[ Issue 29 ]

Yiddish brings Emily Bronto much happiness

Bikwil celebrates Yiddish


In this issue Harlish Goop takes a quick look at another "special" language — Yiddish.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Having 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.

Now, 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.

I’ll tell 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?

He was 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 like Dragnet.

One parody of the latter show Freberg entitled St. George and the Dragonet, and at one point the following dialogue took place:

St. George: 8:22 p.m. I talked to one of the maidens who had almost been devoured . . .
Maiden: It was terrible, he breathed fire on me, he burned me already!

That 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”.

Teachers 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.

But what 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.

Historically, 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.

Gradually, 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.

Despite (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:


Better we should stop the clock
I should live so long (be so lucky)
Now he tells me
Oedipus-schmoedipus (etc.)
Who needs it?

Even P.G. 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”.

For the “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.

There is also a well regarded body of Yiddish literature out there that stretches back as far as the 12th century.

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