Lost Yiddish Words.

Rose Waldman writes for Tablet about her discoveries as a translator of Yiddish:

Yiddish was the language of my childhood, my first language, the one in which I learned to speak and later, to read and write. In Hasidic Williamsburg, where I was born and raised, Yiddish rumbled all around me. It was a natural part of the environment, sounding native to the very air. […] But then I fell into my literary translation career—“fell into” being the precise description of what happened, though that is a story for another time—and suddenly, I was surrounded by a network of “Yiddishists,” secular people who revered Yiddish, who spoke about the language in romantic, sentimental tones, who quoted Yiddish writers with the same awe my English professors used to quote Chekhov and Austen and Hemingway. The Yiddishists argued over word usage and grammar with an earnestness that can only ever be exhibited by pedantic language-loving nerds, one of whom, I discovered, was I.

My transformation into a bona fide Yiddishist, albeit a Hasidic one, occurred in barely noticeable increments, but all at once I found myself nodding along to phrases like “ancestral language” and “cultural responsibility” and “endangered heritage” with the same earnestness as my Yiddish-loving colleagues. Suddenly, the beauty of a certain Yiddish phrase could make my breath catch. And one day I realized, to my utter surprise, that not only was Yiddish no longer a child’s language to me, but instead rang so richly and resonantly in my ears, its words moved me as no other language could. Yiddish had always been where I felt most at home, but now it had captured my heart.

But there was something else, though it took me a book’s worth of translating before I realized it. I had grown up on Hasidic Yiddish. The Yiddish I spoke (and speak) is homey and friendly and gives me a sense of confidence and belonging. […] We use it. Nearly nobody else does. But for all its life and vibrancy, Hasidic Yiddish is missing a whole bunch of words. No wonder I hadn’t noticed the language’s beauty. So many of its beautiful words had been lost.

As I translated stories and books written by writers who had grown up on pre-Holocaust Yiddish, I came to see that Hasidim, the “owners” of post-Holocaust Yiddish, had dropped a wealth of words from the language’s vocabulary. Take trees, for example. There are specific Yiddish words for individual genera of trees. Beautiful words. Sosneh is a pine; osineh, an aspen; berezeh, a birch; klion, a maple; topolieh, a poplar, and lindeh, a linden tree. Every one of these words had been used in two books I translated, despite having been written by writers with very different styles and of different origins—one born and bred in Lithuania, the other from Ukraine. But the only word I, a native Yiddish speaker from Brooklyn, New York, had ever known for all these wonderfully specific classes of trees was boym: a tree.

Lumping several individual words that have specific meanings into a single generic word that has a general meaning was a rather common approach of Hasidic Yiddish, I noticed. Worse, for Hasidim living in New York, that general word was, likely as not, an English one. […] The same generalizing, grouping, or borrowing of the English is true for many different types of words. Food, for example. Tcheremukhe—I discovered during a translation—was a cherry. Really? There was a Yiddish word for cherry? Not even a fruit store owner in Hasidic Brooklyn was likely to know it. But even sour cherries had a Yiddish word: vaynshl. And jam: ayngemakhts. Who knew?

In my interactions with hardcore Yiddishists, I had often been met with criticism and disparagement of my Yiddish for precisely this reason. Hasidic Yiddish, they claimed, borrowed so heavily from English, it could barely be called Yiddish at all; Hasidic Yiddish was a corruption of the language. […] But in truth, I myself was annoyed. The language lover in me couldn’t help it. Why had we abandoned so many gorgeous, effervescent Yiddish words? […] I began making a list of the “orphans,” as I called them. Words that had been abandoned by Hasidic Yiddish speakers. And as is wont to happen with such projects, the initial list begot other lists. Soon, I had a list for words that were once used in daily speech, another list for “writerly” words, likely used only in print, and still another list of words that had become Yiddish sometime in the last century or two, but had initially been borrowed from the languages of the host countries in which the Jews of that day had resided. Finally, I made a list of phrases, adages, and expressions that used to be common among Yiddish speakers. Why, I wondered, had some Yiddish sayings and expressions endured and continue to be used by Hasidim today, while others had been lost to time and history?

She goes into possible reasons in some detail, and I like the fact that she doesn’t feel compelled to settle on one master explanation. It’s a thoughtful and well-written piece — I’ll bet she’s a good translator. I note that all those tree words are taken straight from Slavic. And I expect rozele will have thoughts about all this.


  1. I once read that Yiddish lacked words for bird species, because Eastern European Jews were supposedly not interested in them. Even allowing that this applies to songbirds, and that one can use the language to distinguish a sparrow from an eagle, it sounds too much like the Eskimo snow myth in reverse.

  2. I note that all those tree words are taken straight from Slavic.

    I wonder if 17th century Western Yiddish speakers would have seen words like sosneh and klion as evidence of the impoverishment and slavicization of Eastern Yiddish, or that, to paraphrase, “Eastern Yiddish…borrowed so heavily from Slavic, it could barely be called Yiddish at all.”

  3. John Emerson says

    I remember reading about some kids who grew up in an Italian-American slum believing that Italian was a language for penniless illiterates, and then finding that Italian literature was one of the great world literatures. But not exactly the Italian their parents spoke. And I have heard similar stories about Spanish speakers in the American SW…. and then there’s Stephen Dedalus.

  4. David Marjanović says


    Looks like a mixture of Upper German Weichsel and the Slavic forms (вишня, wiśnia etc.).


    Einmachen is a 19th-century invention; I wonder if the word ever managed to spread across the whole Yiddish-speaking area.

    (Linking to the German article because the official English equivalent is titled “Home canning”, which seems a bit more general; it is much shorter and does not mention the history at all.)

  5. John Emerson: I have met native speakers of Cajun and of Metis French who, aware though they were that (a somewhat different kind of) French was spoken outside their own homelands (Louisiana for the Cajuns and the Canadian Prairies for the Metis), were in both instances puzzled by the notion that the French language, French literature and/or culture enjoyed, or indeed could enjoy, any prestige among non-francophones. On a related topic: my knowledge of Irish literature is not what it should be, and this may be why I do not understand the relevance of Stephen Dedalus in this context.

  6. I’m not placing the Stephen Dedalus reference in this context either, in spite of having had a strange A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dream last night.

  7. John Emerson says

    Dedalus says something about the Irish having had a rich literature when the Anglo Saxons were savages, or something like that. But few English or even Irish were aware of that. (Dedalus wasn’t a speaker of Irish,though, I don’t think).
    “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — the assumption of the title is presumably that few trees do grow there, and by extension, no one would need a rich arboreal vocabulary. (The book is about Irish, it seems, but the principle would hold for Jews there.)

  8. Y: yes, that’s fakelore (and there’s a similar myth about yiddish words for plants**, addressed in great detail in mordkhe shekhter / schaechter’s book through the link)…

    and before i go read the rest of the article, which looks fascinating! :

    the 17thC folks in the german(ic)-speaking lands writing in what now gets called Western Yiddish might’ve looked down on what was spoken in the slavic-speaking zone, but not on the basis of a notion of a pure yiddish – that doesn’t arrive until very late, with (so-called) Eastern Yiddish as the model. but i’m sure their tree words would’ve been just as close (and as divergent) to the versions used by their non-jewish neighbors as the easterners’ were.

    there’s a ton of regional variation even within Eastern Yiddish – i’ve never heard of “tsheremukhe”*, and “vaynshl” is familiar, but what comes to my tongue quickest are “karshn” (‘sweet cherries’) and “vishnye” (‘sour cherry’). but that range pales in comparison to this (from shekhter):

    8. Another illustration of the bewildering asssortment of plant names in Yiddish are the terms for sorrel. Harkavy, in two of his early dictionaries (1898a, b), refers the reader from shtshav to shtshavéy ‘sorrel’; he lists only shtshavéy in a third dictionary (1900). In the last of his dictionaries (1925), after incorporating all of Lifshits’s lexical items, Harkavy lists shtshav and shtshavéy as synonyms, as well as Lifshits’s kvaséts.[note 5] He does not list the Central Yiddish (‘Polish Yiddish’) vintage shtshuf and khtshuf, let alone the rarer forms listed below.

    The Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language (Nokhem Stutshkov 1950: 223) is more inclusive: shtshav, shtshávye, shtshavél, shtshavéy, tsvey, and kvaséts, but it too omits the Central Yiddish shtshuf, khtshuf, tshákhets (Erlikh 1982: 143), and the archaic ámper. Weinreich’s dictionary (1968) lists shtshav exclusively, the most commonly used term in American Yid- dish, corresponding to both Polish szczaw and Ukrainian s ̆c ̆av. Tsanin’s dictionary (1982) is the only one that does not omit shtshuf (etymologically rendered as shtshov); indeed, it is the sole form he lists.

    a. In belles-lettres, shtshuf/khtshuf occurs in the works of M. Burshtin, Y. Emiot, B. Glazman, S. Horontshik, Khayim Krul, Y. Opatoshu, and Y. Perle (Schaechter 1986 a: 172-173, 283).

    b. In the mainly Soviet Yiddish competition between the variants shtshávye and shtshavél (as in hózn-shtshavél), shtshavl and shtshavéy, the latter seems to have gained the upper hand and has thus been standardized – at least for Soviet Yiddish – in the Russian-Yiddish Dictionary (Shapiro et al. 1984) along with shtshav.

