no problem arose; ayin did duty for them all. For German long ö see infra.

We can now proceed to give examples of Yiddish-German phonological correspondences, referring to Middle High German where this may be of help in accounting for phonological differences between Yiddish words and their New High German (New High German = Standard Modern German) equivalents. Attention is drawn to the need for a careful study of the “Note on Transcription” at the beginning of the book!

The short ä in German Bäcker “baker”, has the same sound in Yiddish: bekker. Yiddish has this sound, too, for the short ö as in the German plural Köpfe “heads”, Löcher “holes”, and Töpfe “pots”, Yiddish kepp, lecher, tepp.

The long ä, as in German Verschämt “humiliated”, is dipthongised, as in English they: Yiddish fehrsheymt. Long ö, approximated perforce by the Hebrew letters ayin, heh, is also ey: German Schön “beautiful”, fröhlich “merry”; Yiddish sheyn, freylekh. For short ü Yiddish has i: German Schlüssel “key”, Schüssel “basin”; Yiddish shlissel, shissel. German long ü is represented by ee: German Brüder “brothers”, Yiddish breeder.

German short a is represented by the same sound in Yiddish, as in German backen “to bake”, lachen “to laugh”, machen “to make”, passen “to be suitable”, wachen “to watch over”, Nacht “night”, and Sache “thing”; Yiddish bucken, lukhen, mukhen, pussen, vukhen, nukht, zukh. The German combination ar (short a), too, gives the same sound in Yiddish: German hart “hard”, stark “strong”, sich erbarmen “to have pity on”, and warten “to wait” are Yiddish haart, shtaark, dehrbaarmen zekh and vaarten. Exceptions: German Garten “garden”, and Karten “cards” are Yiddish goohrten, koohrten. Also, German das (neuter definite article) and was “what” are Yiddish doohss, voohss, and German Stadt “town” is Yiddish shtooht.

Long a, as in bewahren “to protect”,  blasen “to blow”, fahren “to travel”, raten “to guess”, sparen “to save”, Bart “beard”, Glas “glass”, Gras “grass”, Haar “hair”, Jahr “year”, Nadel “needle”, Paar “pair”, ein paar “a few”, Nase “nose”, gar “quite, entirely”, and gewahr “aware” is ooh (long) in Yiddish. Of these, bewahren, blasen, raten, Haar, Jahr, Nadel and Paar, ein paar, had the long a in Middle High German. Yiddish: bevoohren, bloohzen, foohren, roohten, shpoohren, boohrt, gloohss, groohss, hoohr, yoohr, noohdel, poohr, u poohr, noohz, goohr, gevoohr.

The long a in German haben “to have”, jagen “to hunt”, klagen “to lament”, sagen “to say”, schlagen “to strike”, tragen “to carry”, Nagel “nail”, Namen “name”, Tag “day”, and Wagen “cart”, is short oo in Yiddish, corresponding to the short a in the Middle High German pronunciation of these words: oobben, yooghen (“to rush, hurry”), klooghen, zooghen, shlooghen, trooghen, nooghel, noommen, toog/took, vooghen. The a in aber “but”, which is long in New High German but short in Middle High German is short o in Yiddish: obber; ja “yes”, which is usually long in both Middle High German and New High German, similarly has short o in Yiddish: yo. German nach “after”, with long vowel both in Middle High German and New High German, is nookh in Yiddish, with short vowel. Yiddish seems to have followed New High German in shortening the long a in Middle High German lâzen “to leave, let”: German lassen, Yiddish lozzen, and to have gone its own way in shortening the long a in both Middle High German slâfen and New High German schlafen “to sleep”: Yiddish shlooffen.

The Middle High German noun schade (short a), German Schaden (long) “damage”, becomes shoohden (long vowel) in Yiddish, but the Yiddish verb shutten “to damage”, retains the short vowel of the Middle High German verb schaden (New High German schaden, with long vowel), the t of the Yiddish infinitive levelling with the third person singular present, schat, of the Middle High German verb. The New High German loan-word (from Italian spasso) Spass (long vowel) “fun, joke”, is shpuss in Yiddish (short vowel, rhyming with English fuss). Yiddish (dehr)vaaghen “to dare”, follows phonetically Middle High German wâgen and New High German wagen (in both of which the a is long). Yiddish freyghen “to ask”, New High German fragen, follows the Middle High German forms vrëgen/vrêgen.

Short e in German is represented by the same sound in Yiddish. German Bett, Yiddish bett “bed”; German schlecht, Yiddish shlekht “bad”; German wetten, Yiddish vetten “to bet”. The German er sound is similarly pronounced in Yiddish: German er “he”, der “the”, Erde “earth”, wer “who”, werden “to become”, wert “worth”: Yiddish her, dehr, ehrt, vehr, vehren (Chapter I), vehrt. But German Berg “mountain”, Herr “lord”, Herz “heart”, fertig “ready, finished”, sterben “to die”, werfen “to throw”, are Yiddish baarg, haar, haarts, faartik, shtaarben, vaarfen. Similarly Yiddish oohn’shpaaren zekh “to hold on to, lean against”, and aan’shpaaren zekh “to be stubborn”, from German sperren “to bar, barricade”.

German long e becomes in Yiddish the dipthong ey: lessen “to read”, Mehl “flour”: Yiddish leyzen, meyl. In Yiddish geveyn‘ “been”, there is syncope of the s in German gewesen. In Yiddish gibben, German geben “to give”, the short i has been levelled with the short i in the present tense ich gibe, etc., of the Middle High German gëben. The short e in Yiddish nemmen “to take”, corresponds to the short vowel in Middle High German nëmen; in New High German nehmen the vowel is long.

Usually there is complete equivalence of Yiddish and German short i: German Bissen “mouthful”, Kissen “cushion”, sitzen “to sit”, wischen “to wipe”, zerrissen “torn”: Yiddish bissen, kishen, zitsen, tserissen. However, German Licht “light” (noun) is lekht (Middle High German lieht), and German bringen “to bring”, is brennghen, following the Middle High German form brengen. The corresponding Yiddish forms of the German pronouns ich, mich, dich, sich, “I, me, thee, himself, herself, themselves”, have lengthened the short German i: eekh, meekh, deekh, zeekh, but in the unstressed positions these words become ekh, mekh, dekh, zekh (murmur vowel). Eekh/ekh frequently undergoes aphesis: khob (German ich habe) “I have”, khveyss (German ich weiss) “I know”. For the murmur vowel compare English “Give us the tools”, in which the vowel in us has the weak murmur sound, and “Give us the tools, not them”, in which the u has its full value. For the aphesis compare English fence, from Middle English defence.

