A Semantic Study
of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes
Department of English
University of Helsinki
Table of Contents
1. Introduction 1
2. Languages in Contact 2
3. Jewish Languages 4
3.1. A Short History of Yiddish 6
3.2. Jewish English 9
3.2.1. Jewish Settlement in the United States. 9
3.2.2. Varieties of Jewish English 10
3.2.3. Written Jewish English 13
3.2.4. Borrowing from Jewish English into English 13
4. A Semantic Study of Lexemes of Yiddish Origin in English 14
4.1. Primary Sources 14
4.2. Secondary Sources 17
4.3. Etymology and Orthography. 19
4.4. Procedures of the Semantic Study 24
4.5. Religio-Cultural Terms 26
4.5.1. kosher, treyfe 27
4.5.2. shikse 29
4.5.3. davn 29
4.5.4. to sit shive 31
4.5.5. ghetto, shtetl 35
4.5.6. gefilte fish 37
4.5.7. beygl 39
4.5.8. Jewish Holidays 39
4.6. Words and Expressions for General Use 41
4.6.1. khutspe 41
4.6.2. shmooze 47
4.6.3. bottom line, in short 52
4.6.4. Enough already, shush 57
4.6.5. dybbuk, Golem 59
4.6.6. shm- 60
4.6.7. -nik 62
4.6.8. boor 67
4.7. Human Types 70
4.7.1. meyvn, kibitzer 71
4.7.2. mentsh 75
4.7.3. shlemiel et al. 76
4.7.4. meshuge 80
4.7.5. shmok 81
4.7.6. shmate 83
4.7.7. Miscellany 84
4.8. Show Business Cant 84
4.8.1. shtik 85
4.8.2. shlep 86
4.8.3. shlok 87
4.8.4. shmaltz 88
4.8.5. hokum 88
4.9. Criminals' Argot 90
4.10. Summary 91
5. Conclusions 94
Yiddish is a West Germanic language, a geographical 'outpost' to the east on the periphery of continental Germania (Lass 1987: 12). It emerged a millennium ago as a fusion language, with Hebrew, Aramaic, Romance, and Germanic components and later acquired also Slavic components. For a bit more than a century it has been in a close contact with English, following the massive movement of Jews from Eastern Europe to America at the end of the last century.
This thesis deals with the result of this language contact upon English, with emphasis upon areas and uses not directly involved with Jewish life, in other words, upon those traits which have become integral part of the English language and are used and understood not only by Jews.
I start with a brief study of languages in contact, following mostly the outlines laid down by Uriel Weinreich in his book Languages in Contact (1953). This chapter is followed by a brief history of Yiddish and the development of Jewish English.
The main body of the study is a semantic study of words borrowed from Yiddish into English. I follow the descriptive patterns set by Stephen Ullmann in his Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning (1972). The semantic study mainly examines lexemes found in the international edition of Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune in their 1990-1992 issues. The emphasis is, thus, on lexemes which are presently in use.
Following a discussion of matters of etymology and orthography I outline the procedures for the semantic study and continue with detailed discussion of the lexemes of Yiddish-origin. At the end of the examination I discuss common features of the context in which these lexemes appear and try to determine why English has domesticated these words.
I conclude the thesis with general observations on this field of linguistic studies and suggestions for further topics to be examined as a continuation of this study.
Uriel Weinreich (1953: 1) defines languages in contact as two or more languages used alternately by the same persons. Interference is the deviation from the norms of either languages in the speech of the individuals involved - bilinguals - as a result of this contact. One manifestation of linguistic interference is elements that are borrowed or transferred from one language to another.
David L. Gold (1986a: 133) maintains that interference is a pejorative term which may have the sense of 'contaminate'. He suggests instead using the term influence, which is a neutral and objective word. Other terms used in this field are borrowing, transfer, switching, integration, domestication, etc.
Weinreich studied interference in the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical domains. ^ arises when a bilingual reproduces a sound of one system according to the phonetic rules of another language. He does not deal with individual variation from person to person in speech - idiolectal variation - but with communolectal or ethnolectal ones
Grammatical interference is expressed in outright transfer of morphemes from one language into speech of another, changes of word order as a result of a replication of the relation of another language, application of intonation patterns, and disappearance of grammatical categories. Lexical interference is the transfer of simple words and compound lexical elements.
In her study ^ , Joan R. Rayfield (1970) examined the English-Yiddish interference of a group of Yiddish-speaking Jews in a low-income suburb of Los Angeles. Essentially following Weinreich's model, she examined linguistic interference from these three aspects: phonetic, grammatical and lexical. She noticed that the English spoken by those whose mother tongue was Yiddish, had been subjected to a very high degree of phonetic interference from Yiddish (p.78).
In his study ^ (1981), George Jochnowitz noticed that a failure to distinguish between /•/ and /æ/ was typical of a Yiddish accent in English. Some of the informants did not distinguish ten from tan or pen from pan (p.735). Gold (1986a: 130) tells us how a Yiddish-speaker once expressed amazement to him over how a neighbor had given his two children, a boy and a girl, the "same" English names: Allen and Ellen.
Under structural-phonetic-interference Rayfield examined stress and intonation patterns. She maintained that the use of Yiddish intonation patterns was perhaps the most striking feature of the English of those whose mother tongue was Yiddish but spoke English almost perfectly. After examining contour changes, she concluded that there was a greater frequency of rising contour in Yiddish (p. 75).
As an illustration of one type of grammatical interference U. Weinreich (1953) mentioned the substitution of the sequence of sounds /_m/ for the initial consonant as a morphological device for expressing disagreement, for example money shmoney (p.34).
Another example of grammatical influence as a result of the contact between Yiddish and English is the occasional inversion of word order to reproduce Yiddish sentence pattern; along with the appropriate intonation, an English declarative form turns into an interrogative (Sol Steinmetz 1986: 72), for example: "This Is the New World Order?" (Newsweek, April 6, 1992: 21)
While examining lexical interference Rayfield recorded loanwords in each direction, but while the numbers of English loanwords in Yiddish was huge, the number of Yiddish loanwords in the speakers' English was very small. Examples of such loans are: davenen 'to pray', the connotation being specifically that of Jewish prayers; ganev 'thief'; shnorer 'beggar'; etc.
Two additional elements are stylistic and paralinguistic influence. Jews have a tendency to answer a question with a question ("Why do Jews always answer a question with a question? Why not?"), to use more often than others rethorical questions (Gold 1988: 276), and to use argument as sociability (Deborah Schiffrin 1984). They actively use their body, especially the hands, while talking.
When investigating certain traits of what is considered to be a Jewish stereotype, sometimes one has to resort to what Deborah Tannen (1981: 146) calls 'the aha factor.' In her study of New York Jewish conversational style she concluded that, for example, Jewish speakers tend to overlap and latch. But her findings were based on close observation and interviews with six speakers, which was too small number for generalizing. But when she explained these stylistic features in public or private forums, "a cry of relief goes up from many of my hearers - especially from intermarried couples, of whom only one partner is Jewish and from New York... If the family does not live in New York City, the misunderstanding often extend as well to children who complain that the New York parent does not listen to them and overreacts to their talk."