    Not recorded in any dictionary are shtsha, tshákhets, shtshave (Maltinski), shtsháver (Kolodni).

    [note 5] Actually, kvásets does not refer to Rumex acetosa, but to another species, Rumex acetosella.

    * shekhter / schaechter (in Plant Names In Yiddish**, linked above) has (among other things) “tsheremkhe” for chokecherry and “tshereshne” for sour cherry…

    ** which has an extensive english section starting on p391 of the .pdf, with an assessment of origins and historical trajectories.

  9. I was about to object that the черемуха is not the same as a regular cherry, but wikipedia informs me that cherries are a dozen different things in genus Prunus, not necessarily excluding Prunus padus. So I’ll just say that it’s a more particular sort of cherry.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    Assuming the trees whose Yiddish names are Slavic borrowings are species also found farther west and had their own names in “regular” German before Yiddish began to diverge, what’s the mechanism by which Yiddish would have lost and/or replaced those German names? Being at a certain point in time so urban a la Brooklyn that the differences between boym A and boym B were irrelevant to their lives, but eventually finding the differences more relevant farther east with Slavic-speaking neighbors? (At least in some parts of the Pale of Settlement, Yiddish-speakers were substantially involved in the timber/lumber trade by the late 19th century, which would certainly be an incentive to distinguish between species of trees when those differences were relevant to that trade.)

  11. David Marjanović says

    The starting assumptions are indeed true (Föhre/Kiefer*, Espe/Zitterpappel, Birke**, Ahorn, Pappel***, Linde), and I’m sure so is the explanation. I basically don’t know any tree names in my dialect and descend from a few generations of townsfolk.

    * That’s Kiefer (f.), not Kiefer (m./n.) which means “jaw” and is declined differently.
    ** The cognate!
    *** Can’t be very old; may be too young to have ever been present in Yiddish. Obviously this also holds for the compound Zitterpappel.

  12. did my earlier comment get auto-redacted?
    it seems no longer to be here: http://languagehat.com/lost-yiddish-words/#comment-4049094
    it was mostly yiddish words for sorrel, so perhaps no great loss…

    but: yes! fascinating, and moving!
    thanks so much for finding this!

    one peeve:

    why, rose, why!

    your sources cannot be ending any of those words in ־ה, so why in the name of all that’s holy are you spelling them with an -h at the end? that’s not even daytshmerish – there are plenty of places to put a useless germanizing ה, but there? no! – so you have no historical excuse. it can only be an effort to make a yiddish final ־ע come out sounding right from english speakers – but you’re using “kh” for כ [x], “tch” for טש [tʃ], and “ay” for ײַ [aj], none of which are fully transparent to anglophones (and two of which you can only have gotten from YIVO transliteration anyway).


    (and of course Tablet has no editor or copyeditor who would even notice)

    more substantively:

    i think waldman’s gendered explanation for lexical shift is by far the most compelling of her set (i don’t find her khurbn-related or hungarian-related ones persuasive at all). but i think she’s missing a few important things.

    the main one is hasidism*, oddly enough.

    despite its history as a movement attentive to the natural world as a site of holiness, and as a movement with adherents drawn from jewish men too poor to meet the class-based ideal of spending more time in study than on the land (the vast majority, of course), modern hasidism has rigorously enforced the ideal of constant study on ever larger numbers of men. where a typical hasid in 1800 would’ve been exactly the jewish man who had names for all seventeen kinds of mushrooms he could pick along his grain-carting route (and he was a hasid because his lack of study didn’t matter to the rebbe), a typical 20thC hasid is discouraged from spending meaningful time outdoors because it takes away from attention to talmud study. that’s part of why nyc hasidic men so often speak yiddish, hebrew, & aramaic, but only a little english – their interaction with ‘coterritorial’ english speakers is minimal. this seems like an important part of the picture: the increasing limitation of hasidic men’s lives to a small number of spheres, none of them encouraging an expansive use of yiddish.

    in parallel with this, there’s the increasing restriction on hasidic women’s lives over the 20thC. working-class jewish women were a disproportionately large part of the propagation of yiddish literary culture in eastern europe. in the towns and cities, they were the main readers of yiddish fiction (even more than the “dray klasiker”, what sold was the stuff that gets dismissed as “shund”) and enthusiastic theater-goers; in the shtetlekh, they were the main composers, transmitters, and singers of yiddish folksongs (full of karshelekh, floymen, arbuzn, &c).

    as hasidic worlds have grown steadily more concerned with “modesty”, and as women’s work outside the community has gone from near-universal to discouraged, very little of that propagation still happens. even older women have very little knowledge of the folksongs their mothers and grandmothers sang – songs considered appropriate in the past have been deemed suspect, and replaced by new songs by approved writers. and fiction also has to adhere to stringent limits of what can and can’t be said, and who can publish. so words don’t have the chance to jump back and forth from mouth to mouth, or from the page to the mouth, in the ways that keep them live and active.

    * as a set of community norms, not as an ideology/theology/orthopraxy, and as it has changed over time

  13. “I once read that Yiddish lacked words for bird species, because Eastern European Jews were supposedly not interested in them. ”

    Leviticus 11: 13-19 is a list of birds that may not be eaten; it seems unlikely that Yiddish discarded their names.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Some of those don’t occur in most of Europe, others only along the coast. No pelicans in the Pale of Settlement!

  15. Plants and animals often had several names in Yiddish, depending on the dialect, as Mordekhai Shaechter points out in his authoritative Plant Names in Yiddish (downloadable here: https://yivo.org/Plant-Names-in-Yiddish). Often there would be a Germanic name and one or more Slavic terms. The alleged Jewish lack of interest in nature is over-emphasized, although it does have some basis in the culture (e.g., the infamous dictum of R. Yaakov in Chapter 3 of Ethics of the Fathers, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2019/jewish/Chapter-Three.htm (section 7 there)). Jews used plants in folk medicine and were lumber dealers, fisherman, and furriers and later, farmers. Many lived in shtetlach (villages) and derfer (hamlets) in close contact with their rural and rustic surroundings. Yiddish and Hebrew literature written by E European Jews from the late 19th C through WWII has many scenes that describe intense or rapturous encounters with nature. In the 20th Century, the Bund and other leftist movements emphasized “doikayt” (lit. “hereness”) or ties to one’s surroundings. Many Yiddish children’s textbooks (often translated or adapted from German or Russian) published in Poland, Soviet Russia and the North America, taught children about plants and animals and their biology in a somewhat systematic way. Some of these may be downloaded from the Internet Archive and other sites.

  16. Now I wonder what the translator of the Khumesh-Taytsh, the Yiddish version of the Pentateuch, did for all the bird and animal names.

  17. John Emerson says

    In one place you are allowed to eat one kind of locust but not another. However, by now no one knows which locusts were intended, so all locusts are forbidden. That seems lazy to me, and a waste of good locusts.

  18. did my earlier comment get auto-redacted?

    Good thing you mentioned it, I was able to rescue it from the spam file. If things get treated as spam, I have no way of knowing they ever existed, so please, people, if your comment disappears, let me know and I’ll try to find it! Of course, it only works if your moniker is unlikely to be part of a spam message (like “rozele”); if you’re, say, Y, you’ll have to remember a useful word from your message I can search on.

  19. tshereshne

    Curious. As someone who grew up in a chereshnya tree, I can attest that it is ‘sweet cherry’.


    A PU reconstruction for bird cherry:


  20. rozele is right, and she is more polite than I would be about the problems with seeing the Chasidim as the carriers of Yiddish language and (even more) Yiddish culture. There is a lot of richness that the ever-increasingly insular Chasidim community has lost or discarded.

    @John Emerson: Plenty of Jews still believe they know which varieties of locusts are Kosher, even if they probably will never eat them. It is a matter of having a unbroken cultural tradition for the locusts in a given region.

  21. I thought shchav was just the soup made from the plant, and that it was from Oxalis (wood-sorrel), not Rumex (sorrel). I imagine you can make the soup either way. I’ve never had it (though I like to chew on sourgrass stems). I’ve seen it in jars, by Manischewitz. Is it safe to eat that much oxalic acid?

  22. thanks for the rescue, @hat!