There is similar equivalence of long i. German giessen “to pour”, niesen “to sneeze”, spielen “to play”, verdriessen “to annoy”, Frieden “peace”, tief “deep”: Yiddish geesen, neessen, shpeelen, fehrdreessen, freeden, teef. In shpeelen, freeden, Yiddish has developed pari passu with the New High German forms; in Middle High German the i was short: spiln, vride. But Yiddish lighen “to lie (down)”, zibben “seven”, and im “to him”, stuck to the short i of Middle High German ligen, siben, im; New High German liegen, sieben, ihm (long i). The i in Yiddish krig “war”, krighen “to get”, is short perhaps by analogy; German Kreig, kriegen. In the Yiddish past participles gelighen, geribben, geshribben “lent”, “rubbed”, “written”, the i is short following Middle High German geligen, geriben, geschriben; New High German geliegen, geribben, geschrieben.

Short German o is i in Yiddish fin “from”, German von. Yiddish imzist’ “for nothing, gratis”, German umsonst is from Middle High German umbe sust and Yiddish trikken “any”, German trocken is from Middle High German trucken. In German Kopf “head”, Loch “hole”, Topf “pot”, Woche “week”, kochen “to cook”, gebrochen “broken”, gestochen “pricked”, the o retains its German homophonous sound in Yiddish: kop, lokh, top, vokh, kokhen, gebrokhen, geshtokhen. Long German o is oi in Yiddish: German Brot “bread”, hoch “high”, rot “red”, schon “already”, so “so”, tot “dead”, become Yiddish broit, hoikh, roit, shoin, uzzoi, toit. An exception is Yiddish odder “or”, which retains the short o of Middle High German oder, New High German oder.

Both short and long German u are represented by i in Yiddish. German Kuss “kiss”, Mutter “mother”, Nuss “nut”, (all short u) are Yiddish kish, mitter, niss. Blut “blood”, genug “enough”, gut “good”, Hut “hat”, (long u): Yiddish blit, genik’, git, hit. But the long vowels in German Bruder “brother”, Fuss “foot”, Gruss “greeting”, rufen “to call”, suchen “to look for”, versuchan “to try” are long in Yiddish, too: breeder, feess, greess, reefen, zeekhen, fehrzeekhen. German kurz “short” (short vowel) is Yiddish kehrts [ii] and German Schmutz, schmutzig “dirt”, “dirty” retain the short value of the German vowel: shmoots, shmootsik.

Taking the dipthongs, German au is Yiddish oi as in oif  “on”, German auf. When fused with the definite article oif becomes uff: uffen tish = oif deym tish = German auf dem Tisch “on the table”. It can be reduced still further to ef: ef tselookhiss “on purpose to annoy” (ef is part of a double tautology, Chapter III, 1). Other examples: German Bauch “belly”, Baum “tree”, taub “deaf”, kaufen “to buy”, laufen “to run”, rauchen “to smoke”: Yiddish boikh (sometimes pronounced by my mother bohkh), boim, toip, koifen, loifen, roikhen. My mother said hohss, not hoiz, for German Haus “house”, mohss for German Maus “mouse”, fohl, German faul “lazy”, and vacillated between ohss and oiss for German aus “out of”, and arohss and eroiss for German heraus “out” (adv.). She pronounced drohssen, lohter; German draussen “outside”, lauter “nothing but”.

Yiddish okh is “also”, from Middle High German ôch (New High German auch). It will be convenient to anticipate the chapters on morphology and semasiology by mentioning here that there is a variant paragogic form ohkhit, and that ohkh/ohkhit is frequently used in an ironic sense not occurring in German, e.g.ohkh/ohkhit mer (German mir “ethic dative”) u meyven (Chapter III, 3) = “Some expert!” Ohkhit mer u mentsh,That pipsqueak”.

Yiddish aa corresponds to the German homophones eu and äu: Yiddish fraant “friend”, laat “people”, daatch “German”, naan “nine”, haazer “houses”; German Freund, Leute, deutsch, neun, Häuser.But Yiddish zifts, ziftsen “sigh” (noun, verb), German seufzen, from Middle High German siufzen. In German neu “new”, and in other German words before and after r, the eu is Yiddish ai: German euer “your”, Feuer “fire”, teuer “dear, getreu “faithful”: Yiddish nai, aier, faier, taier, getrai. Yiddish haant “today”, German heute, is from Middle High German hînaht meaning  “this evening”. (But see section 4 below)

The Yiddish correspondences to German ei have already been discussed (section 1); Yiddish eraan’ “in here, hither”, German herein, is a vaan word, from Middle High German her and în. German ie is a monophthong, the orthographical representation of long i.

German Freude “joy”, is Yiddish freyt and “to be pleased, look forward to”, German sich freun is Yiddish freyen zekh, the pronunciation by analogy with Yiddish freylekh “merry” (above). Again anticipating, this time the chapter on “Proverbs and Sayings“, the contrariness of life is expressed in Venn freyt sech (the z of zech is devoiced to s by “progressive assimilation” to the unvoiced t of freyt) u yeet? Uzz her ot tsvey khussenes. “When does a Jew rejoice? When he has two weddings”, Hebrew chatunnot (and being able to attend only one, loses the pleasure he could have derived from the other). “Please avoid clashing” as “functions” organisers constantly entreat their opposite numbers.

Yiddish apocopated the murmur vowel in a number of German nouns: biks “rifle”, laat “people”, shpraakh “language”, vokh “week”, yeet “Jew”, zin “sun”: German Büchse, Leute, Sprache, Woche, Jude, Sonne, and reduced the final vowel in others, such as German Handtuch, Tischtuch “towel”, “tablecloth”, Yiddish huntekh, tishtekh; German Montag, Dienstag “Monday”, “Tuesday”, Yiddish moohntik, deenstik, etc. (German Mittwoch “Wednesday”, Yiddish mitvekh). Per contra, it inserted a “svarabhakti” or secondary vowel in oohrem “poor”, Middle High German and New High German arm; vaarem “warm”, Middle High German and New High German warm; finnif “five”, Middle High German vünf, New High German fünf; and retained the secondary vowel in Middle High German milich, German Milch, Yiddish millekh (My mother’s pronunciation; the dictionaries give milkh) “milk”, and Middle High German nacket, New High German nackt, Yiddish nakket/nakkit “naked”. The secondary vowels in Yiddish ellif, tsvellif “eleven”, “twelve”, occur in Middle High German einlif, zwelif, German elf, zwölf. Yiddish eynikel “grandchild”, German Enkel, is from Middle High German enikel. Yiddish effenen “to open”, and reyghenen “to rain”, retain the secondary vowel in Middle High German offenen and rëgenen; German öffnen, regnen.

