There is a much-cited aphorism in linguistics that “a language is a dialect with an army”; I think I had seen it attributed to Max Weinreich, but I did not know that he originally wrote it in Yiddish as “A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot” [‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’] in the article “Der yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt” (“Yivo” and the problems of our time) in the periodical Yivo-bleter 25.1 [1945]. Now I do, thanks to a page of the Danish Babel site, which includes all manner of good things, such as How to Say “Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year)” in 300 Languages, the Yiddish version of which is given as “A freylikhn geburtstog funem goyishn meshiakh, un a git yor,” though I have to wonder under what circumstances this sentence has ever been spoken. (I suggest skipping down past the ordering by word for ‘Christmas’ to the list by language family, which is preceded by a large USORTEREDE.)

Addendum. Jim at UJG has added a paragraph with new information, including this page with further details on the quote (“Weinreich attributes this formulation to a young man who came to his lectures, and he decided, ‘I must bring to a large audience this wonderful formulation of the social fate of Yiddish.'”). All praise to Jim!

I discovered the Weinreich quote via this entry at Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufry, but I had to Google to get the citation. All praise to Google!


  1. Christmas = geburtstog funem goyishn meshiakh? Sounds an awful lot like Vatican-style modern Latin. Clever though it is, there is a perfectly good Yiddish word for Christmas, namely nitl.

  2. Justin– Do you know the etymology of nitl? The other phrase sounds like a kind of back translation from the Hebrew xag ha-molad ha-notsri ‘the feast of the birth of Christ.’ Reminds me of Mel Blanc naming his son Noël, and then being surprised when somebody asked him why he named him ‘White Christmas.’ –jfb

  3. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ll bet you money nitl is from a Romance descendent of Latin natal(em) (e.g. Prov. nadal, Sp./Ptg. natal)—or, of course, from the Late/Vulgar Latin version, depending on when the borrowing took place.

  4. I don’t know the etymology for sure, but I’ve always assumed it was what languagehat posits. Not sure of the exact means of transmission though.

  5. Nitl means “poker” or “card game”. On Christmas yiddish speaking Jews traditionally played cards – since the shops were all closed, it was about the only thing left to do. Some Hasidim, notably the Szatmar, do not study talmud on Christmas (under the belief that Christ was a renegade rabbi whgo would steal the accrued mitzvahs on his birthday… I wish the Szatmars would put some of their energy into science fiction… it would be GREAT!), and before the days of Avraham Fried videos that meant a rare whole day for playing cards.

  6. under the belief that Christ was a renegade rabbi who would steal the accrued mitzvahs on his birthday
    I love it!

  7. *cracks up* This may be my favorite languagehat entry ever.
    I wonder if they have Christmas carols in Yiddish? ‘Cause my office holiday party prides itself on multilingual singing, and it could use some livening up….

  8. I can’t lay my hands on any carols at the moment, but Marie B. Jaffe’s Gut Yuntif Gut Yohr has a version of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” that begins:
    ‘Sis geven erev krismess, und shtill is in heizel,
    Kein nefeshel rirt zich, afileh kein meizel;
    Beim oiveleh zeinen die zocken gehangen,
    Mit hofnung as bald vet der yuntif onfangen.
    Die kinderlach liegen ferdekt in die betlach,
    Und zieseh choloimes bei zey tantzen in keplach;
    Die veib in fatcheleh, und ich in mein yarmel—
    Keh, hoben zich tzugelegt choppen ah dremil….
    If you want the rest, let me know and I’ll send it to you.
    Apropos of nothing:
    “Rebbe, rebbe, iz okh un veh! M’ tanst mit shiksas un m’est khazar.”
    “Noo, iz vohs? Az m’ vet tansen mit khazayrim un essen shiksas, dos vet zayn eppes.”

  9. The Forward has an article about nitl. It mentions playing cards on Xmas eve. I had also wondered about the nit ‘not’ connection, too. A letter in Mendele suggests a Hebrew origin. I’m going to try to get the The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry and read up more on it.

  10. Thanks for the Forward link. An excerpt:
    Punning derogatorily in different languages on Christian words for this holiday, it turns out, was indeed a time-honored Jewish practice. The “Atlas” even agrees with me in explaining the shift of the “a” in Latin natalis to the “i” in Yiddish nitl as deriving from such a play on words, although it suggests that the word played on was not nit, “no” or “nothing,” but rather Hebrew nitleh, “the hanged one,” one of a number of traditional rabbinic epithets for Jesus. Strengthening this theory is the fact that, in the Western Yiddish of the Rhineland, Christmas was sometimes known as taluy-nakht, “the night of the hanged man.” But of course, there is no reason why both nit and nitleh could not have contributed to the pun.
    Let us know what comes of your researches!

