written something over two years ago on the
Basque language (Issue 13,
May 1999), I’ve decided that it’s high time to have a quick look at
another “special” language — Yiddish.
contrary to what a lot of people think, Yiddish is not a
derived form of Hebrew, though of course it is spoken by
Jews. No, its source is actually German.
you about its beginnings and influence shortly, but first I want to tell
you about my first brush with the language — albeit an unconscious one.
Do any of
you remember the American comedian Stan Freberg?
popular in the 1950s for his parodies of entertainment fads of the time.
His work was available on 78s, so it was often played on the radio. It
included send-ups of songs like The Great Pretender and cop shows
parody of the latter show Freberg entitled St. George and the Dragonet,
and at one point the following dialogue took place:
George: 8:22 p.m. I talked to one of the maidens who had almost been
devoured . . .
It was terrible, he breathed fire on me, he burned me already!
phrase “he burned me already” rang in my ears. At high school and studying
German when I first heard Freberg, I recognised the Germanic flavour of
the “already”, since German has a word schon that often translates
to English “already”.
were at pains to point out, however, that equally often schon plays
the role of what linguists call a “particle”, a minor part of speech that
can be left out altogether in an English translation or else rendered as
something like “even” or “never fear” or “I admit” or “just’ or “really”.
German people who aren’t yet fully conversant with vagaries of English
colloquial language can thus be heard including the “already” in places
that seem quite unexpected to native English speakers.
this schoolboy never realised for years was that the Stan Freberg usage
was only indirectly echoing German; its more immediate origin was as a
well-known New York Yiddishism.
Yiddish arose towards the end of the tenth century in the German
Rhineland, among a Jewish colony that had emigrated from northern France
and northern Italy, adapting the German dialects of their new environment
to their own special needs, e.g. by using German words but writing them in
Hebrew script. The word Yiddish itself derives from a dialectal
form of the German word for Jew — Jude.
according to Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia,
. . . to
the original German were added those Hebrew words that pertained to Jewish
religious life. Later, when the bulk of European Jewry moved eastwards
into areas occupied predominantly by Slavic-speaking peoples, there were
some Slavic admixtures.
(or, more likely, because of) years of torment during the Black Death (for
which the Jews were blamed), and in places like Poland and the first
ghetto in 16th century Venice, Yiddish continued to thrive. Indeed,
wherever such communities have since settled beyond their European
homelands their language has enriched surrounding languages. The most
notable case is that of America, both in the streets and shops of New York
and in the halls and offices of show business.
Here is a
tiny selection of Yiddishisms you will all be familiar with, even if you
didn’t know their origin. First some single words, then a few phrases:
should stop the clock
live so long (be so lucky)
Wodehouse, knowingly or not, used a word of Yiddish origin to name one of
his richer young characters — Oofy Prosser. The English slang word oofy
(= “wealthy”) comes through the Yiddish ooftish from the German
auf dem Tische, which can mean “money on the table”.
“complete” list of expressions Yiddish you can do no better than American
humorist Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, first published in 1968
and now available in a variety of editions.
also a well regarded body of Yiddish literature out there that stretches
back as far as the 12th century.