The New English-Yiddish Dictionary.

Larry Yudelson has some exciting lexicographical news (if you’re excited by Yiddish):

Given its physical heft, it’s no surprise that the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published last month by Indiana University Press is the work of generations. Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, its editor, worked on the 856-page, 4 1/2-pound volume for some 20 years in her Teaneck basement. At its core are words collected a generation earlier by her father Mordkhe Schaechter in the family’s house in the Bronx. For many of those years, when Gitl was a teenager, she helped her father as he cataloged Yiddish words at the dining room table.

But before that, the family legend goes, there was her grandfather, Khayem-Benyomen Shekhter, and his enthusiasm for the Yiddish language. The memory of his enthusiasm is tied to a date more than a century ago: 1908, the year he made sure to attend the great Yiddish language conference in his hometown of Czernowitz, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Great hook, right? When you mention Czernowitz/Cernăuți/Czerniowce/Csernovic/Черновцы, now Chernivtsi, you awaken all my unearned Hapsburg nostalgia. The family story is amazing, not least the bit where Mordkhe married Charne share “an unusual determination to raise their children as Yiddish speakers”:

There were after-school classes five days a week in the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem School and summers at Yiddish-speaking Camp Hemshekh.

And there was “Beynbridzhifke” — what her parents called the corner of Bainbridge Avenue in the north Bronx, where they settled alongside Mordkhe’s sister Beyle, who published poems in Yiddish, and the family of Joshua Fishman, an American-born Yiddishist who became a dean at Yeshiva University, an expert in bilingualism and author of “Yiddish in America.” (He also wrote the article on YIVO’s website about the Czernowitz conference; the Yiddish world is not so large these days.) From the Yiddish perspective, it was a three-house shtetl.

Three Yiddish-speaking families may not seem like a lot — it would have been an unimaginably small galus half a century earlier — but it was enough for a satisfying Yiddish-speaking game of hide-and-seek. Gitl’s father created a children’s club that he dubbed Enga-Benga — the Yiddish equivalent of the nursery rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo.”

[. . .]

Gitl went to Barnard, majoring in Russian. Clearly growing up as a linguist’s assistant had an impact. She also studied Yiddish at the Jewish Teachers Seminary/Herzliah, an institution founded to provide teachers to secular Yiddish schools..Then she went to nursing school and became a nurse — a profession she still practices.

Her older sister, Rukhl, also studied at both Barnard and the Jewish Teachers Seminary. Rukhl went on to get a masters in education. She taught Yiddish at the Kinneret Day School in Riverdale before being recruited as a writer for the Yiddish-language Forverts newspaper. In March she became the paper’s editor — the first American-born chief of the 119-year-old publication.

As a teenager, Rukhl picketed the Forverts with her siblings, parents, and other members of Yungtruf – Youth for Yiddish, an organization her father helped start. Their beef with the Yiddish newspaper was that it was published in the traditional Yiddish spelling, rather than the modernized, systematized spelling that Mordkhe and YIVO had fought for. It took a generation, but the Forverts changed its spelling. Now, Rukhl has overseen a partial retreat from YIVO style, as she welcomes in chasidic writers without insisting on a spelling makeover.

[. . .]

For Gitl’s three children, it wasn’t enough just to be fluent in Yiddish. They also had to speak Tamil with their father, Meylekh Viswanath, a native of India (and an occasional writer for this paper). Gitl and Meylekh met at a Yiddish retreat. Where else?

There are moments of high drama:

And one day Gitl discovered that the files she had labored over for years were stuck in a word processor that was no longer compatible with her new computer. “All that work could not be transferred to the new system,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Really, I didn’t know if I would live to see this dictionary.[…]

I could quote endlessly, but go, read it, you won’t be sorry.