  11. There’s a Yiddish version of White Christmas as well… you can hear it on Mandy Patinkin’s Mameloshn ( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000005J4T/qid=1055006772/sr=1-8/ref=sr_1_8/104-1293171-3423908?v=glance&s=music )
    I don’t have the lyrics handy at the moment.

  12. Language Hat: OK, I’m a degenerated Jew. I can’t soeak Yiddish. So could you please translate? It looks to me like your quote is something about telling a Rabbi about dancing with Shiksas (non-Jewish women, for those who know even less Yiddish) but all I get from the rest of it is variousd unrelated words. (Um, is the ‘essen’ in ‘un essen shiksas’ really the word for eating?

  13. Sorry about that — I should have been more considerate. But I warn you, it’s a degenerated joke:
    “Rabbi, rabbi, it’s terrible! People are dancing with shiksas and eating pig!”
    “So? If they were dancing with pigs and eating shiksas, now that would be something.”

  14. God, is being Jewish funny or what! Thanks a bunch for this one:-O

  15. ======================
    Some Hasidim, notably the Szatmar, do not study talmud on Christmas (under the belief that Christ was a renegade rabbi whgo would steal the accrued mitzvahs on his birthday…
    Incidentally, some of those groups play cards not on December 25th but on the appropriate day of the Julian calendar. Hey, just because the goyim can’t keep their calendar straight doesn’t mean the Jews should celebrate Christmas on that newfangled Gregorian system.

  16. Is this the origin of the song, “Have Yourself a Merry Nitl Christmas”?

  17. Oy!

  18. From track 15 of Mamaloshen, sung by Mandy Patinkin. (I’m a bit unclear on who wrote the translation- possibly Jacob Jacobs?)
    Ikh khulem fun a vaysn Nitl,
    nor aza Nitl ikh farshtey,
    vu di beymer glantsn,
    b’eys kinder tantsn,
    un hern gleklekh in dem shney.
    Ikh khulem fun a vaysn Nitl,
    ikh benk nokh yene vinter teg,
    zayt gebentsht un gliklekh un fayn;
    zoln ayere nitl teg vays zayn

  19. Naomi, if you’re still here, your wish is granted. I know what I’m going to be singing around the company Xmas tree…

  20. אין ישׂראל, מוז איך אײַך זאָגן, האָט מען נישט געהערט פֿון ײִדישע ניגונים אויף ניטל.
    די גאַנצע דיסקוסיע דאָ איז מיר זײער געפֿעלן.
    אַ דאַנק.

  21. Aderabe!
    (For the Yiddish-deprived, Alef_Beys wrote:
    “In Israel, I have to tell you, nobody’s heard of Yiddish Christmas songs.
    I’ve enjoyed the whole discussion a lot.
    Thank you!”)

  22. Nadav Ben-Ami says

    Far ale inem yidish-redndike velt, ikh hob tzunoyfgeshtelt dem Eybershter’s Tfile af Yidish, un di “creedo funen sh’likhim” = Apostles Creed..
    As for Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.. here is my SERIOUS inquiry into the manner:
    A Freylekhe Vays-Nitl un a gliklekhe nay Yor! = I believe this is one of many ways in the secular(alveltlekher velt) yiddish speaking world on how to say this. As far as the “Di Emune fun Naysiye” The Nicean Creed.. the following sentence says it all:
    Af Yidish: Gleybm mir inem EYNTZIKER GOT, Der foter almakhtiker, Der bashafer vos hot bashafn Gan-Eydan un Erd, un fun kolerley zakhn vos zenen onze’evdik un umze’ik. Un inem EYNTZIKN Har Yeshua Ha-Moshiach, dem ben-yokhid fun Got, gebeyrn gevorn baym dem Foter far ale elter. Likht fun Likht. Der Emeser Got, gebeyrn gevorn un nit gemakht fun nit kin tokh, ober mit dem Foter durkh vemen ale zakhn hobm gemakht… un azoy azoy vayter..
    It appears that Yiddish today, though revived and also REVILED by most Jews is given the matone of the Ruakh Hakodesh( heylike gayst) of our Lord and Savior, Yeshua Ha-Mashiach, afile af YIDISH!!

  23. Nadav Ben-Ami says

    I guess we can call Yiddish a language of Christianity and a language of the one unification of God and Yeshua..
    Who would ever have thought of translating the Nicean Creed of 300 A.D. into Yiddish and blessing it with the Holy Spirit??
    Christian Yiddish?

  24. Does anyone know whether “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht) has ever been translated into Yiddish?
    There *is* a Hebrew version.

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