3. Phonology: 2

The differences between Yiddish and Standard German consonants are less marked than those between the vowels. The voiced consonants lose their voiced quality in the final position in both languages. Initially and medially these consonants are voiced, as in Middle High German and New High German. Initially Yiddish beekh “book”, German Buch; brekken “to break”, German brechen; dik “thick”, German dick; din “thin”, German dünn; glik “happiness”, German Glück. But sometimes the Middle High German voiced stops b,d,g are devoiced initially in Yiddish, attributable to the fact that in certain Southern and Middle German dialects the distinction between voiced and voiceless (p,t,k) stops is blurred. [iii] Examples: Yiddish pitter, Middle High German buter, New High German Butter “butter”, Yiddish poh’er (Middle High German gebûr) New High German Bauer “oaf, lout”; tinkel, Middle High German tunkel/dunkel, New High German dunkel “dark” (of colour); keyghen, Middle High German, New High German gegen “against”; Yiddish ken, “to”, used in conjunction with foohren, German fahren “to travel”. Her foohrt ken umehrikke “He’s going to America”. Compare the archaic German gen in Wir fahren gen England “We’re going to England”, a jingoistic poem of the First World War. German initial p,t,k retain their voiceless quality: Yiddish kleyn “small”, treffen “to meet”, pinkt “exactly”; German klein, treffen, punkt.

Examples of medial voiced stops are Yiddish vaaber “women”, German Weiber; shraaben “to write”, German schreiben (but gooppel “fork”, German gabel). German d is syncopated in the combination nden: gefinnen “to find”, German finden; oohn’tsinnen “to light, kindle”, German (an)zünden; tsee’binnen “to tie”, German zubinden; geshtunnen “stood” (past participle), German gestanden; fehrshtunnen “understood”, German verstanden. Similarly d is syncopated in vehren “to become”, German werden; gevorren (past participle), German geworden. Yiddish ohss’enveynik “by heart”, evolved from Middle High German ûzwendic, New High German auswendig, the epenthesis influenced by Middle High German ûzen = Middle High German ûz = New High German aus “out, from”.

Yiddish and German f are pronounced alike in all positions: Yiddish faan “fine”, German fein; Yiddish breef “letter”, German Brief; Yiddish zeyf “soap”, German Seife; Yiddish loifen “to run”, German laufen. Yiddish has f initially for the New High German and Middle High German affricate pf: fehrt “horse”, flomm “plum”; German Pferd, Pflaume; and p for the German medial and final affricate: Yiddish eppel “apple”, kop “head”, top “pot”, kloppen “to knock”; German Apfel, Kopf, Topf, klopfen.

German j is represented in our transcription by y as in yes, and has the same sound: Yiddish yink “young”, German jung; Yiddish yo “yes”, German ja. German l, m, n have the same sound in Yiddish: Yiddish leeben “to love”, German lieben; Yiddish mitte “middle”, German Mitte; Yiddish nukht “night”, German Nacht. Medially, Yiddish moohlen “to grind”, German mahlen; Yiddish noommen “name”, German Namen; Yiddish zindighen “to sin”, German sündigen. Finally, Yiddish voil “well” (Siz im voil, “He’s doing well”), German wohl; Yiddish frim/from “pious”, German fromm; Yiddish mun “man”, German Mann. Yiddish beyzem, boidem, fodem “broom”, “attic”, “thread”, German Besen, Boden, Faden, retained the final m of Middle High German bësem, bodem, vadem. Yiddish trehr “tear” (lacrima), German Träne is from Middle High German treher. The Middle High German and New High German negative prefix un– becomes im- . Yiddish imglik “misfortune”, Middle High German unglücke, New High German Unglück; Yiddish im’gezinnt “unhealthy”, Middle High German ungesunt, New High German ungesund; Yiddish im’koovit “dishonour”, from un– and Hebrew kavod “honour”. “Regressive dissimilation” occurs in zumt “sand”, German Sand. In Yiddish ley’bbedik “lively, alive”, there is syncope of the n in Middle High German lëbendic (and the Yiddish, like the Middle High German, has initial stress; New High German lebendig has penultimate stress).

Yiddish r always corresponds to German r. (Pace Uriel Weinreich – who says in College Yiddish, 4th ed., N.Y 1965, p.21, that the Yiddish r must not be skipped or weakened in any position, my admittedly untrained phonetical ear has never been able to detect any other than a weak r in the er termination in English, German or Yiddish.) Yiddish roit “red”, German rot; broit “bread”, German Brot; foren “to travel”, German fahren; vehr “who”, German wer; foohter “father” German Vater.

Voiceless and voiced s have as a rule the same respective qualities as their German  counterparts: Yiddish raassen “to tear”, German reissen; Yiddish vissen “to know”, German wissen (voiceless s as in English bliss), zukh “thing”, German Sache (voiced s as in English rose). But Yiddish lozzen “to let, leave”, German lassen; Yiddish mizzen “to must”, German müssen. The voiceless s in German Kissen “cushion”, Middle High German küssen (from French coussin) and küssen “to kiss”, became sh: Yiddish kishen (both meanings). Similarly with the final -s in German anders “otherwise”, Kuss “kiss”, and in the ending -nis, as in Begräbnis “burial”: Yiddish undersh, kish, begrebb’enish.

In our transcription t represents German t and final d, both voiceless: Yiddish toit “dead”, German tot and “death”, German Tod; bot “bath”, German Bad. In the word ivvre-taatch “Hebraeo-German” = Yiddish (ivvre from Hebrew ivri, “Hebrew”), the Yiddish word retained the earlier t in Middle High German tiutsch, which eventually gave way to deutsch “German”. Ibb’ertaatchen = überdeutschen = “to translate into Yiddish”. But for “German” itself Yiddish has the d of deutsch: daatch.