    @Y: such a good question! i went looking, but on a first look i couldn’t find an online taytsh or tsene-urene aside from a scan of an early edition that i couldn’t look through easily. apparently there’s a critical english translation out, though! and it’d be interesting to see how the terms shift through all the different editions and recensions…

    (and if there’s one universal about jewish cultures and communities, it is that nearly nothing can be predicted about any jewish community’s practice based on what’s in the canonical texts. the whole notion that it should be is just an offshoot of the christian identification of themselves with the life-giving spirit and jews with the ‘letter that kills’…)

  23. One thing that struck me about this article is when she speaks of how her Yiddish, which was just the language she grew up with, is venerated by the secular Yiddishists. I had a similar experience when I came in contact with Orthodox Jews. Having grown up in the Ukraine, I was struck by how the backwater shtetls of the great rabbis took on a certain holiness and exoticism among American Orthodox Jews. Berdichev, Ruzhin, Skvyra… Since the fall of the USSR, every Rosh Hashanah, the town on Uman’ is invaded by tens of thousands of Breslov chassidim. Now it is big business, but when it first started happening, the local population was completely bewildered. It was like an alien visitation. The Ukrainians just couldn’t figure out that for all these strangers, Uman’ was one of the holiest places on Earth.

  24. Y: Is it safe to eat that much oxalic acid?

    It would probably be hard to eat enough to be dangerous, but if you are at risk of kidney stones, I would err on the side of safety. (Kidney stones run in my family, and I consequently gave up eating oxalis as a precaution.)

  25. I think I heard something about Breslauers insisting on the pilgrimage to Uman this year, COVID or not. Ukraine closed its borders to them, so a large crowd flew to Belarus, maybe? and were pathetically encamped by the border trying to figure out how to sneak into Ukraine. Some Hassidic groups can be pretty culty, including the Breslovers (and Chabad, too).

  26. Michael Wex’s Born To Kvetch also makes this claim that Yiddish lacks terms for things in nature because its speakers were predominantly an urban people. Don’t have my copy to hand, alas. He is also a native speaker from the 20th century.

  27. From what I can see on Google Books etc., Wex argues that they had the terms, but that they just weren’t used in Yiddish literature, even in the abundant nature descriptions of Sholom Aleichem, Abramowitz, and Peretz. He then quotes the opening of the Canterbury Tales, and they won’t let me read after that so I can’t tell what his point is. Maybe that that opening, so inspired by nature, mentions no species names either? (The Parliament of Fowls does.)

  28. @Y: i don’t know that i entirely trust schaechter’s Authoritative Lexicographer voice on the Oxalis/Rumex distinction. i’m not sure i believe there was necessarily that much of one in regularly used old-country yiddish, and suspect that where there was, it was on the order of “sorrel” vs “woodsorrel (sorrel for short)”…

    but i’ve had the soup (and made it, with Rumex) – i quite like it! it was my grandfather’s favorite (he was born in new york city to parents from bukovine/bucovina and volin/volhynia); it was “shchav” or “sourgrass soup” to him…

    and i can’t find my copy of B2K, so can’t check the rest of what wex says. but i think the whole “urban” thing is a red herring, whether for the alte heym or for nyc. yannay spitzer has an interesting paper that looks at yiddish-speaking jews in the russian pale of settlement as a specifically rural population; i think it’s very interesting and does a lot to demolish the projection backwards of jewish urbanization in the u.s. onto the pale. and i can testify that being a city kid doesn’t mean growing up with only “tree” in your vocabulary – it all depends on what the people around you talk about, and think it matters for you to know.

    @Brett: i appreciated waldman pointing out the somewhat paradoxical contrast between the hasidic world as the (main) place where yiddish is used daily and fully lived in right now, and the yiddishist sphere as the (main) place that values yiddish language and literature in their own right. by me, both things are important. i’ve got some hope in the ways that younger yiddish-learners i know are resisting the YIVO-sphere rejection of hasidic yiddish (as ‘corrupt’, ‘anglicized’, etc) and the ways that folks leaving the hasidic sphere are finding it less necessary to leave yiddish as well.

  29. Now I know where the surname Vaynshelboym comes from. As for tsheremukhe (tcheremukhe) or tsheremkhe, the most likely meaning is “bird cherry.” Chokeberry would be close but it’s American, not Eurasian. If you’ve ever lived in Eastern Europe, whether in a big city or in a tiny village, you must know the difference between the bird cherry and the real one, whether sweet or sour.

    The sorrel terms in Yiddish are mostly variations on the same theme, from Polish szczaw and Russian/Ukranian shchavèl (also shchàvel). The Soviet-Yiddish shtshavéy sounds pretty close to the standard Russian and Ukrainian terms. Still, I can’t figure out tshákhets.

    A couple of years ago, I did some superficial research on Stephen Miller’s family roots in Antopol and found that ogorodnichestvo – vegetable gardening – was a traditional Jewish occupation in the Northwestern District (roughly Belarus plus parts of Lithuania, Latvia and Russia proper). Not only growing vegetables but making and selling pickled cucumbers (perhaps squash/zucchinis, turnips and tomatoes as well). While you can make good pickles at home with just salt, dill and garlic, to compete in that business, you’d probably have to offer a variety of flavors and that would require a small botanical vocabulary.

  30. But most English speaking Americans can’t tell pine from spruce or birch from aspen either. Botany isn’t for everyone. Especially not for urban populations. On the contrary, around my ancestral stetle of Gorodok near Vitebsk, lots of Jews were rural, practicing trades of blacksmiths, cart drivers, horse traders, and fishermen, so they surely knew a lot about livestock and various species.

    There is a famous 1600s document accusing the Eastern Ashkenazim of forgetting their tongue and switching to g*ddamn Slavic, a ca, 1640 letter by r. Meir Katz (Kohen Tzedek) who was then posted to Mogilev, published by his son. Kohen Tzedek explained that the local Jews called the town of Brest (much further to the West, and much more important in the Ashkenazi geography of the era) just that, “Brest” (rather than “Brisk” as it was in the traditional Yiddish). It’s a slippery slope, you know. First one town, then the rest of the vocabulary 😉

  31. Say, have any of you knowledgeable people read The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe, which I wrote about back in 2014? I was enthusiastic based on the excerpt I read, but (sigh) I never got around to finding the book itself, and I’m curious to know if it’s worth it.

  32. And for those who missed it back in 2011, the story of the return of “the renowned heir to the great Chernobyl dynasty, Rabbi Shlomo Bentsion Tverskii,” from New York to Kiev in 1929:

    At the time of the rabbi’s return circumstances were difficult. Because of the antireligious campaign, Rabbi Tverskii was categorized as a “leader of a cult,” and city authorities threatened to evict the family from their state-owned apartment. One of the rabbi’s disciples wrote a letter to Stalin in the name of the tsadik, protesting that in America Reb Tverskii had praised the civil rights of the first socialist state, only to return and find his existence in Kiev squeezed from all sides. Miraculously, the letter was answered. A letter from Stalin’s office arrived at the Kiev city council telling the Kievan officials to leave the rabbi alone. And they did. Throughout the thirties, the rabbi continued to hold court, to teach, study, and pray with his followers as he always had, as had his father and his grandfather before him, down through the long line of Tverskii sages. […] For the Sukkoth festival, the Hasidim built a hut of pine branches and straw on the balcony of the apartment. When the moon was new, the rabbi and his Hasidim descended from the third floor apartment onto the street and there they prayed, danced, and met the new month — on the street, in full view, in central Kiev, in the midst of the Great Purges.

    He died a natural death on September 17, 1939, “the night the Red Army invaded eastern Poland.”

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    But most English speaking Americans can’t tell pine from spruce or birch from aspen either. Botany isn’t for everyone.

    I know the Kusaal names, along with the corresponding correct binomial names, of a whole lot of West African trees that I would not have the least idea how to identify in practice. Recognising baobabs is about my level …

  34. The motivations of the Hasidim for remaining a Yiddish-speaking community are rather different than the motivations of secular-romanticist Yiddishists for desiring Yiddish-speaking communities to be an actually-existing thing in the 21st century, so the resultant mismatch that becomes obvious if you look at the details too closely should be unsurprising. But a community lacking the Hasidim’s degree of insularity or illiberalism or whatever pejorative you might wish to use would almost certainly already have experienced language shift away from Yiddish, so …

  35. Miraculously, the letter was answered

    It’s a classic genre of Chassidic hagiography. A letter, touched by the hand of a holy man, causes miracles exactly when the troubles are at their thickest.


    luckily it isn’t that insular. It’s transcended by the family ties, by the people leaving the fold, and by the secular Jews returning to it. So it’s never too hard to find someone willing and able to translate a Yiddish document, phew!

  36. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — the assumption of the title is presumably that few trees do grow there, and by extension, no one would need a rich arboreal vocabulary. (The book is about Irish, it seems, but the principle would hold for Jews there.)

    I think you should read the book before you speak about what it seems to be about.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Where’s the fun in that? Any fool can tell you what a book’s about if they’ve read it.

  38. >>Sosneh is a pine; osineh, an aspen; berezeh, a birch; klion, a maple; topolieh, a poplar, and lindeh, a linden tree.

