Tips and Resources to Help You Begin Learning Yiddish

Virtually every American knows something about Yiddish whether they know it or not. 100 years ago, Yiddish newspapers were so mainstream and respected that they often received election results before ENGLISH newspapers. The Yiddish literature rush that occurred from the 19th century up until some decades after the Holocaust is considered by some the largest outpouring of human thought in all of history, anywhere.

Yiddish has changed countless lives, and not just those of Jews. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke of it as a language never spoken by people in power (you are welcome to debate this accordingly). In comparison to languages of nobility and large, established countries, Yiddish established itself as “mame-loshn”, a mother’s language, not necessarily tied to any earth or ground, but transcending the Jewish experience wherever it may go.

In online Polyglot Communities, there’s one Yiddish-speaker or Yiddish learner that seems to get everyone enchanted with one Yiddish phrase, or at least cause others to take another look at it.

Well, today we’re going to teach you exactly how to BEGIN that journey.

Before we begin, however, let’s outline exactly how Yiddish is different from High German (with which it shares a lot of words):

  • The pronunciation of words is different. Yiddish has a distinctly more Slavic lilt to it, and those who speak languages from that area of the world can often just use their “home accents” and be passable (e.g. Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, etc). There are vowel shifts that are followed with great consistency. German au becomes Yiddish oy. In many Yiddish dialects, the German ei sound is pronounced like “ey” (to rhyme with “hey”).

 

  • The grammar is also closer to that of English or even that of a Slavic language at times, although it can also follow German conventions. “Du herst?” (are you listening?) makes complete sense as a question, even with the subject first…much like the casual English “you hear?!!?”

 

  • Some common words in German have vanished completely and replaced with Hebrew / Aramaic or Slavic equivalents. Surprisingly I’ve noticed that linguistic borrowings from liturgical languages follow similar patterns in language throughout the world (e.g. Tajik uses Arabic loan words in many of the same places that Yiddish would, such as the word for “maybe” being an Arabic work in Tajik (Mumkin) and a Hebrew one in Yiddish (Efsher).

 

  • Using too much German pronunciation and / or Germanic loan words in your speech results it what is called “Deitschmerisch”, which was a variety used by some Yiddish speakers in more enlightenment-related spheres to make it more acceptable. Throughout most of its history Yiddish was deemed the language of “women and the uneducated”.

 

  • German can help, but using too much German influence in your Yiddish can have negative effects. Knowledge of Jewish Liturgical Languages definitely helps, especially given that “Yeshivish” exists (or, roughly put, English spoken amongst some Orthodox Jews with the Hebrew / Aramaic Loanwords from Yiddish intact). Knowledge of Slavic Languages can also prove helpful, especially given that some gendered nouns in Yiddish can lean more towards Slavic than Germanic (not also to mention many Latinate loan words end in “-tziye”, which shows obvious Slavic influence).

 

Keep in mind that there is also a lot of incomplete and flawed material out there, but you probably knew that.

 

Yiddish also has no centralized academy. Among secular Yiddishists, the prestige dialect will be Lithuanian Yiddish (which I speak). Among many Hasidic communities, the prestige dialect will vary depending on the sect. For example, among the Satmar Hasidim, Hungarian Yiddish will rule (which sounds slightly more like High German and a very, VERY distinctly Finno-Ugric rhythm to it. In areas of Williamsburg you can hear it spoken on the street with regularity. Did I also mention that you can order your MetroCards in Yiddish in various subway stations in New York?).

 

Oh, and one more thing! With the exception of Yiddish texts from the Soviet Union, the Hebrew and Aramaic words will be SPELLED the way they are in Hebrew and Aramaic, but the pronunciation is something you’ll need to MEMORIZE! And I bet you’re wondering, “oh, if it’s the Hebrew word, I could just memorize its Hebrew pronunciation, right?”

 

Nope! Because Israeli Hebrew uses the Sephardic pronunciation (precisely so the Zionists could detach themselves from the “Diasporic” pronunciations of Hebrew words) and Yiddish’s Hebrew and Aramaic components use the Ashkenazi Variety (which is still used by some Orthodox Jews in prayer). The Yiddish words “Rakhmones” (mercy) would be “Rakhmanut” in Hebrew, although they are spelled the EXACT SAME WAY.

 

The meanings aren’t necessarily the same either. A normal word in Hebrew can be a profanity in Yiddish (I won’t give examples here).