German w has the sound of English v while German v has the voiceless English f sound, hence German w and v, as they appear in Yiddish words of German origin, are represented in our transcription by v and f respectively. Examples: Yiddish voohss “what”, German was; voinen “to live, dwell”, German wohnen; fehrzin’dighen “to commit a sin”, German versündigen; fehrfull’en (past participle rhyming with English sullen) “gone for a Burton”, German verfallen. Emphatically faar’fall’en. Kennst tsvey fey (Hebrew letter feh) deroff zetsen “You can put two feh’s on it; one for the faar and the other for the fullen” = “You can say good-bye to it for good”. Yiddish oiven “oven”, German Ofen, and Yiddish bohrviss “barefoot”, German barfuss, retain the voiced v of Middle High German oven and barvuoz. The affricate German z (and initial Middle High German z) is retained in Yiddish: Yiddish tsaat “time”, German Zeit; Yiddish betsoohlen “to pay”, German bezahlen.

Except in very common adverbs e.g. eraan, erim, eroif/eroff, eroiss/erohss,eroop, German herein, herum, herauf, heraus, herab “in”, “around”, “up”, “out”, “down”, Yiddish retained the Middle High German and New High German aspirate: hinnt, holts, hunt, German Hund, Holz, Hand “dog”, “wood”, “hand”. And except that my mother never pronounced any aspirate in oobben “to have”, German haben, or any of its parts (Voohssoss’te gezookt’? German Was hast du gesagt “What did you say?”). But for the neo-Yiddishists who are careful to say hoobben  and “Voohss hosst dee gezookt?” – “Khob tse zey goohrnisht“, “I have nothing to (=”against”) them”. Let them aspirate gezinntereyt’, or as they would say, gezinnterheyt’. By all means, don’t let me stop them.

4. Morphology and Syntax: 1

Miss Molly Picon, the gifted Yiddish comedienne, was wont to refute the calumny that Yiddish had no “grammar” by referring to the formation of the Yiddish comparative and superlative: “Hoikh“, she said, “tall”,  hekher “taller”, u d-r-ronk (Polish drag “pole”) “tallest”. Sheyn “beautiful”, shenner “more beautiful”, pish-pish-pish! Meess “ugly”, meesser “uglier”, U shennere begrooptmen in drehrt“, “A greater beauty would be inhumed”.

The fact is that if by “grammar” we mean inflection, changes in the form of given words arising from their function in the sentence or from their relationship to other words within it, then Yiddish, while less “grammatical” than German or Polish or Finnish, is more so than English.The language of Shakespeare is so “ungrammatical” that it does not distinguish between the head, the hand and the eye, whereas Yiddish, taking over the three genders from Middle High German, has der kop, dee hunt, doohs oik; German der Kopf, die Hand, das Auge.

No doubt many people spoke and wrote ungrammatical Yiddish, but then many people speak and write ungrammatical English. Most Englishmen cannot distinguish between “to lie” and “to lay” – “I was laying down, when…” – and are shaky when it comes to ringing the changes on “rung” and “rang”, “sung” and “sang”. Je n’accuse pas, je constate seulement.

Yiddish, then, dropped many of the inflexions of Middle High German and New High German, reducing the nine forms of the Middle High German indefinite article, for example, to two only: u before a consonant, and un before a vowel (compare English a/an): u benaanne in un eppel ” a banana and an apple”, German eine Banane und ein Apfel. In the Viennese German dialect, too, the indefinite article is a/an, all cases, genders. The definite article, however, still had four different forms, compared with Middle High German nine. As a separately inflected form the genitive sank without trace: Yiddish doohss (nominative) kinnt shpeelt, doohss (genitive) kinnts beekh, “the child plays”, “the child’s book”, German das Kind spielt, des Kindes Buch, while the accusative singular masculine was levelled with the dative: Nemm dem (accusative) leffel, Ess mitten (= mit dem, dative) leffel, “Take the spoon”, Eat with the spoon”, German Nimm den, iss mit dem Löffel. The accusative feminine and neuter singulars are the same as their respective nominatives, as in New High German (the Middle High German feminine nominative singular was diu, accusative die. The dative feminine and neuter singular are as in German: Zee shpeelt mit dehr shvesster, mit deym/mitten kinnt “she plays with her sister, with the child”, German Sie spielt mit der Schwester, mit dem Kind. The plural is the same for all genders (as in New High German) and cases.

With some exceptions Yiddish nouns have retained the gender of their Middle High German ancestry. Some vacillate between two genders, as did Middle High German nouns not infrequently, e.g. Middle High German sunne “sun”, masculine and feminine – German Sonne, feminine only – sanc “song”, masculine and neutral; German Sang masculine only. In the spoken utterance, particularly, there is little phonetic difference between dehr (toog “day”) and dee (nukht “night”), they sound like de toog, de nukht, and this may have contributed to the ambivalence of gender in nouns originally masculine or feminine in Middle High German or New High German. [iv]

Some New High German and Yiddish correspondences follow. (Where we give only New High German correspondence, the gender of the nouns cited are the same in New High German and Middle High German; In general, where a Middle High German form is not given, it can be assumed that both the Middle High German and New High German form of the word cited exemplify the point under discussion.) Examples: Yiddish dehr toog, dee nukht, doohss yoohr “the day, night, year”, German der Tag, die Nacht, das Jahr; Yiddish dehr goohrten, dee vunt, doohss hohss “the garden, wall, house”, German der Garten, die Wand, das Haus; Yiddish dehr hinnt, dee kuts, doohss fehrt “the dog, cat, horse”, German der Hund, die Katse, das Pferd. Only the genitive singular is declined, adding -ss for all genders: zaan zeenss tokhter, zaan tokhterss khuvverte, zaan kinntss khuvveyrim, German seines Sohnes Tochter, seiner Tochter Sohn, Seines Kindes Freunde “his son’s daughter”, “his daughter’s son”, “his child’s friends”.

In the formation of the plural, Yiddish nouns ending in -er went their own way. These mostly formed their plural by adding the s morpheme, the pronunciation vacillating between s (=ss) and z. Examples: Yiddish sheester/sheesters “cobblers”, shnaaider/shnaaiders “tailors”; Schuster/Schuster, Schneider/Schneider. But Yiddish breeder/breeder “brothers”, shvesster/shvesster “sisters”, tokhter/tekhter “daughters”; German Bruder/Brüder, (Middle High German bruoder/brüeder), Schwester/Schwestern (Middle High German swester/swester), Tochter/ Töchter (Middle High German tohter/töhter). The -s plural of which there are traces in Middle High German was possibly influenced by the frequent -es ending in Yiddish, not only of Hebrew plural nouns, but also of Hebrew abstract nouns in the singular, e.g. maalles “virtues”, khesroines “faults”, rukhmoohnes “compassion”, dulles “poverty”. It is unlikely that the comparatively late German -s plural affected the Yiddish.

