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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October 2017 Immersion Mission: Greenland / Iceland!

Well, here it is. The month in which I present at the Polyglot Conference 2017 is finally upon us.

October 2017 also promises to be one of the most exciting months of my life to date for ANOTHER reason: I am finally going to be visiting my favorite country! (Or, what I would pick as my favorite if I had to…)

It is my great pleasure to tell you that, when the Jewish holidays conclude, I will have the priviliege of visiting Greenland!

You know what this means: I’m going to have to prepare for language immersion, much in the same way that I did before my trip to Myanmar back in May 2017.

But this time, the trip promises to be different for the following reasons:

(1) I’ve had years of experience behind each of the languages involved (even though my Greenlandic is, in my opinion, quite weak).

There are a total of three languages that I expect to use when I’m in the North Atlantic (in addition to English, if the occasion arises). Icelandic in Iceland, Greenlandic in Greenland, and Danish in Greenland (although Danish is commonly studied among Icelanders and some I’ve met speak it quite impressively, usually those that have spent time in Denmark. For those unaware: Iceland used to be part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland and the Faroe Islands still are).

(2) I also have to rehearse MY COMPLETE COLLECTION before the Polyglot Conference.

And I’m quite worried about it.

I’ll plan on bringing the following languages to the conference: English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Irish, Krio, French, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic, Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole, Myanmar / Burmese, Lao, Tongan, Guarani, and Khmer. (Ranging from “I speak this language fluently” to “I can have simple conversations in this language” in descending order. Khmer and Guarani may get the boot, but it seems unlikely that any of the others will, even though for all the languages from French downards I have gaps in my vocabulary that I need to address…)

Between rehearsing for the conference specifically and this trip specifically, I am more inclined to put effort towards my weakest languages rather than the trio that I am likely to be using during the trip. This may change during the days leading up to the trip itself.

(3) This is the first language immersion mission in which I’ll be using languages that I have strong command of.

Danish definitely, and I’ll see how my Icelandic and Greenlandic stack up (I’m inclined to think that I’ll do very well with both of them in tourist functions, and reasonably well with Greenlandic in conversation and quite well to very well with Icelandic. I’ve been rehearsing Icelandic and Danish quite regularly during my weekends, although I’ve neglected the study of my Greenlandic quite badly!)

this-is-the-article-youve-all-been-waiting-for

What sort of traps will I expect and I will I try to diffuse them?

For one, I’ve notice that by far my biggest enemy is my own self-doubt.

I’ve seen this being played out with cruel consistency at many language-exchange events. Sometimes I use the wrong word or say SOMETHING that isn’t congruent with my extremely high standards that I set for myself, and then I get vexed to the point of being self-conscious during the rest of the evening, certainly far away from being at my best.

This could even be something like “I used a word or expression that I’m not entirely sure is correct” (that’s what it usually is, come to think of it).

I think that what I’ll definitely be needing more of in this mission is more mental discipline.

Namely, well-disciplined people are more likely to control their emotional stimuli, and less-disciplined people are more like to be controlled by them. I can’t let my ego get in the way so often.

There is one good note that I’ll end on: I’ve noticed that there is a very small minority of people who, despite the fact that English is not their first language, will not use their native language with you, sometimes even if you’ve demonstrated that you’re fluent (or otherwise very good) in that language.

This has only happened a handful of times over the course of this year (and one of them was actually yesterday) and I’ve fully learned to actually disregard such people. There are few things that you can do to make me significantly lose respect for you and that is one of them. (I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll learn not to do that).

And this brings yet another issue concerning Danish in Greenland, that I won’t get too hurt if people refuse to speak Danish with me (regardless of the case) because no doubt there are painful colonial memories and a process of reconciliation involved. In places like Spain like Catalonia or the Basque Country, or in France like Brittany, or perhaps even among some Palestinians (the last of which have been, surprisingly, more than happy to converse in Hebrew with me), I can understand why they wouldn’t want to use Castillian, French or Hebrew respectively, regardless of how well I spoke it.

