October 6, 2016
It’s enough already with the past: a new Yiddish dictionary is looking to build the language’s future
by Ian Dreiblatt
Few languages have been loved as well, or as shallowly, as Yiddish. On the one hand, it’s much written-about, enjoys particular influence, and has continued to be enthused over, performed in, and catalogued. On the other, barely anyone speaks it — just over a 150,000 Americans, or a little under .05% of the population, according to recent census data.
For most of the second millennium, Yiddish was the primary language of Eastern Europe’s Jews. While theories vary as to how it evolved, what seems clear is that it’s essentially a Germanic language, much like English, with a vocabulary that is primarily also Germanic (the Yiddish “got,” German “gott,” and English “god”; the Yiddish “libe,” German “liebe,” and English “love”; etc.), with healthy doses of loan-words from Classical Hebrew (the Yiddish word for insanity, “meshugas,” derives from the Hebrew “m’shuga’at”), various Slavic languages (compare the Yiddish word for teapot, “tshaynik,” with the Russian “chainik”), and a slurry of other languages (“bentshn,” Yiddish for “bless,” from the same Latin root as the English “benediction”). It’s written in an adapted version of the Hebrew alphabet.
At its height, Yiddish was a language of literature, film, and pop music. For decades, though, it’s been in steep global decline. The reasons are plain: for one thing, a huge number of speakers were murdered in the mid-twentieth-century. For another, many of those who survived no longer needed it as they grew increasingly assimilated, often coming to find the very sound of it a painful reminder of the life—and lives—they’d lost. (This latter dynamic was played out publicly in the music of Mickey Katz—grandfather of Jennifer Grey —which often consisted of re-worked versions of popular American songs, with satirical lyrics that swung between Yiddish and English.)
Resisting this decline is a Yiddish revivalist movement that’s been active since the early twentieth century. It gained strength in 1925 with the founding of YIVO (a bewildering acronym of Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, “Yiddish Scientific Institute,” or “Jewish Scientific Institute,” since “Yiddish” is just Yiddish for “Jewish”), an organization that, among other things, created the first standardized version of Yiddish and has for years offered classes to learners at all levels. Another high point was the posthumous publication in 1968 of the first modern English-Yiddish dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, son of YIVO co-founder Max Weinreich.
This summer, Yiddish got a particularly forward-facing boost when Indiana University Press published the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, compiled by Paul Glasser and Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath (who is, like Uriel Weinrech, a legacy Yiddishist, being the daughter of legendary YIVO researcher Mordkhe Schaechter).
As Joseph Berger writes this week in the New York Times, the new volume may be particularly valuable for its inclusion of a decidedly contemporary vocabulary: English words defined in the book include the likes of “email” (blitsbriv for what alights in your inbox, blitspost for the phenomenon of electronic correspondence more generally) and “transgender” (tsvishnminik, which is very easy to read and pronounce).
It’s not the first attempt to bring Yiddish into the future. Besides being, famously, kind of a jerk, Josef Stalin oversaw the creation of a new standard for Yiddish as part of his work to create a Jewish Autonomous Region of the Soviet Union in Birobidzhan, on Russia’s Manchurian border. (While it never caught on, the Stalinist Yiddish standard seems pretty great, actually.) More recently, Michael Chabon published The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, an affably doofy noir set in an alternate reality where, kicked out of the Middle East, Eastern European Jews have settled in Alaska, speaking a kind of Twilight Zone gangster Yiddish. Cops are called nozzes (“noses”) and fixers shomers (“protection”). Maybe most weirdly, there was MOT, a (very) short-lived “heeb-hop” outfit that put out one record of exuberantly smart-dumb/dumb-smart raps in Yiddish and English. It’s horrendous, but spirited, and at least they tried. (Quickly, if you’re puzzling over that song, “Emmes” is Yiddish for “the truth,” a G is, y’know, a G.)
The Comprehensive Dictionary is 826 pages and holds 50,000 entries. Whether or not you’re likely to go out and buy one, it’s hard not to root for the scholars of a thousand-year-old language, working to equip it for an uncertain future. Languages die out all the time, and are endangered all around us. It’s good to see one still learning new words.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.