A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English icon

A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English

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3.2.3. Written Jewish English

A Jew may speak in a different variety of English when talking to another Jew or to a non-Jew. In writing the same principle works: The variety of English to be used depends on the target readers. The next text is probably incomprehensible to a non-Jew or even to a Jew who is unfamiliar with Yiddish or Hebrew:

We have in our city of about 100,000 Yidden, ken yibu, four great modern orthodox shools. Each caters to Bar-mitzvahs on Shabboth, with all the chillul shabboth befarhessia involved (Jewish Life, May 1966, p.60).

In general English:

We have in our city of about 100,000 Jews, thus they shall increase, four great modern synagogues. Each caters to Bar-Mitzvahs on Sabbath, with all the public desecration of the Sabbath involved. (Steinmetz 1986: 86.)

Even in the 'translated' form there are two loan-words: Sabbath - "The seventh day of the week considered as the day of religious rest enjoined on the Israelites by the fourth commandment", and Bar-Mitzvah - The 'confirmation' ceremony in a synagogue for a Jewish boy who has reached the age of thirteen, which is regarded as the age of religious responsibility (OED).

3.2.4. Borrowing from Jewish English into English

The American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1933: 461) distinguished between cultural borrowing of speech-forms which is mutual and intimate borrowing which is one-sided, where the lower language, "spoken by the subject people, or, as in the United States, by the humble immigrants" borrows from the upper or dominant language "spoken by the conquering or otherwise more privileged group."

Obviously the 'lower' Yiddish has borrowed extensively from the 'upper' English but, Bloomfield's generalization fails to do justice to the remarkable influence Yiddish has had on English (Steinmetz 1986: 2). American-born Jewish writers have included Yiddishims they picked up in childhood in their writings and in this way words of Yiddish-origin have entered into general English.

4. A Semantic Study of Lexemes of Yiddish Origin in English

4.1. Primary Sources

As a result of surveying over half a billion running words from United States, British, and Canadian sources - newspapers, magazines, and books published from 1963 to 1972, Clarence L. Barnhart (1973) concluded that two elements in the slang of the 1960s "stand out from the mass of unrelated terms: the preponderant number of terms growing out of the drug culture and the peculiar trend (chiefly in United State writing) of using Yiddish words in slangy contexts or as slang." Barnhart noted that the Yiddish slang words were "probably traceable to New York literary circles, where use of Yiddish terms has long been favored for their expressiveness and as a means of spicing articles aimed at rather sophisticated literary market" (p.106).

This trend started much earlier. In 1852 Charles Dickens used the word ganef 'thief' in Bleak House; the word shul 'synagogue' was cited in the 1873 edition of The Slang Dictionary (Steinmetz 1986: 44). O. Henry used the word Mazuma 'money, cash' in 1906 and Jack London used the same word in in 1912. Yiddish-origin words appears in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) (see below 4.8.2. shlep), and so on.

Many of the earliest Yiddish entries into English were recorded in books written by the Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), especially in Children of the Ghetto, published in 1892. Zangwill was born in London, his father being a Russian Jewish refugee who had escaped from Russia in 1848. As a boy he studied at the Jews' free school and after receiving his B.A. degree from London University, he edited a humorous paper for several years. He wrote several books and dramas about the Jews, which were widely read. Through his life, he was a champion of unpopular causes. (Kunitz, Haycraft 1966: 1568-9.)

Zangwill might be considered the pioneer of the use of Yiddish-origin lexemes in English. Citations from his Children of the Ghetto often appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the beginning of the list of examples. The lists are arranged in a chronicle order. The glossary appended to his book is a revealing list of early orthography practice and the semantic aspects of these words in his time.

An outstanding source of Yiddish-origin words in American English is the writing of Arthur Kober. He was born in Brody, Austria-Hungary, later Poland. At two he came to the United States with his parents. He wrote screen plays while being employed by the Fox and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture companies in Hollywood. Sketches in Jewish dialect with a Bronx setting were first published in the New Yorker and later collected in a book form. (Kunitz, Haycraft 1966: 771.)

Barnhart's observations may be interpreted as the acceleration and intensifications of a trend already in existence. A new generation of American-born Jewish writers, humorists and movie directors appeared. These people: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Woody Allen and others use English as a medium of expression and include in their works Yiddish words they had picked up in childhood. Partly through their work, Yiddish-origin lexemes became known also among non-Jewish readers and were eventually used also by non-Jewish writers.

Choosing the main source for the primary material for my thesis was incidental. When working on a proseminar paper on the influence of Yiddish on English, I occasionally noticed Yiddish-origin lexemes in the international edition of Newsweek I have been receiving weekly for some years. I used some quotations as examples and, after having decided to extend my proseminar paper into a pro-gradu thesis I continued to pick up additional examples. After few months of casual scrutinizing, I gradually noticed that the magazine often used Yiddish-origin words and I paid even more attention to this source of primary material. Most of the examples in this essay are indeed from Newsweek, starting from the invasion of the Iraqi forces into Kuwait in the summer of 1990, during the time I was working on my proseminar paper, until the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton as the U.S. president in January 1993, when I submitted my pro gradu thesis. Obviously, this time frame is arbitrary and carries no linguistic significance except that it is a record of language in actual use at present.

Newsweek International is written and edited for a worldwide audience and is published weekly in Switzerland. Roughly two thirds of it is different from what appears in the domestic edition (Newsweek, June 29, 1992: 2). It means that the magazine's readership in any country is expected to be familiar with the words which appear in this publication.

Another source of material has been The International Herald Tribune, (IHT) published in Paris, which I sometimes read. After establishing the lexemes to be studied, I picked up some examples from ^ The Wall Street Journal, (WSJ) published in New York, with the help of University of the Helsinki Language Corpus Server (UHLCS), which was prepared in the U.S.A.

The primary material is not free of mistakes. Zangwill, for example, defined imeshreer as a corrupt form of the German ohne beschreien. As a matter of fact this "corrupt German" is a Yiddish word (Leonard Prager 1987: 37).

In a review of the language of Bellow's ^ Herzog, Leila Goldman (1982: 75) wrote:

Nevertheless, Herzog is a hodgepodge of language. Bellow misuses both Hebrew and Yiddish. Those who read this work and do not know these languages, accept his usage as authentic. Those who know better are distressed at his lack of sensitivity to these languages and his unscholarly approach to a scholarly novel with an intellectual protagonist.

It is well known that the English of another Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer, was below the level of native speakers and the knowledge in Yiddish of his translators into English was even poorer. As a result, the English translations of his novels cannot be fully trusted, even if he did the translation himself.

As a rule, there is a problem in collecting primary material. One may encounters many quotations in secondary sources but they are short, taken out of context and often too lean to be used in a semantic study. The original source is not always readily available. I have decided to concentrate on the examples I picked up myself because in this way I am able to study the lexemes more efficiently. As a result, the study somehow concentrates on the contemporary state of the English lexemes of Yiddish-origin and lacks a more thorough diachronical perspective. I am collecting more material and since this paper is not the last word on this subject, certainly not mine, I intend to extend the examination of these lexemes in later papers. (See Appendix )

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