Yiddish strengthened the final vowels of German Steine “stones”, Yiddish shteynner and Beine “legs”, Yiddish beynner, the former perhaps by analogy with the Middle High German plural of the latter: beiner. (Incidentally, in Yiddish beyn means “bone” only, which is the primary meaning of the Middle High German bein; the leg is the bone par excellence.) Yiddish retains the German dialect plural of Hemd “shirt”, hemmder; Standard German Hemden. The Yiddish plural sheekh “shoes”, retains the guttural of the Middle High German singular schuoch “shoe”, German plural Schuhe. The plural of tsoohn “tooth”, is tseyn, tseyner or tseynder, Middle High German plural zende, German Zähne. Yiddish dokter has a Hebrew plural doktoirim, German Doktoren, and naar, German Narr “fool”, has both a Hebrew and a German plural: neroohnim, naaren; German plural Narren.

As regards noun formation, the abstract suffix -heit (Middle High German schoen “beautiful”, schoenheit “beauty”) disappeared and was replaced by the variant Middle High German suffix -keit (Middle High German bitter-keit “bitterness”.) Thus Yiddish gemeyn “mean, caddish”, gemeynkeit “dirty trick”; sheyn “beautiful”, sheynkeyt “beauty”, zeess “sweet”, zeeskeyt “sweetness”. German gemein/ Gemeinheit, schön/Schöönheit, suss, Süssigkeit. The suffix was also added to words of Hebrew origin; so meess “ugly”, meesskeyt “ugliness”.

In their uninflected forms German adjectives in Yiddish underwent no morphological, as distinct from phonological development, except that in the Yiddish adjective heyz’erik “hoarse”, Middle High German and New High German heiser, the -ik suffix was added by analogy with the large number of Middle High German adjectives ending in -ic/-ich (New High German -ig), e.g. billich, New High German billig “cheap”; kreftic, “strong”; rëhtic, “correct”. (Yiddish billik, kreftik, rikhtik.) The comparative and superlative of Yiddish shlekht, German schlecht “bad”, are ehggher, ehrghste, German ӓrger, ӓrgste (the Middle High German/ New High German positives arc/arg disappeared in Yiddish, as did the positive and comparitive forms of slimp/schlimm, except in compounds such as shlimmuzzel “bad luck”.) Otherwise, the comparison of the Yiddish adjective, as may have been deduced to some extent from the examples given by Miss Molly Picon, followed the German pattern: German reich, reicher, reichste; Yiddish raakh, raakher, raakhste “rich, richer, richest”.

Some Yiddish adverbs can only be identified by reference to Middle High German, e.g. nekhten “yesterday” (German gestern), from Middle High German nӓhten “in the evening”, with semantic development; nӓhten was originally the dative plural of Middle High German nahtt “night” (Yiddish in ovent, German am Abend “in the evening”). Similarly haant, German heute “today”, is from Middle High German hînaht “this night”. The Germanic reckoniong of time was by nights, compare English fortnight, as well as the archaic English sennight “a week”. Yiddish geekh “quick”, is from Middle High German gâch, New High German schnell, and immedim’ “everywhere”, German ûberall, is an abraded form of Middle High German umb und umb, literally “around and around”. In comparisons the conjunction vee, german wie “as”, is used, or the preposition fin, German von “from”, perhaps influenced by the Hebrew construction with min (mi, me): mishemen tov “better than oil”, Yiddish besser fin eyl, German besser als Öl, and/or the Polish preposition od “from”: silniejszy od zelaza “stronger than iron”, Yiddish shtaarker fin aazen, German stӓrker als Eisen. Shtaark does not modify in comparison; noohnt “near”, German nahe, from Middle High German nâhen, nân, with epithetic t, does: neynter, neyntst.

5. Morphology and Syntax: 2

The German verb-form in Yiddish is marked by two main features; it would be truer to say non-features. One is the disappearance of the preterite (ich schreib,  “I wrote”) and its replacement by the perfect ich habe geschrieben “I have written”, Yiddish ekhob/khob geshribben. The parallel that springs to mind is that of conversational and epistolary French, in which the preterite (“past historic”) is never used. The disappearance of the preterite in Yiddish was doubtless influenced by the loss of this tense in the Upper German dialects, but in all probability Yiddish speech-groups were just not “preterite-conscious”. [v]

The other characteristic of the German verb in Yiddish is the loss of the subjunctive, for which three loud and prolonged cheers, and to those that enthuse about the “delicate nuances” expressed by the subjunctive we can retort “nuances, shmuances”. (See Chapter Vl)

This said, Yiddish verbs correspond largely, morphologically, lexically and semantically, to German verbs. The chief divergences may be summarised:

• Yiddish, as noted by Chrysander (Althaus, H.P., op.cit., p. 217), prefixed d- to a number of verbs beginning with er-: Yiddish dehrleyben, German erleben “to live to see, to live to have”: Zot u sukh nukhes dehrleypt’ “She lived to have much joy”.

• Yiddish zaan “to be”, conjugates: bin, bist, ist; zennen, zaat/zennt, zennen. Imperatives: zaa! zaat(s)! Past participle: geveyn. German (infinitive sein): bin, bist, ist; sind, seid, sind. Imperatives: sei! seid! Past participle gewesen.

• There is always apocope in the first person singular present and in the singular imperative. The Yiddish infinitives loifen, shikken, shpeelen; German laufen, schicken, spielen “to run”, “to send”, “to play”, have as the first person present indicative eekh loif, shik, shpeel. German ich laufe, schicke, spiele. Imperative singular: loif! shik! shpeel! German lauf(e)! schick(e)! spiel(e)!

• There is no “modification” in the imperative and present singular. In Yiddish essen, hellfen, for example, German essen, helfen “to eat”, “to help”, the imperative singular is ess! hellf! German iss! Hilf!  Present singular Yiddish dee esst, hellfst, her/sie esst, hellft; German du isst, hillfst; er/sie isst, hilft.