    As someone pointed out earlier, these are all Slavic in origin except for the linden, which would be lipa in the Slavic languages. Is there any rhyme or reason why certain things remain Germanic while others are Slavic? It’s like this with animals too. Hunt (dog), Katz (cat), Moyz(mouse), but Krolik (rabbit), Zhabe (frog)

  39. I do not understand the relevance of Stephen Dedalus in this context

    It’s on the fact that the Irish don’t speak Irish, least so at the beginning of the 20C when Ulysses was set. Original passage; Hattic parody of it with reference to Tibetan in Tibet.

    the Irish having had a rich literature when the Anglo Saxons were savages

    That’s Benjamin Disraeli after Daniel O’Connell had attacked him in Parliament as a Jew: “When the right honorable gentleman’s ancestors lived in bogs and painted themselves blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

    The tree in question is an ailanthus, a very hardy and pollution-resistant import from China with, alas, a regrettable smell. Many New Yorkers who know the tree well (there is one on my block) do not know its name.


    Sounds like a sneeze (or fneeze, in older English).

    none of which are fully transparent to anglophones

    Anglophones hereabouts can cope with any orthography, and if we can’t and Dr. Google is no help, we ask. So no worries.

    But most English speaking Americans can’t tell pine from spruce or birch from aspen either.

    Including our Hat, until I edumacated him.

  40. Any fool can tell you what a book’s about if they’ve read it.

    I find that often not to be the case, when I compare my impressions of a book with those from some highly sophisticated reviewer. They find all kinds of stuff that I don’t see at all (unless they are just making shit up, which to my naive mind seems a distinct possibility).

  41. Same here. I’ve learned not to trust anybody’s descriptions of a book I haven’t read.

  42. Disraeli’s quote is memorable, but was he really a Cohen (except by statistical plausibility)?

  43. @e-k: It’s like this with animals too. Hunt (dog), Katz (cat), Moyz(mouse), but Krolik (rabbit), Zhabe (frog)
    House animals retain the Germanic, wild critters are borrowed from Slavic?

  44. Many New Yorkers who know the tree well (there is one on my block) do not know its name.

    Betty Smith calls it the tree of heaven, which I think is general among non-botanists (at least it’s what I learned in WV).

  45. David Marjanović says

    Götterbaum. Europe’s only tree-shaped weed (likewise imported from China as a park tree).

  46. About Stephen Dedalus:

    In the Portrait, at the point where Stephen is beginning to break with Ireland, his dean of studies, an English Jesuit, warns him against trying to think independently. In the course of the conversation, the dean brings up the analogy of filling a lamp. In the Oxford World’s Classics edition the conversation is on p. 158:

    You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

    — What funnel? asked Stephen.

    — The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

    — That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

    — What is a tundish?

    — That. The . . . the funnel.

    — Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

    — It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen laughing, where they speak the best English.

    –A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

    His courtesy of manner rang a little false [. . . ]

    Later, Stephen writes in his diary (p. 212): “That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us? Damn him one way or the other!”

    And many readers are familiar with the recording of Joyce reading the Anna Livia Plurabelle passage from Finnegans Wake in his beautiful tenor, but only specialists know his other, earlier recording, because it’s defective. The content of that reading is John F. Taylor’s speech from the rhetoric-saturated “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses, which advocated the revival of Irish and compared the Irish to the Jews in the time of the Egyptian Captivity. There (7.855-69) Taylor imagined a haughty Egyptian telling young Moses:

    You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name.

    — But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage, nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai’s mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.

    That isn’t to say that Joyce was himself an advocate of the Irish revival. Consider those bumptious nationalists, Miss Ivors in “The Dead” and the Citizen in Ulysses.

  47. –A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

    [. . . ]

    Later, Stephen writes in his diary

    As quoted, respectively, by myself and JC back in 2012. Huh, and JE was tunning the dish in 2008.

  48. John Emerson says

    I used a sophisticated approach to title-analysis based on the “man bites dog” principle. “A Tree grows in Oregon”? Nope. “A Tree Grows in New Hampshire”? Nope. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? Great! It would just be a was Tree of time to read the stupid book.

  49. Disraeli’s quote is memorable, but was he really a Cohen (except by statistical plausibility)?

    nobody is a “true real” Cohen, only a Cohen hazakah, “by the community conventions”, since the family rolls have been already lost by the time of the exile in Babylon. But everybody has Cohanim ancestors, there couldn’t be any doubt about that. Just not always direct-male-line ancestors!

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    Indeed, as far as speaking the “best English” goes, “tundish” proves to be a Shakespearian word, found in Measure for Measure (although with its spelling varying from edition to edition).

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    I used a sophisticated approach to title-analysis

    Hah! I knew it!

    (I myself attempted to guess the contents of Russell Schuh’s A Grammar of Miya without reading it first, even going so far as to buy a copy based on my conjectures. Although my algorithm was much less sophisticated than yours, lacking the stochastic element more or less entirely, those conjectures proved nevertheless to be very largely correct.)

  52. David Marjanović says

    “Subsequent research using twelve Y-STR markers indicated that about half of contemporary Jewish Kohanim shared Y-chromosomal J1 M267, (specifically haplogroup J-P58, also called J1c3), while other Kohanim share a different ancestry, such as haplogroup J2a (J-M410).

    Molecular phylogenetics research published in 2013, 2016, and 2020 for haplogroup J1 (J-M267) places the Y-chromosomal Aaron within subhaplogroup Z18271, age estimate 2,638–3,280 years Before Present (yBP).[2][3][4]”

  53. David Marjanović says

    A Grammar of Miya

    Specifically, that’s the kind of humble title a really thorough work is likely to have, while a work on the other end of Dunning & Kruger would more likely be titled Miya Grammar, right…?

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Absolutely. That’s exactly what I was thinking of. (As I now realise.)

  55. Allowing that being a Cohen is foremost a social construct, I don’t know if the Disraelis were considered Cohanim or not. But anyway, if Disraeli wanted to take a bit of credit for that which wasn’t his to smack down an antisemite, that’s fine by me. I’d rather he didn’t do it by putting down the Picts, but that’s another matter.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    Daniel O’Connell was a mere Gael. True Picts despise all these latecomers, and look forward to the day when they are all driven back to the Pontic Steppe where they belong. Woad is where it’s at.

  57. Anglophones hereabouts can cope with any orthography

    o, you know i didn’t mean these anglophones! around here, everything’s transparent from Linear A to Nonlinear Z…

  58. Trond Engen says

    rozele: from Linear A to Nonlinear Z

    How I wish that was mine!

  59. O’Connell was Irish, not British or Pictish. But there are various versions of the first half of the remark.

    Disraeli’s grandfather, Benjamin Israeli, was an Italian Jew, but whether he was one of the direct line of Italian Jews dating back to the Roman Empire, or the descendant of an earlier immigrant from the Levant (Israeli is of Arabic form).

  60. John Emerson says

    Since Jewish politicians are the topic here, I will just mention Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a descendant of a Hungarian rabbinical family on His mother’s side and the son of an Italian atheist military musician. His father served in the American military and Fiorello grew up on the American frontier from Arizona to North Dakota. He had a speaking knowledge of both Italian and Hungarian And in his used was the American Counsel in Austro-Hungarian Italy At the same time that James Joyce was in Trieste. Did they ever meet? Someone should write a novel about this.

  61. John Emerson says

    “in his youth”. The I-phone voice transcription system is ~99% accurate. Probably shouldn’t be used for diplomatic communications.

  62. @Dmitry Pruss: It is true that, starting in the aftermath of the Babylonian Captivity, there have a substantial number of priestly lineages whose Aaronite identity could no longer be verified by community testimony. However, that does not mean that their priestly status can never be verified. In fact, as soon as we find the Urim and the Thummim again, all such questions can be put to rest. According to Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost, the pair were last seen set into a couple piece of cheap Victorian jewelry.

    P. S. Shouldn’t it be “nonlinear ????”?

  63. Obligatory Cohen joke:

    Manny Schwartz approached the rabbi of his synagogue and said to him, “Rabbi, please make me a Cohen.” The rabbi, taken aback, tells Manny that it is impossible! Manny offers the rabbi $1,000 but the rabbi won’t budge. He offers $5,000 and the rabbi says, “Sorry, I can’t do it”. Manny offers $10,000 and the rabbi finally asks, “Manny, why do you want to be a Cohen so badly?” Manny answers, “Well, you see, Rabbi, my father was a Cohen; my grandfather was a Cohen. I want to be a Cohen, too!”

  64. all such questions can be put to rest

    As a friend of mine wrote: “Urim, Thummim hit the floor / Priests go dashing to the door / For the cops have caught the crap game in full swing.”