  1. Live to learn, never heard of the 1541 Bovo-Buch before. Not just a groundbreaking Yiddish book, but also a poem! And I never realized that Russia’s Bova-Korolevich had so venerable pedigree, from XII c. Britain through XVI c. Venice

  2. In my idiolect, “galus” is not a count noun. It means the dispersal of the Jews and the resulting diaspora, and not an individual diasporic community. However, I don’t know whether the word is used in exactly the same way in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

  3. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Brett: one could speak of a galus as a specific instance of dispersion, rather than an individual community:

    The Babylonian galus […] was primarily a spiritual galus. […] Later was the galus Yavan, the Greek occupation […] The last galus, and seemingly endless one, says the Bnei Yisaschar, is that of Edom, Rome. (Maslo, A. (2005) The Eternal Covenant: Articles and Essays on Judaism. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Academy Publications, p. 154)

  4. The Yiddish word for galus, goles is definitely a count noun (der/dos goles, pl. golesn).

    The dictionary is indeed exciting. Schaechter and his family were and are amazing. The detail about picketing the Forverts to get it to change its orthography is very telling. He was quite a purist, and as such rejected many borrowings into Yiddish, including even the word bukh (book); the real Yiddish work, he insisted (not without some reason), was bikhl. He similarly rejected borrowing from English. To reconcile this with his desire to maintain Yiddish as an everyday language, he coined and attempted to popularize many new words.

    This dictionary, then, includes literally thousands of items of new vocabulary. It’s a shame that these invented words aren’t marked as such. I think thing does readers a disservice, leaving them thinking the words they find in it are ones that you might encounter in Yiddish literature or would have heard in a shtetl.

  5. It’s a shame that these invented words aren’t marked as such.

    I agree, and in fact I find it a dereliction of lexicographical duty to try to pass off invented words as real ones. People don’t turn to your dictionary to learn what you think the language should be but to learn what the language is.

  6. The detail about picketing the Forverts to get it to change its orthography is very telling

    To what extent was it a fight over distant but real-life dialects? Chernowitz belongs to the South-East Yiddish area and the bulk of the Chassidim hail from the extreme North-East

  7. Quite the reverse. YIVO standard orthography basically represents 19C Northeast Yiddish (Litvish). Quite a lot of lexicographers come from the periphery of the standard language, beginning of course with James Murray, who said that as a Border Scot he could transcribe standard English pronunciation better than the English precisely because he didn’t mix it up with his own pronunciation. (Or perhaps with Thomas Sheridan, father of the playwright and friend of Dr. Johnson, who published a dictionary of pronunciation in 1790, causing Johnson to growl about what business had an Irishman to define English pronunciation.)

  8. I’d say YIVO orthography (meaning for writing with the Yiddish alphabet, as opposed to YIVO romanization), like all Yiddish orthography, is dialect-neutral. The most salient differences among the dialects are the stressed vowels, but that has nothing to do with orthography. Whether you pronounce it “u” or “i,” a vov is a vov (or a vuv is a vuv). One could argue that the choice to represent two historically separate vowels that are merged in Northeastern Yiddish with a single grapheme, as in the cases of ayin or komets-alef, is slightly biased toward Northeastern Yiddish, but in modern Yiddish there was never a competing non-Northeastern orthography that distinguished between the two vowels written with komets-alef.

    Schaechter always spoke in his native Czernowitz Southeastern dialect. His children and grandchildren speak a dialect of their own that is based in Southeastern Yiddish (of both Bukovina and Bessarabia).

  9. One could argue that the choice to represent two historically separate vowels that are merged in Northeastern Yiddish with a single grapheme, as in the cases of ayin or komets-alef, is slightly biased toward Northeastern Yiddish

    More than slightly, although the varieties of Eastern Yiddish aren’t that different in phonology, and what differences there are are mostly shallow. But to make an analogy with English orthography, changing the spelling of pork to poark would not help the majority of anglophones, but those who do separate NORTH from FORCE would benefit from the greater regularity.

  10. Quite the reverse. YIVO standard orthography basically represents 19C Northeast

    Thanks for clarification. So would it be correct to say that YIVO reforms largely de-Germanized Yiddish in selected features like double consonants? What about the old-orthography silent alef, was it a remnant of a phonetic transition shared by all dialects, or was it never voiced?

  11. Aleph was (mostly) silent because it was (again mostly) silent in Hebrew. In written Yiddish (at least as I learned to read it, which may not be so historically accurate) it usually indicates a hiatus.

  12. Sometimes it represented a schwa vowel that had been lost, as in the feminine definite article די, formerly written with a final alef (cf. the German spelling die, now also monosyllabic in the standard.


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