• If the stem ends in -t or -d, it has zero endings in the first and third persons singular and the second person plural of the present, as well as in the imperative singular. Yiddish aarbeten, German arbeiten “to work” gives: eekh aarbet, ehr/zee aarbet, eer aarbet; imperative aarbet! German ich arbeite, er/sie arbeitet, ihr arbeitet. Imperative arbeite! Yiddish es kost u sokh “it costs a lot”, from German kosten “to cost”. Yiddish redden “to speak”, Middle High German, New High German reden. Yiddish: eekh redd, dee rettst, ehr/zee rett (Middle High German er raet); meer redden, eer rett, zey redden. German rede, redest, redet; reden, redet, reden. Imperative rede! Past participles: Yiddish ge’aarbet, gekost, gerett; German gearbeitet, gekostet, geredet.

• In Yiddish vissen “to know”, the endings were levelled with the singular ich weiz of Middle High German wizzen. Yiddish veyss, veyst, veyss(t); veyssen, veyst, veyssen. Vehr veyss? “Who knows?” Her veyst nisht, “He doesn’t know”. German (infinitive wissen): weiss, weisst, weiss; wissen, wisst, wissen.

• Yiddish effenen “to open”, conjugates: effen, effenst, effent; effenen, effent, effenen. German (infinitive öffnen): öffne, öffnest, etc. Imperative: Yiddish effen! effent! German öffne, öffnet. Past participle Yiddish geeffent, German geöffnet.

• The reflexive pronoun in the indicative can be zekh, all persons. Yiddish eekh vush zekh, German ich wasche mich, “I’m washing”. But my mother said Vush dekh! “Wash!” Yiddish shpeelen “to play”, German spielen is reflexive in form when used as a verb of complete predication: De kinnder shpeelen zekh, German Die Kinder spielen “The children are playing”.

• The future is formed with vellen, Middle High German wellen, which turns up in New High German as wollen “to want” (compare English future he will go). Eekh vell, dee vesst, her/zee vett; meer vellen, eer vett, zey vellen (foohren), “I shall, etc. (travel)”.

• The conditional is formed with vollen, German wollen. It is used in both clauses in conditional sentences: Vennehr vollt geveyn laatish, vollt her nisht uzzoi gerett, German Wenn er anständig wäre, hätte er nicht so gesprochen “If he’d have been decent, he wouldn’t have spoken like that.”

• The optative is formed with lozzen “to let”, in conjunction with meeekh “me”, and meer “we”. Lommekh zeyen, German Lass mich mal sehen “Let me see”; lommer geyn, German Gehen wir “Let’s go”.

• There is no “infinitive” past participle form of the German modal auxilaries können, müssen, etc. Yiddish khob es nisht gekonnt teen, German Ich habe es nicht tun können, “I couldn’t do it.” Yiddish Khob es gemisst teen, German ich habe es tun müssen, “I had to do it”.

• The Yiddish infinitive daarfen, Middle High German, New High German dürfen (for respective meanings, see next section) “levelled out” with the Middle High German singular forms of the present tense: darf, darfst, darf. Yiddish present: daarf, daarfst, daarf; daarfen, daarft, daarfen; German darf, darfst, darf; dürfen, dürft, dürfen. Past participles: Yiddish gedaarft, German gedurft.

• The past participle of Yiddish laan, German leihen “to lend”,is gelighen, the g sound of the Middle High German form geligen (New High German geliehen), and of Yiddish shpaan, German speien “to spit”, geshpighen, by analogy (New High German gespieen).

• “To measure” is messten, from Middle High German mezzen, with epithetic t. Past participle gemosten, German gemessen.

The word order is subject-verb-predicate, both in main and subordinate clauses. Yiddish Ekh veyss, uzz her fehrdeent u such gellt, German Ich weiss, dass er viel Geld verdient, ” I know that he earns a lot of money.” The past participle is separated from the auxiliary, and the infinitive from the finite verb, only by particles or pronouns: Ehrz nekhten gefoohren ken menntchister, German Er ist gestern nach Manchester gefahren, “He went to Manchester yesterday”. Her vill nisht zooghen dem tutten dem emmess, her vill iss im nisht zooghen, German Er will dem Vater die Wahrheit nicht sagen, er will es ihm nicht sagen, “He doesn’t want to tell his father the truth, he doesn’t want to tell him it”. As in German, if the subject is not the first word in the sentence, there is inversion of the verb. Yiddish Nekhten iz her ken menntchister gefoohren, German Gestern ist er nach Manchester gefahren, “Yesterday he went to Manchester.”

Yiddish, then, both in accidence and syntax, was much simpler than the Middle High German from which it evolved. It was not by any means altogether a wanton or haphazard simplification, however. Yiddish, for example, unlike English, retained the distinction between verbs conjugated with the auxiliary “to have” and those conjugated with “to be”. Yiddish Dehr zoommer iz gekimmen, German Der Sommer ist gekommen, Middle English Sumer is icumen in, Modern English Summer has come. The Yiddish verbs conjugated with zaan “to be”, are those the German determinants of which are conjugated with sein, e.g. geyn “to go”, loifen “to run”, shtaarben “to die”, German gehen, laufen, sterben. But Yiddish shloofen “to sleep”, is conjugated with zaan: Bist git geshlooffen? “Did you sleep well?” German Hast du gut geschlafen?

Nor is there any reason to believe that a highly inflected language is a necessary condition for memorable literary achievement, or that it is correlated with a high quality of civilisation, still less with lofty moral standards. Elizabethan civilisation stood on a higher plane than the Germanic civilisation of the ninth to twelfth centuries, for all that Old High German and Old English were far more inflected than Elizabethan English. (There were eleven forms of the adjective “glad” in Old English; we can be glad today that there is only one.) [vi] Morality is admittedly subjective, but most people would agree that the morality of the Nazis, expressed though it may have been in the most elegant of subjunctives, was rather lower than that of the Hebrew prophets whose ringing utterances knew not the doubts and uncertainties of the subjunctive mood.

6. Semasiology

In Middle High German turren meant “to dare”, with which word it was cognate. Yiddish nisht toohren has the meaning of “not to be allowed to”, the verbs vaaghen, dehrvaaghen, German wagen being reserved for “dare.” Yiddish Me toohr nisht redden baam duvvnen “One mustn’t talk during prayers”, would be rendered by German Man darf beim Gebet nich redden, German dürfen meaning “to be allowed to, may.”

Now – hold on tight – Yiddish daarfen has retained the meaning of Middle High German durfen, which was “to need”, which is expressed in Standard German by brauchen or, in elevated style, by bedürfen plus genitive.

Many Yiddish verbs have retained one of a number of connections possessed by their Middle High German determinants which Standard Modern German has abandoned, expressing the Yiddish connotation, if at all, only in elevated style and retaining a connotation for everyday use other than the Yiddish one.