  65. Y-chromosomal Aaron

    “A definitive maybe”. The Cohen’s male lineages aren’t random, but they aren’t exactly one either. To make the matters murkier, the Samaritan Cohens are something else entirely, and so are other supposed Aaron’s descendants. And some non-randomness is totally expected for a people which repeatedly went into population bottlenecks. On the other hand, if there were many temples back in the day, then there may be many priestly lineages alive today.

    The “Cohen modal haplotype” has become a cash cow for the genetic testing labs, and it’s very widespread because of this (since it’s hard to make money on something very rare). It’s common among all sorts of Middle Easterners actually. Being something of a commercial brand means that there isn’t much ongoing contemporary research of the Cohanim Y-chromosomes. Of course time might reveal something interesting about this riddle. But don’t hold your breath … with ancient DNA out of reach, there is only so much one can learn about the ancient roots.

    Being a Cohen is frequently understood as something about the Temple, but there are lots of duties and restrictions the religious Cohens face in their today’s life. They are needed for a synagogue service. They can’t marry divorcees. They can’t visit cemeteries. Many things which make it important for the communities to know exactly who are their Cohens. Today and not in some sci-fi imagined future.

    Disraeli of course was a vainglorious guy who really did want to have a pedigree as deep as the British nobility around him, and who made up bits and pieces of family history to this end. His father’s family was more plain-roots in any case, so most of his genealogical embellishments concerned his mother’s side. But there were real Levites on his mother’s side. Quite likely real Cohens too, I haven’t checked, but there were so many Cohens that it’s but impossible not to have any in a decent-size family tree. Not to mention the “invisible tree” going back full two millennia to the Temple times.

  66. John Emerson, it may have been overgenerous of you to call the iPhone’s voice transcriptions 99% accurate. Notice all the punctuation that iPhone left out of your December 22 posts, and the Donald Trump Capitalizations, and “counsel” for “consul.” But “a was Tree of time” for “a waste of time” probably deserves to count as a copy editor’s poem.

  67. David Eddyshaw says

    who really did want to have a pedigree as deep as the British nobility around him

    As we Revolting Peasants say:

    When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
    Who was thanne a gentilman?

  68. My grandfather, who probably never troubled himself for a moment about kosher dining,* nonetheless took seriously the prohibition on kohanim visiting cemeteries, at least when he was young. However, when relatives he was close to started dying, he gave that up. After the death of his favorite aunt, he decided it was absurd not not attend her graveside service. After his mother died, representing the culmination of a very dark time in Grandpa Sol’s life, he initially planned to visit her grave on a regular schedule. However, according to my grandmother, he only actually went to her grave once. Amusingly, the change of plans may have been due to me. The birth of his first grandchild, two weeks after his mother’s death, apparently did a lot to pull him out of his depression and to give him back a more forward-looking mentality.

    * I was picking up a dinner order of a crab cake sandwich and shrimp-andouille stew the other day, and I saw the restaurant had a Chanukah menorah sitting on the bar. I mentioned to the manager that, while my dinner order may mark me as a bad Jew, I did still know that Chanukah was over.** She told me the menorah wad partially an inside joke between one of the other regulars (who was there at the bar and reclaimed the menorah after our conversation) and a Jewish bartender.

    ** While I thought it was tacky to leave the menorah there after the holiday, my daughter thought that it would actually be nice to leave it up as an acknowledgement of Judaism in the community. And I can certainly see why she, being in high school in a community with a lot of evangelical Christians, might feel that way.

  69. J.W. Brewer says

    Brett: in my (pre-pandemic) experience it is reasonably common for landlords of commercial office buildings in Manhattan (where “Judaism in the community” is a pretty high-profile thing) to put up both a menorah and Christmas tree in the lobby circa December 1 and take both down circa December 31. If someone’s paying enough attention the menorah may have the appropriate number of lightbulbs turned on each night/day during Hanukkah proper and be left dark before and after, but there doesn’t seem to be any strong norm that it ought to be whisked away immediately after the 8th day. Obviously it may be the case that “standard practice in New York City commercial real estate” is no proof of non-tackiness …

  70. David Marjanović says

    It is, of course, wholly heretical to take down a Christmas tree before January 6th.

    a descendant of a Hungarian rabbinical family

    Hungarians everywhere you look!

  71. Now, here’s an interesting bit. Perek Shira roughly ‘a chapter of song’ is a work composed sometime early in the first millenium, and was a popular non-canonical addendum to the prayer book in recent centuries. It enumerates many of the items of creation, living or otherwise, each with its own song, referencing some verse, mostly from the Bible, with a clear or less clear association; e.g. “Date-palm says: ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.’ [Ps. 92:12]” or “Starling says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.’ [Ps. 33:1]”

    It turns out Abramovich (Mendele Mokher-Sforim), who was one of the most prolific innovator of bird names in the early days of the Hebrew revival movement, published the Perek Shira with rhymed Yiddish commentary. It was published in Zhitomir in 1875, and may be read here. The Yiddish is written with Hebrew niqqud, which is unusual.

    Mendele loved nature, and had published a three-volume Natural History in Hebrew, based on a German work by Lenz, over the period of a decade. With that background, he would have been expected as anyone to add Yiddish equivalents for the animal names in the Perek Shir. He does so, in a delightful manner. The commentary in verse on each creature discusses the animal’s habits and characteristics, and sometimes adds learned points: such a bird is called such and such in Arabic, which means such and such. Even though I don’t know Yiddish, the charm of this work is apparent to me.

    The Yiddish names don’t appear in any regular place, and you need to dig through the verse to find them. I find the Slavic zhuravel ‘crane’ alongside the German shtar ‘starling’.

  72. What a great find!

  73. The subtitle of Perek Shira reads, in Hebrew, “meturgam l’lashon yehudit”; “translated to [the] Jewish language” (Modern Hebrew would have used “Yiddish” rather than “Jewish”). Looking at the subtitle with modern sensibilities, I would have inferred that Perek Shira had been written in some other language, and translated into Hebrew, rather than Yiddish.

    I notice that it also says “with an introduction written BLHK”; from rozele’s mentions elsewhere, I infer that this is an acronym for “b’lashon ha-kodesh” “in the Holy language”.

    Is that how Hebrew and Yiddish were usually referred to as in the Hebrew of that time, “Holy Language” and “Jewish Language”?

  74. @Owlmirror: While it no longer seems to be done, it was not uncommon in much of the twentieth century for American Jews who knew Yiddish but spoke English as their primary language to calque Yiddish as Jewish when talking about the language in English.

  75. Indeed. The first two lines of Sholom Aleichem’s epitaph, which he wrote himself, read in Yiddish, Do ligt a id a posht’er / geshriben idish-daitsh for veiber ‘Here lies a Jew, a simple man, wrote Yiddish for women’. A Hebrew version, by his best-known translator and son-in-law, Y. D. Berkovitz, inscribed on the other side of the gravestone, reads Ish yehudi pashut haya / yehudit katav lesameakh ‘A simple Jewish man he was [or there was] / wrote in Jewish, to make happy—.’

    I once met a Jewish American woman, probably born around 1900, who used the English word Jewish to refer to the Yiddish language.

  76. wholly heretical to take down a Christmas tree before January 6th

    And in my family when I was young, equally heretical to leave it up after Jan 6

  77. Y, under “Mother tongue” the United States census for 1920 records my grandfather’s family in Connecticut as speaking Hebrew and one of my uncles as speaking Russian, with “Russian” then crossed out and replaced by “Jewish.”

    And no, it wasn’t Hebrew.

  78. John Emerson says

    Y, Jonathan: How far wrong is “Jewish”? Isn”Yid” the Yiddish word for “Jew”? So wouldn’t it be like saying “ He speaks French” instead of “He speaks francais ”?

  79. Yiddish is the Yiddish word for Jewish. It would be strange to call now historical everyday language of Central and Eastern European Jews “Jewish” for obvious reasons, but it was alright back than.

  80. It’s not my language, except by association. Whatever its users want to call it is fine by me. Some call it Iddish.

    I imagine “Jewish” isn’t wrong, as in offensive, just obsolete.

  81. I suppose we’re talking here about an alienation effect modulated by degree of familiarity. I don’t hear Hungarian spoken very often, so I’ll probably take no notice if someone tells me, “I speak Magyar.” But I hear Spanish all the time and I think of it with the English word “Spanish,” so the sentence “I speak español” will strike me as strange.

  82. DM:

    Here, Christmas decorations come down in shops at the end of the day on the 25th. In time for the Boxing Day sales.

    Merry Christmas & Sretan Božić everyone!

  83. David Eddyshaw says

    Sretan Božić everyone

    Nadolig llawen i bawb!

    M pʋ’ʋs Zupibig dim la wʋsa ye, Nɛ ya Bʋria sʋŋ!

  84. zyxt, do you know the etymologyof sretan? In Russian, Сретенье is Candlemass and comes from the word for meet.

  85. D.O.:

    You are right. My understanding is that the word for luck, happiness (sreća) is ultimately from the verb sresti (to meet).