 

So here are various resources you can use to begin:

 

For one, Mango Languages is put enough together with good accents to the degree that you can begin using Yiddish with your friends RIGHT AWAY. The Hebrew alphabet can be learned accordingly with writing out the words on the screen. (Also! Words that are not Hebrew or Aramaic in Origin are written phonetically, exactly as they are spelled. If you are a reading a Soviet Yiddish text, ALL words will, much like Lao standardized Pali and other foreign loan words. Communism did the same thing to two completely different language families).

The book I started with nearly ten years ago was Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbooks, which were very well put together and also outlined the differences between Yiddish and English / Hebrew / German. Between dialogues there were various songs and the grammar was explained clearly in a way that you can begin making your own sentences in no time!

 

Uriel Weinreich’s immortal classic “College Yiddish” is also a fantastic choice, given that the stories themselves are extremely topical and cover a wide range of secular and religious topics. Some of the topics include: Chelm Stories (the equivalent of Polish Jokes in the US and Swedish / Norwegian jokes in Norway and Sweden respectively), sociology, songs, Jewish holiday origin stories, and even a quaint piece about moving furniture.

 

The book is mostly in Yiddish although glossaries are provided with English translations.

 

Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish also covers usage of the language in classroom situations, ordinary conversation, as well as stories about Hasidic Masters and the aforementioned Chelm stories (which you can never truly get away from when you know enough Jewish people).

 

The Yiddish Daily Forward is also very well put together, with topical articles that would be equally at home in its English edition (and sometimes featured in both). What’s more, the articles will come with an in-built glossary function where you can highlight any word and have it defined.

 

If you choose to get it sent to your inbox, the titles and summaries will be bilingual in English and Yiddish, which makes for good practice even as an advanced student because then you can see how the translation changes things.

 

Lastly, SBS Radio Australia has its archives of Yiddish programming, given that Yiddish was discontinued (I believe). That said, a lot of interesting interviews with fluent Yiddish speakers from throughout the world are provided as well as “snippets” of English that can also provide context clues for the beginner. If you want to know how to discuss politics in Yiddish, THIS is the place to find it.

Yiddish will change your life. It provides a huge amount of untranslated literature that you can spend several lifetimes with. Your other languages will be enhanced with new idioms that possess the story of a people who have been everywhere and continue to be everywhere. You will become more theatrical, you will become cooler and, best of all, all Yiddishists everywhere will pretty much be willing to become your friend.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (Good luck!)

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Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 1)

I hereby take the time to reflect on where I am in my various language journeys, where I could improve, if I am falling back, and what plans I may have.

I will be as honest with myself as I can.

First off, I should begin with English, my native language, the one that you are probably reading this article in.

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I actually have a significant problem with speaking English, more than I had expected (surprise, surprise!!!)

In no small part does this have to do with the fact that I had seen my American accent as something to “get rid of” and/or disguise (In my experience, Israelis and Swiss have “American radars” that are very difficult to fool, Germans are about average difficulty, Greeks above-average difficulty, Scandinavians below-average difficulty, and the easiest time I had disguising my accent was among Americans [no big surprise there]).

Not only that, I still pepper my English with some foreign expressions (mostly from German, Finnish or assorted Scandinavian, mostly Danish), and I have to force an American accent most of the time. I should have foreseen this outcome: I kept this side to me so actively bottled up that when I need it to fit in, it still won’t come out, even with effort!

That isn’t even to mention the fact that sometimes I speak English with the sentence structure of other languages, German being the worst offender and Greenlandic a close second .

(For those of you interested in what “speaking English with Greenlandic sentence structure is”, it is when I pause at various points in the sentence depending on when the words would break off…and Greenlandic words are very long indeed… An example: “there is my computer on the table” would be “on the table…my computer is there”.  )

What I intend to do: immerse. Immerse, immerse, immerse. Do I really have to resume watching television in my native language? Has it really come this far? We’ll see…

Next up is Yiddish, the first non-English language that I genuinely felt I became good with…

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Deitschmerish (the mixing of German and Yiddish) had become a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Mental discipline was enough for me to prevent myself from speaking Deitschmerish most of the time, but at the end of the day I may need to refresh some vocabulary, a process that is WAY long overdue…

The words of the holy tongue (loshn-koydesh) really dealt me the opportunity for my Yiddish to “hold its own”.  Thanks also to German and being constantly cognizant of the differences between German and Yiddish (and Dutch figures into this somehow as well…), I was capable of “slacking off” without practicing and still being able to maintain most conversations. But I really shouldn’t be lazy…but it seems that I came to the right city to practice this language!