Thus Yiddish trakhten retained only one of the meanings of Middle High German trahten, viz. “to think over, ponder”. Yiddish Voohss trukhtste? = German Worüber denkst du nach? “What are you thinking about?” In Modern German trachten is synonymous with streben “to aspire”. This is a connotation of the Middle High German verb, though a secondary one. Yiddish retained the primary Middle High German connotation, but for the secondary one made do with shtreyben, only.

The Yiddish verb krighen corresponds to German kriegen, and has the same meaning, “to get”, but it also retained the connotations of the Middle High German verb – “to strive, struggle” – and formed a reflexive, tsekrighen zekh “to quarrel”, German sich streiten. Yiddish vulghern zekh “to traipse around”, is from Middle High German walgern, not retained in Modern German. Yiddish Ehr vulghert zekh erim ef de gussen (German Gasse = “lane”), German er treibt sich auf den Strassen herum “He wanders around in the streets”. Yiddish Vee bisste gevulghert? German Wo bist du herumgelaufen? “Where did you get to?” Another Middle High German verb retained in Yiddish, but not in Middle German is stüpfen “to push, thrust”, German stossen, Yiddish shtippen.

A number of other Judeo-German verbs correspond either to archaic German verbs, or are verbs used in a different sense to that which they have in Middle German, or are neologisms formed from existing Middle High German words. Yiddish oohn’teen/ohss’teen (zekh) “to put on/take off an item of clothing, to dress/undress oneself” is archaic German (sich)antun/ austen “to don/doff (one’s clothing).”

And so to bedclothes, Yiddish bettgevunt, Archaic German Bettgewand, Middle German Bettzeug. A bedsheet is Yiddish laalekh, Archaic German Leilach, Middle German Laken. A blanket is Yiddish kolldre; in Grimms’ Wörterbuch coltra is the gloss for Archaic German Überbett, Yiddish ibb’erbett. If my memory does not betray me, the ibb’erbett was the bedspread (ibb’erdekk in Weinreich) and the kolldre was the down-filled quilt which I remember being mekhu’yedik vaarem, “gloriously warm”, and which I understand is now making a comeback as the “continental duvet”. Also now à la mode in N.W.1 as an objet d’art, though in my boyhood in S.E.1 very much an objet de service (we did not enjoy the luxury of an indoor loo) is the geshirr’ or chamber pot, Middle German Nachttopf, Middle High German geschirre, New High German Geschirr “utensil”, the Yiddish word providing an illustration of the figure of speech known as synechdoche whereby a member of a class is denoted by the name given to the whole class.

Turning now to the culinary sphere, Yiddish preyghlen is “to fry”, Middle High German brëgeln. Middle German lost brëgeln using braten for “to fry”. In Yiddish broohten is of course “to roast”, which, equally obviously, in German is rösten. Preyghlen one inevitably associates with gepreyghelte tsibbeles, “fried onions”, a homely dish which, however, has a classical aura for the etymologist, tsibbele, Middle German Zweibel, being the Yiddish version of at least eight Middle High German renderings of the Latin caepulla. [vii] And while admitting that onions and beans are not necessarily complementary, in Yiddish at any rate they share a common Latin parentage, via Middle High German, the Yiddish for “bean” being fesolle, Middle High German fasôl, from medieval Latin faseolus (German Bohne). And now, excuse me while I grepps. To do so, I know, is coarse, Middle High German grop, New High German grob. Yiddish greppsen “to belch”, New High German rülpsen, is from Archaic German gröpsen/grepsen.

Oh for the pen of a Brillat Savarin to describe the nostalgic joys of that alliterative triad: verennikes, vaarnitchkes and kholoptches. Verenn’ikes: crimped pockets of dough slithering on the plate, filled with potato purée with a soupçon of onion or, in summer, with black cherries; vaar’nitchkes: two-inch squares of dough topped with kushe, Polish kasza “groats.” Don’t ask me what “groats” are, all I know is that on a cold day, after a long tramp in the country, a plateful of vaarnitchkes and viennas, with a zoirre (German saure “sour” igherke (from German Gurke, with prosthesis, “cucumber”), was a mekhuyye. Khol’optches: chopped meat wrapped, not in your trendy Dionysiac vine-leaf, but in prosste (“plain”) cabbage leaves, their flavour enhanced by their yohkh, German Jauche (which my German dictionary defines as 1. “any filthy fluid”, (Oi!) 2. “liquid manure” (Oi u brokh!), 3. “ichor (med.)” No, no, yohkh is not “ichor (med.)” but “ichor” (Gk. Myth.) rather, “fluid flowing like blood in veins of gods.” More prosaically, Grimms’ Wörterbuch states that in the 15th and 16th centuries Jauche meant only “broth, soup”: the word’s “pejorative semasiological development” dates from the 17th century).

To be frank, it is not my inability to write the lyrical prose that these three Yiddish culinary musketeers deserve that worries me most. It is the etymological mystery surrounding the words. I suspect a Russian dialectical origin, but Russian dialectology – I admit it frankly – is not my forte.

A number of Yiddish words have Middle High German determinants which were in use in German, in modernised spelling, as late as the 19th century. They have since been replaced by other words in Standard German, and can be considered as archaisms. Yiddish eydem, for example, “son-in-law”, Middle High German eidem, Archaic German Eidam, Modern German Schwiegersohn; Yiddish shneer “daughter-in-law”, Middle High German snur, Archaic German Schnur, Modern German Schwiegertochter; Yiddish fetter “uncle”, Middle High German veter (German Vetter = “male cousin”), Modern German Onkel; Yiddish meeme “aunt”, Middle High German muome, Archaic German Muhme, Modern German Tante. The Yiddish for “father-in-law” and “mother-in-law” respectively is shvehr and shvigher, Middle High German swëger and swiger, the latter Middle High German word yielding the now obsolete Schwieger, which, however, is retained in Modern German Schwiegervater and Schwiegermutter. (There is no archaic German form of swëger.)

In Standard Modern German the word Maul has undergone “pejorative semasiological development”, being now used exclusively of the mouth of animals or derogatively of human beings (German Halt’s Maul = “Belt up!”). In Middle High German mûl referred to the mouth both of animals and human beings. Luther in his famous essay On Translating used Maul to denote the human mouth, in which sense the corresponding Yiddish word mohl, German Mund was used exclusively. For the mouth of the lower creation Yiddish used pisk, Polish pysk.