    The Croatian Encyclopedic Dictionary, for what it’s worth, gives a reconstructed pre Slavic form s’rętja, which it defines as “događaj, susret” ie. Something that happens or something that you meet.

  86. David Marjanović says

    In time for the Boxing Day sales.

    St. Stephen’s day is a holiday over here and often called the second Christmas day (zweiter Weihnachtstag).

    “translated to [the] Jewish language”

    The Russian note at the bottom is more precise; it says “i.e. Hymns in translation to the Jewish-German language”.

  87. Trond Engen says

    David M.: zweiter Weihnachtstag

    Andre juledag. Saint Stephen was thoroughly forgotten with the reformation, and he was hardly much venerated before.

  88. @Y: thanks for the Perek Shira – what a treat!
    (and i do love pointed yiddish, as unnecessary and out of style as it is!)

    most jewish languages (in the medium-broad sense: languages spoken by jews that are understood as distinct from the other languages spoken in the same places) call themselves “jewish”: “yidish”, “djudezmo”, “juhuri”, etc. so it’s not unusual for that to get calqued into other languages, and has been quite common in both jewish and christian englishes… other internal terms come from all directions: “ivre-taytsh” [yidish] and “ladino” [djudezmo] from their use in word-by-word translations from hebrew; “zhargon” [yidish] as a pejorative; “haketia” [moroccan judeo-spanish/arabic] from (per wikipedia) arabic /xaka/ ‘to tell’…

    and (like Owlmirror said) “holy tongue” (לשון-קודש) is pretty standard for the range from “biblical hebrew” to “biblical hebrew + talmudic aramaic” to “all traditional* hebrews & jewish classical aramaics” as distinct from both the languages of the nations and everyday jewish languages. in hebrew, though, the latter are usually some version of “our language” (i think RaSHI has “loshnenu”)…

    a gut nitlnakht, ale!

    * i’ve nver heard of israeli / ivrit being included under the term – which is in itself a rather strong argument for understanding it as distinct from all forms of hebrew from biblical to modern literary.

  89. a gut nitlnakht, ale!

    rozele, you will enjoy this ancient thread.

  90. John Emerson says

    Long ago I remember hearing some lovely Ladino songs about exile, specifically the 1492 exile from Spain. And songs about exile are stereotypically Jewish, but it’s stereotypically about exile from Jerusalem, but these songs were collected under the Ottomans, whose empire included Jerusalem (but sadly, not Seville).

  91. As said elsewhere, Hebrew-speaking Christians of the 1800s might call this “יום הולדת את המשיח” / ”yom huledet et hamashiach”.

    I suspect that modern Hebrew-speaking Christians would change “et hamashiach” to “l’mashiach”.

  92. Technically, yom huledet hamashiach, with huledet in the construct case, would do the job. However, חַג הַמּוֹלָד xag hamolad ‘the day of nativity’ is rhe standard term.

    (cf. yom huledet)

  93. @Y:

    The first two lines of Sholom Aleichem’s epitaph, which he wrote himself, read in Yiddish, Do ligt a id a posht’er / geshriben idish-daitsh for veiber ‘Here lies a Jew, a simple man, wrote Yiddish for women’. A Hebrew version, by his best-known translator and son-in-law, Y. D. Berkovitz, inscribed on the other side of the gravestone, reads Ish yehudi pashut haya / yehudit katav lesameakh ‘A simple Jewish man he was [or there was] / wrote in Jewish, to make happy—.’

    It’s interesting that Shalom Aleichem used “idish-daitsh”, Jewish-Deutsch/German. Berkovitz was presumably constrained from including that German part since he was writing lines in Hebrew that would rhyme and scan similarly, but it does seem reasonable that “Yehudit”/”Jewish” was a comprehensible term for Yiddish. But it also seems clear that Aleichem, for whatever reason, wanted to emphasize the Germanic core of Yiddish.

    (Aleichem’s verse continues “Un faren prosten folk hot er geven a humorist a shrayber” — ” and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor” — that is, not only for women.)

    Further down on the page you linked to is an actual letter written by Aleichem to Berkovitz, in Hebrew with Yiddish verses, which differs from the wording on the stone. It’s hard for me to read, but there is also a transcription. There, Aleichem used the term ‘עבֿרי-טײַטש’ ; ivri-taytsh — “Hebrew-German”. Was he playing up the prestige of Yiddish? Was he playing with the ambiguity of whether Jewish people should be called “Jewish” or “Hebrew”? Both? Something else?

    Wikipedia does say that Aleichem supported the Hebrew language revival, so maybe that has something to do with it.


    “zhargon” [yidish] as a pejorative

    One of the words changed from Aleichem’s original text was his self-description as a “זשאַרגאָניסט”/”zhargonist” (WikiP says that for him, at least, “jargon” was not pejorative).

    Completely irrelevantly to linguistic nomenclature, I note that WikiP also claims that Shalom Aleichem was a triskaidekaphobe , which is a really odd superstition for a Jew to have. Hm. The article used as a source for that claim also claims, falsely, that his deathdate on his headstone is given as “May 12a, 1916” (as can be clearly seen in the picture of it, the dates are only given in the Hebrew calendar). It could be that the author of that piece, Clyde Haberman, is given to compulsive lying embroidering of the truth. Or maybe Robert Hendrickson was (another, earlier, source for the claim is his “World literary anecdotes”, published in 1990).

  94. Could Sholom-Aleichem’s daitch be just an attempt to translate Hebrew label Ashkenazi?

  95. Lars Mathiesen says

    In the Danish state church (evangelical-lutheran, but I suspect not the same sort of evangelical as the US churches of that name) Boxing day still officially celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Acts 6:8-14 and 7:54-60 are read every year (while most bible texts are only read in alternating years). I remember learning about that in school, but I suspect it’s not something that will garner many correct answers in a pub quiz, not even among people named Steffen.

    EDIT: Actually it’s always December 26th, not moveable like Boxing Day in the UK when it would otherwise fall on the weekend. Most people here don’t get compensatory days off when church holidays fall on weekends, it evens out over time and such days are reckoned as 5/7 of a day for collective agreement purposes. (Both the 24th and 31st of December have gone from being half days to full days off since I started working; May 1st and Constitution Day on June 5th are also immovable and have had changes in status).

  96. Boxing Day in the UK is always Dec 26th, unless there’s been some recent change (part of the Brexit agreement, perhaps?)

  97. Lars M.: In the Danish state church […] Boxing day still officially celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen.

    Odd. The Norwegian and Danish ecclesiastic traditions are very similar for obvious reasons. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never been to church on andre juledag, but I do have some support:

    – The traditional calendar stick, primstaven, does not contain a holiday for Saint Stephen

    – There’s no traditional steffensmess or similar.

    – There’s no old, nativized form of the name. Steffen is Low German.

  98. Lars Mathiesen says

    Boxing Day in the UK is always Dec 26th — then WP is lying to me, or the “associated banking holiday” is not called Boxing Day when it falls on the following Monday or Tuesday instead. EDIT: In the traditional explanation about handing out Christmas boxes to tradesmen, that would indeed happen on the next working day after Christmas day, since they wouldn’t come around on a Sunday.

  99. WP sez: “Boxing Day is on 26 December, although the attached bank holiday or public holiday may take place either on that day or one or two days later”

    A little unclear, but yes, if the official holiday comes later it’s no longer on Boxing Day itself.

    I can remember it occasionally being referred to as St Stephen’s Day, without any explanation of who he was or what he did (the saint of putting things in boxes, presumably, rather than of putting things on top of other things).

  100. Lars Mathiesen says

    The ‘name of the day’ for December 26th is in fact Stephan in Denmark. It hasn’t been the ‘saint of the day’ since 1536, of course, and the Danish church doesn’t endorse it; I think it started out identical to the Roman Catholic saint list of the day, but has suffered folk processes at the hands of almanac publishers. Stephan stayed put, though.

  101. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think Saint Stephanus was the only person martyred early enough to get in Acts, so an evangelical church can recognize him without suspicion of popery. The Danish bible does not use the word Sankt, though.

  102. John Emerson says

    Mariolatry hasn’t been part of Lutheranism since the Reformation, but I have heard old Norwegians in Minnesota use the mild curse “YEESus ma-ter!” Some parts of Catholicism were too useful to discard.

  103. John Emerson says

    The church I was raised in was originally the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but after several mergers it is now the American Lutheran Church. Its evangelicism was always of the Scandinavian type.

  104. I was initially confused by the reference to reading from the Acts of the Apostles in connection with Saint Stephen. Being more interested in medieval military history than early Christian history, I associate the name “Saint Stephen” much more with the Hungarian King than the protomartyr.

    Unrelated: I assume that it is not just a quirk of my computer that John Cowan’s “Commented-On Language Hat Posts” page is still online but not updating?

  105. David Eddyshaw says

    While my own piety is so remarkable that I would doubtless have known that the 26th of December was the day of St Stephen Protomartyr anyway, it is possible that this knowledge was in some way enabled – even in my case – by the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”


    (Don’t miss the mouseover.)