As to German, this is the one language I had struggled the most with, and I had difficulty having a conversation in German until about March/April 2014 (at that point I had been living in Germany for a year). Sometimes I also felt very self-conscious, not also to mention my nagging desire to love understudied languages more (gotta live with that…).

I had encountered SO much discouragement and so many roadblocks and reflections and bouts of self-conscious worrying to get to that point, but luckily I have had more than enough success stories with conversational German (during my last semester) for me to be confident now. And now is what counts the most.

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Thanks largely to my “Deunglisch”, I may need to give spoken German a break for a while…but given how many written materials in German are in the library in which I am currently writing this blogpost, I think I can manage some other skill developments.

And now for Team Scandinavia, and I’ll try to be quick:

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Swedish: Depending on who I am with, I can either speak Swedish very confidently or sometimes I’ll worry a lot. I think part of this comes from the “fear of being answered in English” that I had to put up with in Stockholm during my learning phases (my fear of being answered in English in Germany shrank to next to nothing, even when I was there only for a few weeks…)

In all of my languages, I am constantly building vocabulary (even with English, thanks largely to the bizarre Faroese vocabulary lists filled with culinary…um…intrigue?). Even better: when I look at a word in one of the Scandinavian Languages, I’ll compare it to the other two. This works wonders for my memory, interestingly.

The “sj” sound is more natural now than I ever thought that it would be, but I feel as though it will never be perfect (one time I got it down just right! The way a native speaker would!)

Television has worked wonders for me mastering the rhythm of the Swedish Language, I just imagine how certain characters would say the words that I’m thinking (with my musical muscle-memory) and then I duplicate that rhythm. This has never failed me.

What I should do: (1) keep on the journey and (2) realize that I worry too much and (3) stop worrying so much. I’m not a beginner struggling to order cinnamon buns anymore.  That was nearly two years ago.

Danish: My Greenlandic and Faroese adventures have required me to bolster my ability to read Danish and it really shows when I can read a text out loud without flinching. The Stød is now very natural for me, but sometimes I’m still self-conscious about what many Danes might think of my accent (or sometimes even the fact that I chose to learn the language, or that I have this thing for the Danish colonies).

Encountering a group of Danes in the NYC subway system the other day, it occurred to me that, in comparison to many languages, Danish, as spoken by native speakers, isn’t spoken very quickly.

I have two primary goals with Danish: (1) learn slang better (as I may need them to learn Greenlandic and Faroese slang) and (2) stop worrying so much about what native speakers might think if I open my mouth. Come to think of it, I haven’t received discouragement for learning either Danish or Norwegian. From anyone.

Norwegian: Now that I look back over the past year, it is clear that I have spent the smallest amount of time with Norwegian.  

Not surprisingly, I can read Norwegian articles very well (thanks to the whole Danish/Norwegian being very similar). I feel a lot more confident with my accent in Norwegian than I am with either of the other two Scandinavian Languages in question, and I’ve fooled many a non-Norwegian into thinking that I was from the country when I let loose a few words.

I really try not to play favorites with my projects, but I still find that Norwegian is the most beautiful language in my collection and I should use that as a motivation to maintain it.

After all, I really find that I have the least anxiety about Norwegian, but I really wish that I could speak it more often with real people. But hey, I’m in New York right?

And last but not least among my conversational languages…

suomi

I had pumped so many hours into Finnish and I’m proud of it. I’m a far cry from being seen as a Native speaker with higher education, but I’m okay with having a good command of the casual language. From my time in Finland (back in November 2013 when I felt that I really didn’t know it that well), it seems that Finns are readily impressed by genuine foreigner attempts to learn their language (when I write “their language”, I am also being cognizant of the Fennoswedes).

But thanks largely to Finnish being very far from English, I don’t get lots of vocabulary “for free” the way I do with the Germanic or the Romance Languages. I have to maintain the language with extra effort. If that means watching more TV in Finnish than devoting it to other ones, then so be it.

Right now I’d really like to use Finnish to strengthen Estonian and Northern Sami. It would also be interesting for the day in which I take Hungarian very seriously.

My biggest weakness with Finnish? I sometimes struggle with the written language. More than I should. Wikipedia obviously isn’t a problem in this regard, but some other written material is, including, surprisingly, internet comments…

Next time I will write about the almost-conversational languages in part 2!