Yiddish adopted the Middle High German jârzît “anniversary”, German Jahrestag, in the sense of “anniversary of the death of a relative” (on which it became the custom to light a candle and say kaddish, in memory of the departed); Yiddish yoohrtsaat, German Sterbetag. It seems less “puzzling” to regard yoohrtsaat as evolving spontaneously as a natural compound formed from jâr “year”, and zît “time”, or as a semantic development of the secular jârzît “anniversary”, than as a borrowing from “ecclesiastical” Middle High German, as assumed by Max Weinreich, Geshikhte, i, p.207. In any case, Yiddish speakers would not have been inhibited from using a word because of its christological associations, of which in all probability they would have been unaware. They were quite happy to use zeygnen zekh, from Latin signum “sign(of the cross)”, in the sense of “say goodbye”, see Chapter V. (N.B. German Jahreszeit = “season”; die vier Jahreszeiten “the four seasons.”)

On a less sombre note, Yiddish formed dreydel, from Middle High German draejen, New High German drehen “to twist”, to designate the “put and take” top used on Chanucah. (German Kreisel “spinning top”.) From the same Middle High German verb prefixed by tsehr/tse (Middle High German zer-, ze; New High German zer- denoting “apart, asunder”, or intensifying a simple verb) it formed tsedreyt’ “barmy.” Doohss kinnt iz fehrmlekh (German förmlich “really, absolutely”) tsedreyt’ “The boy’s stone bonkers”.

In the Jewries of the English-speaking countries the verb glaakhen, German gleichen “to be like”, was introduced in the sense of “to like”, German gern haben, mögen. Jews would have heard English like used both as an adjective: “He’s like his father”, German Er ist gleich/gleicht dem Vater, Yiddish Ehrz glaakh dem foohter, and as a verb “He likes to drink.” Taking a leaf out of the English book, they would have “verbalised” the adjective: Her glaakht tse trinken, German Er trinkt gein, “He likes to drink.” Chrysander (Hans Peter Althaus op. cit; p221) had noted, among the “Jews’ own words” feindhaben, for German hassen “to hate.” Yiddish Her ot mekh faant, German Er hasst mich “He hates me.”

It should be noted, in conclusion, that the “second person of respect” in Yiddish is eer. The corresponding form in Modern German is Sie, but Ihr was used in this sense until well into the eighteenth century. Yiddish Effsher kennt eer meer hellfen, rebbe? German Vielleicht können Sie mir helfen, Herr Rabbiner, “Perhaps you can help me, rabbi?” – compare English you and French vous, originally used only as plural pronouns. Grimms’ Wörterbuch states that ihr was used, in accordance with a Swiss Federal decree of 1874, by registrars in solemnising marriages. The marriage registrar asked the man and woman individually: Erkennt ihr hiermit die NN zur ehefrau zu nehmen? “Do you take NN to be your lawful wedded wife”, etc.

We can conclude this chapter by discussing the evolution of one of those characteristic Yiddish words which are familiar even to those whose knowledge of Yiddish is limited in the extreme: gezinntereyt. In Middle High German and New High German the suffix -heit was added to an adjective to indicate an abstract quality (Section 4). In Yiddish the suffix, preceded by -er, was used adverbially corresponding to the German erweise: glücklich “happy”, glücklicherwiese “fortunately”. In High German heit, was used as a full word meaning “essence, manner”, till well on in the Middle High German period and still exists in certain dialects, e.g. in dieser heit, etc. Priebsch and Collinson, The German Language, 2nd ed., London, 1934, p.246.  (The – mainly New High German, it was rare in Middle High German, – suffix weise, indicating mode of action, occurs in Yiddish bisslekhvaass “gradually”, from the Upper German diminutive (ein) bissel “a little (of)”, Modern German allmählich.)

In Yiddish, blinndereyt (blinnderheyt is a “spelling pronunciation”) is “blindly”, German blindlings,and gezinntereyt “healthily, in health.” Besides its literal meaning, as in Foohr gezinntereyt “Travel in health, safe journey”, German Gute Reise, and Troogh iss gezinntereyt “Wear it in health” – on seeing someone wearing something new (there is no English or German equivalent) gezinntereyt is also a less brusque, almost a cordial, form of German meinetwegen “I don’t mind.” You want to do something that I don’t want to do – gezinntereyt’, I don’t mind, by all means, do it “in health” (but don’t expect me to do it as well).

The Jew was constantly preoccupied with health, not because he was a valetudinarian, but because on his health depended his livelihood, his paarnoohsse, (Chapter III, 3) his existence. He had no “safe” job, he couldn’t work “for the Council”, for the big firm; no sick pay, no pension for him; health was all. Hence he could wish his fellow-Jew nothing better than health, however much he disagreed with him. If Chaim wanted to go out in the evening to see the Yiddish play, but his brother Yankel wanted to stay at home and read – Dee gey gezinntereyt’ “You go along”, Yankel would say. Yankel wanted to buy a watch which he thought was a metsee’e (Chapter II, 3) but Chaim didn’t – Koif gezinntereyt’ “You buy it”, said Chaim. A neighbour dropped in while they were having supper, they invited him to share their meal. The neighbour had already eaten, but Eeer esst gezinntereyt “You carry on”, he said to them. Health above all, norr (German nur) gezinnt’, only health, ubbee’ (Chapter V) gezinnt’, nothing matters except health.

[i] A frequent variant of nisht, though not used by my mother.

[ii] In my mother’s speech. For isoglosses showing four different regional pronunciations: koohrts, kirrts, kehrts, korrts, see Max Weinreich, “On the Dynamics of Yiddish Dialect Formation”, in The Field of Yiddish, 1965, p.75, reproduced in the same author’s Geshikhte, ii, 367.

[iii] M. Weinreich, Geshikhte, ii, 91; Priebsch and Collinson, The German Language, xvi.

[iv] See Meyer Wolf, “The Geography of Yiddish Case and Gender Variation” in The Field of Yiddish, N.Y, 1969, pp 102-215.

[v] Max Weinreich, Geshikhte fun der Yiddisher Shprakh, N.Y: Yivo, 1973, vol. ii, p.175.

[vi] H. Bradley, The Making of English, Macmillan, 1948, p.9.

[vii] In Lexer’s Mittelhochdeutsches Taschenwörterbuch, 19th ed; Berlin, 1929, they are listed as zwibolle, zibolle, zwivolle, zwivulle, zwival, zwifel, zwibel, zubel.


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