  106. David Marjanović says

    Saint Stephen was thoroughly forgotten with the reformation, and he was hardly much venerated before.

    The same would have happened here if his feast wasn’t situated so conveniently. But so, Stefanitag persists. (Second-syllable stress.)

    Steffen is Low German.

    Steffen Seibert @RegSprecher is the spokesman for the German government.

  107. Lars Mathiesen says

    I imagine Danish would be able to come up with Steffen quite on its own, but I don’t have a handle on resources for historical onomastics. Lots of words that could have been inherited and actually existed in ON, turn out to have been lost and reimported from Low German. Swedish has Staffan which looks less than an LG loan but has the expected variation from Danish.

  108. David Marjanović says

    How did that happen? Undoing of imaginary umlaut, as in so many German loans in Polish?

  109. @Y: “House animals retain the Germanic, wild critters are borrowed from Slavic?”

    But krolikes are mostly domesticated (in Europe) while hozn are mostly wild. More interestingly perhaps, another Yiddish word for rabbit is kinigl. Apparently a diminutive of kinig (king), while królik seems a diminutive of król (also king) in Polish. I can’t find a parallel in German though, which is puzzling (I probably don’t know where to look). I’d be surprised if cuniculus weren’t the ultimate source.

  110. PlasticPaddy says

    Dwds has for Karnickel the same etymology as for Kaninchen. Does Yiddish always have g here or is there a form kanikl or knikl?

  111. Trond Engen says

    So kinigl is a folk etymology, and królik is a calque of that? That is interesting. it also ought to be reflected in folktales, but I can’t find anything of the sort.

  112. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is a better link with an Austrian dialect word that looks exactly like the Yiddish, i.e. with g.

  113. @Alex K.: English has coney, which almost looks like a regular cognate. However, it actually has a very complicated etymology, although all forms ultimately go back through French to the Latin. The OED entry for the word is extremely long interesting, including such details as this:

    Although there is archaeological evidence to suggest that rabbits existed in Britain before the last ice age and that some attempt may have been made to reintroduce them in the Roman period, the rabbit appears to have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, and only successfully re-established in Norman times: it has no native name in Celtic or Germanic (Welsh cwning (collective plural) (14th cent.) is from Middle English; Irish coinnín and Scottish Gaelic coinean are from Middle English or Anglo-Norman). Documentary sources indicate that rabbits were farmed on islands off the mainland of England in the 12th cent. and on the mainland from the early 13th cent.; it is notable that the word coney n.1 occurs in English earlier with reference to the fur (perhaps imported) than to the animal.

  114. per incuriam says

    That’s Benjamin Disraeli after Daniel O’Connell had attacked him in Parliament as a Jew: “When the right honorable gentleman’s ancestors lived in bogs and painted themselves blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

    There is no record of any such exchange on the floor of the House.

    O’Connell was a strong supporter of Jewish Emancipation, on the model of the Catholic (and Presbyterian) Emancipation he had been instrumental in bringing about. He advocated equal rights for all, regardless of race or religion, and was a fierce critic of American slavery in particular.

    Disraeli, for his part, was, even by the standards of his day, an out-and-out racist.

  115. Brett: English has coney, which almost looks like a regular cognate

    Good point.

    Also, Rabbit Lore tells about how Rabbits were brought across the great water by Man.

  116. Staffan

    Which, in turn, gave rise to Tapani and tapaninpäivä.

  117. Trond Engen says

    Ah. That would seem to move Staffan back in time.

  118. PlasticPaddy says

    @per incuriam
    re O’Connell, Wikipedia excerpts and contextualizes his speech that suggested Disraeli was the descendant of the “bad” thief on the cross. There is a reference there to a 2012 biography by Blake. Like most popular leaders that reach old age without being killed or retiring from public life, his certainty of the rightness of his cause (here Negro emancipation) and of his own integrity led O’C to make some cringeworthy blunders. You might enjoy reading “King of the Beggars” by Seán Ó Faoileán

  119. Trond Engen says

    I think we must assume that Stefan was a “balance” word, i.e. having two short syllables, so we should expect something like Da. **Steven, Sw./Norw. **Stevan, the latter pronounced like **Stevvan or even *Stuvvun in Trønder and adjacent dialects. Maybe the intervocalic fricative was exempted from voicing in this biblical name, but I don’t know that this would be enough to yield length on the consonant rather than the vowel.

  120. @ per incuriam and PlasticPaddy, what matters probably isn’t that Disraeli retorted or didn’t retort to O’Connell; it’s that Jewish folklore has come to believe he did.

    An alternate folktale attributes the retort to Judah P. Benjamin, who is said to have said, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.” About that, Bertram W. Korn says, “Four different sources are referred to, each detailing a different time, place and opponent; all this in addition to the coincidence that the retort is also credited to Disraeli. Benjamin was reticent to the extent of self-effacement; it is extremely unlikely that he ever made this or any other reply to an anti-Jewish attack” (“Judah P. Benjamin as a Jew,” Pub. American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 38, no. 3, March 1949, p. 168 n. 29).

    As Korn says, the story is a legend. I suppose it originated in cultural insecurity, like the nationalist bragging that early nineteenth-century visitors to the United States often took note of. But the Disraeli version was told to me as truth when I was a boy, and I suspect that its language may underlie the garbled exchange in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses where Joe Hynes asks, “Why aren’t you in uniform?” and Bloom (in his nightmare fantasy) replies, “When my progenitor of sainted memory wore the uniform of the Austrian despot in a dank prison where was yours?” (15.1660-62).

  121. David Marjanović says

    So kinigl is a folk etymology, and królik is a calque of that?



    I don’t think there are any; rabbits weren’t wild enough and didn’t go native enough.

    Austrian dialect word

    I had no idea! The comment at the very bottom mentions a form “Kuhnickel” from the Ore Mountains in Upper Saxony, so there’s our cuniculus right next to Poland.

    (And Karnickel is then from the Latin folk-etymology caniculus, “little dog”.)

    length on the consonant rather than the vowel

    The German form Stefan also has that. The two letters of ph either look like they should stand for a long sound, or they’re preceded by short vowels in the original Greek often enough for a pattern to emerge.

  122. stanley "Shimke" Levine says

    “Jewish” was the ‘normal’ term for the Yiddish language within my extended family, but already considered a bit outdated perhaps. I should explain that my family was a collection of partially assimilating and mostly non-practicing Jews. By this I mean that they did not themselves speak Yiddish, altho they had done so as children, and that they did not generally go to synagogue services but did have their male children bar-mitsva’d and had Jewish rituals / prayers for weddings and funerals. It seems to me that ‘Jewish’ was used pretty systematically by the generation before my parents. My parents were the transitional generation, as usage was passing from ‘Jewish’ to ‘Yiddish’. At one time, ‘Jewish’ had a nice, homey feel but I think increasingly it was perceived as embarrassing. I cannot at this remove vouch for how generalized these associations are beyond me and my immediate family. — In relation to Sholem Aleychem two other terms for Yiddish were mentioned “Ivri-taytch” and “Yiddish-taytch” — in my university courses I was taught that both of these were used from the beginnings of the perception of Yiddish as a separate language up to the modern period. Taytch also gives the verb ‘taytchen’ meaning to translate, and the expression “Taytch-Khumesh” for a traditional Yiddish version of the Hebrew Bible. I do not think that Sholem Aleychem used either term to express his feelings about the relative importance or prestige of German or Hebrew, but to express his ‘folkishness’ in contradistinction to writers who had high-falutin’ literary pretentions and who would have used the term “Yiddish” (as well of course as to those who used the term ‘zhargon’ which for a short time was descriptive but by the time of his death had acquired a definite pejorative sense like the French ‘patois’).

  123. Very interesting, thanks!

  124. @PlasticPaddy: your link to the Austrian dialect word worked great! One of the comments led me to Matthias Lexer’s Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch. I haven’t figured out all the abbreviations but here’s the relevant definition:

    küniclîn stn. kaninchen. küneclîn Reinh. 1342. küngel Mone 8,486. kuniglîn, kunglîn, künglîn Dfg. 162c, künlîn n. gl. 124a. külen Schm. Fr. 1,1259 (1412). — umdeutschung des lat. cuniculus s. Dwb. 5,1705 u. vgl. künolt.

    “Umdeutschung des lat. cuniculus” is what I was looking for. Plus, this entry:

    künigel s.Lexer küniclîn.

  125. Taytch also gives the verb ‘taytchen’ meaning to translate, and the expression “Taytch-Khumesh” for a traditional Yiddish version of the Hebrew Bible.

    Somewhere in my old-timey reading I think I encountered a word that had *teutsch or similar in it (maybe verteutschen ?), and seemed to mean “translate”, but not necessarily into German. There are plenty of etymological details like “mlat. theodiscus ‘zum (eigenen) Volk gehörig’here in DWDS, but it’s all too much for yours truly.

    Edit: the context may have been merely the elaborate antiquisant prose of Uncle Thom. Every time I reread one of his novels I come down with a bad case of pastiche, and my emails get on everyone’s nerves.

  126. David Marjanović says


    Huh. Eindeutschung would be one thing (“Germanization”), but Umdeutschung looks like a crafty neologism: Umdeutung “reinterpretation” × Eindeutschung…?

  127. “fartaytshn” is the usual word for translating into yiddish – “taytsh” with a completative (is that the term i’m thinking of) “far-“. famously used in theater: “kenig lir: fartaytsht un farbesert”. “iberzetsn” is “to translate” more generally, but i feel like i may have seen (bare) “taytsh” used for other target languages.

    “yidishn”, by contrast(?), usually means “to circumsize”.

  128. @David Marjanović: not very neo, apparently. Googling brings up multiple editions of Die Umdeutschung Fremder Wörter by Wilhelm Wackernagel, including the 1861 Basel edition (probably the first one). It’s on archive.org – a most amusing booklet (only 62 pages)! It made me think of Leskov’s coinages. Brother Rabbit is also there: “Cuniculus, mhd. künigel; nhd. Zusammensetzungen Könighase and Hasenkünlein.”

    And right next to the rabbit, “Cucumago, Kugelmagen.” A champignon?

  129. Stu Clayton says

    I now suspect i was half-remembering dolmetschen. In the old curiosity shop that passes for my mind, that’s on a shelf near teutschen.

  130. Dolmestchen is probably akin to Russian толмач “interpreter” (dated), Polish tłumacz “translator.” I don’t know why but teutschen made me think of толмач – a meaningless linkage. People tend to refer to their mother tongue as the default, so verteutschen/verdeutschen could be similar to “say it in plain English” or “я тебе русским языком говорю!”

  131. Proto-Slavic
    Of Turkic origin, ultimately from Proto-Turkic *tilmaç (“interpreter”), from Proto-Turkic *til- (“tongue”). Cognate with Turkish dilmaç, Kazakh тілмаш (tilmaş), Uzbek tilmoch.

    *tъlmáčь m

    interpreter, translator
    Synonym: *tъlkъ


  132. I think there was an LH post touching on Dolmetsch a few years back.

    Edit: here.

  133. David Marjanović says

    Dolmetschen is still the word for “interpret” as opposed to “translate”; Dolmetsch is being replaced by the back-formation Dolmetscher.

    Verdeutschen was indeed the normal 16th-century way to say something around “translate into German” and “explain in plain language”.

    A champignon?

    That’s what Google says.

  134. Trond Engen says


    It’s worth repeating that the root identity between bedeutung “meaning” and Deutsch “German” is hardly coincidental:

  135. Stu Clayton says

    It must be coincidental, otherwise how to account for the works of Heidegger and Adorno, to name but these ?

  136. Verdeutschen was indeed the normal 16th-century way to say something around “translate into German” and “explain in plain language”.

    i forgot to say that “taytsh” works for the latter, too!
    (though the more idiomatic “makh rashi” (referring to the preeminent medieval commentator) is a little tastier)

  137. Then there is Undeutsch ‘Latvian, Estonian, peasant’ (either language or people).

  138. Trond Engen says

    Norw. utyske n. means “monster”.

    ON úþýðr meant “unfriendly”.

  139. David Marjanović says

    deuten “point; interpret (not as opposed to “translate”)”

  140. Stu Clayton says

    Deut ist keinen Deut damit verwandt.

  141. David Marjanović says


  142. Trond Engen says

    The Deut is the quantum of meaning, i,e. the minimum amount of conveyed information (as e.g. in writing).

  143. Stu Clayton says

    The Deutung of a message is thus the Feynmann integral over all interpretations, however implausible and unlikely. Entscheidend ist, was hinten rauskommt.

  144. Rose Waldman says

    I just discovered this thread, and I’m finding the comments truly informative and thought-provoking. I wish I would have seen this earlier, so that I could have joined the conversation. Thank you, all, for this fascinating response to my article.

  145. Please feel free to join the conversation now — threads never die around here, they just age gracefully! And let me express my appreciation for your delightful article personally, now that you’re here.

  146. I note that Dovid Katz has works-in-progress of translating Biblical books into Yiddish, and not just any Yiddish, but Lithuanian Yiddish. The Hebrew line describing the translation of “Song of Songs”, though, reads:
    “תרגום לשפה היהודית המורגלת בפלך ווילנא ובפרט במזרחו” / “tirgum l’safa hayehudit hamurgelet b’pelech Vilna u’v’prat b’mizracho — “translated to the Jewish language typical of the Vilna region and particularly its eastern parts”. This seems like a deliberately archaic phrasing, given the above discussion. It contrasts with how in English, he frequently uses the casual portmanteau of “Litvish”.

  147. “targum lasafa”…, and if you want to pronounce this normatively, rather than by casual Israeli pronunciation, you’d say “befelekh Vilna uvifrat bemizrakho”. In said casual pronunciation, you’d say “uvefrat bemizrakho”.

    Pelekh פֶּלֶךְ is indeed archaic, but was used to describe Russian governorates. I don’t think it’s used for any present-day political divisions anywhere. I wonder if the word is more familiar to Yiddish speakers than to those of contemporary Hebrew.

  148. Rose Waldman says

    Rozele, to reply to your “why, rose, why! your sources cannot be ending any of those words in ־ה,” I want to say that I just transliterated in a way that felt natural to me. Accustomed to chassidic transliteration (I know that’s not really a thing, but some conventions have unofficially become the uniform choice across frum publications), yet having adopted some of YIVO’s conventions because of my work with yiddishist colleagues, I seem to have created my own hodgepodge transliteration style. Mostly, I rely on the editors and publishers to decide on spelling of transliterated words, and I’m perfectly fine with whatever choices they make. I guess Tablet just let me run with mine.
    At any rate, I very much appreciate your bringing this to my attention. It’ll make me more aware next time.

  149. I seem to have created my own hodgepodge transliteration style.

    That’s what I do with Russian. I can’t stand the Library of Congress system, with its stupid ĭ and t͡s and i͡u and i͡a and ė, so I just transliterate in a way that makes sense to me as an English-speaker.

  150. John Cowan says

    The point of LC (and ISO 9) transliteration is that once you’ve learned it, you can see that the title page you are looking at in a Cyrillic-script book and a LC authority record (which is always in Latin script) are or are not exactly the same thing. It’s not about being pronounceable to anyone in particular.

  151. Yes, I realize that. It’s fine for that particular use. As Gertrude Stein said of the village explainer, it’s excellent if you are a village, but if you are not, not. I would have no objection to it if it stayed in its L of C corner, but the fact is it’s become virtually mandatory in academic publishing, to the point that when I investigated the possibility of publishing my Russian lit chronology a university press told me they might be interested if I were willing to change it to L of C transliteration. I didn’t quite tell them to take a running jump, but I lost interest.

  152. John Cowan says

    Here, however, we have a village of explainers, and wuddaya say to that, Gert?

  153. chassidic transliteration (I know that’s not really a thing, but some conventions have unofficially become the uniform choice across frum publications) […] I seem to have created my own hodgepodge transliteration style. Mostly, I rely on the editors and publishers to decide on spelling of transliterated words […] Tablet

    i’m sorry to have missed this sweet and useful comment from rose waldman!
    (thanks to @JC for the comment that brought me back to see it!)

    hasidic transliteration is very much a thing! and a thing i often appreciate, when it lets me understand how folks in those worlds speak the language (YIVO transliteration is great for spelling, but pretty abysmal [and at times actively misleading] for pronunciation in anything except their own dialect-that-dares-not-admit-it-is-one).

    and i’m glad to be able to put the blame on the editorial side of Tablet – who are awful in far more serious ways than sloppiness with yiddish transliteration (though i’d argue it’s all pretty closely related) – rather than on rose!

    i’m rarely tempted to cite prescriptivists approvingly – especially about spelling, kholile – but one of the few situations where i am is when editors reveal their disrespect for a language with transliteration [sic] that’s based on the norms of multiple other, higher-prestige, langugages but not the one they’re actually dealing with.

  154. I just saw this commentary by the actress Lea Koenig-Stolper, on the Yiddish language (in Yiddish, with English subtitles). It’s remarkable (and I imagine must seem so especially to a speaker of German) how Hebrew borrowings are concentrated in the semantic field of abstract nouns: soul, charm, wisdom, power, injustice; plus ‘crazy’ and ‘dumbstruck’.

    I like what she says, too, especially the final comment.

  155. David Marjanović says

    and I imagine must seem so especially to a speaker of German

    Oh yes! They’re not just concentrated there, they make up the entire category as far as I’ve noticed. That’s exactly why I keep saying I understand everything when I hear Yiddish except the topic.

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