After all, my less-than-savory memories of previous chapters of my life in the United States have sometimes made some languag situations uncomfortable for me (e.g. sometimes using American English with foreigners makes me uncomfortable, or Yeshivish English can also rub me the wrong way at times. It reminds me of a time of my life I’d like to forget, and that world that I was a part of had a horrifying revelation that I’ll write about when it gets settled, but not until then. But prepare to be shocked.)

That was a nice note to end on.

My clothing is in the washing machine, I need to go get it.

Have a good day and keep getting closer to your dreams!

6 Attitudes you Should Adopt for the Sake of the Future’s Linguistic Diversity

Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).

I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.

This is not that article.

Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.

I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.

Here goes:

 

  • Stop referring to languages as “useless”

 

I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.

A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?

And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…

Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.

Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.

But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).

 

  • Referring to Certain Groups of Languages as “Dialects”

 

Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.

This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.

It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.

Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.

 

  • Saying that “Having Everyone Speaking One Language is a Good Thing” or that English is the only language worth studying.

 

Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.

For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.

Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…

 

  • Refusing to Use Your Native Language with Learners

 

This. Is. A. Big. One.

And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.

The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.

And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.

It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)

But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)

There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)

 

  • Saying that “dying languages should just die off and we should only care about those that are still alive”

 

I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?

 

  • Saying that Only Political Powerful Languages are Worth the Effort

 

This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.

I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.

There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.

Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?

This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).

I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)

If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.

Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).

In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.

Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.

And you can, too!

ga

Some of my Favorite Exclamations that I Think Should be in Every Language

Today is a sunny day, and ideal for making a listicle!
I believe that, given the title, this list needs no real introduction, aside from the fact that I sometimes find myself using the words in question regardless of what language I’m actually speaking.
Each of the meanings can be signified with the word in question, and any combination of the meanings can fit in various usages.
1. “Gerne!” (German)
Means: Yes, certainly, with pleasure, gladly

Anyone who has spent any time in any German-speaking country will attest to this word’s prominence, bordering on overuse.

It conveys a certain sense of camaraderie that very few words are even capable of.

2. “Fedt!” (Danish)
Means: Awesome! Cool!

Literally means “fat”, probably has something to do with meat. It is very easy to imagine how this ended up in its current usage, and those of you who understand anything about Danish culture will more easily imagine how and why.

I tell my English-speaking friends that Danish is the only language in which the word “fat” is conveyed as a compliment. If you know of any other languages in which this is the case, let me know.

So far, not even the other Scandinavian Languages qualify. Neither do any others, for that matter…

3. “Take!” (Yiddish)
Means: Yes, of course, definitely, without a doubt, certainly, very much so

(The “e” is pronounced…hence, ”tak-eh”…accent on first syllable)

Let’s be honest, this one sometimes is used in English—or rather, English as spoken by some/many Orthodox Jews.

Michael Wex, of Just Say Nu fame, noted that this word is very much overused and can convey the same meanings as many English filler words. Just think of the American “awesome” to think about the degree to which this word is used.

4. “Totta kai!” (Finnish)
Means: Let’s go!, Let’s do it! You’re absolutely right! I’ll get that done. As you say. Got it. Yes. I wouldn’t doubt it. Shall do!

No other phrase can…ahem… “finnish”…a discussion…or an exchange…quite like this one. Just say it aloud if you need further proof.

5. “Duiju! (Northern Sami)
Means: You idiot!

When the word “idiot” in an exasperated voice just simply will not do…

6. ”Egal!” (German)
Means: Doesn’t matter, don’t particularly care, either way I’m okay with it, makes no difference to me

Smooth, laid-back indifference flies in the air whenever I hear this word spoken. Especially in a slightly loud tone, or even with a friendly one…

And my overall favorite of the bunch goes to…

7. ”Sussa!” or ”Sussat!” (Greenlandic)
Means: Don’t bother with it! Disregard that! Doesn’t matter! Not Important! Forget about it! No good! Shoddy. I don’t care. Makes no difference. Who cares?! So what?! Do I look like I care?
“Sussa!” is singular and “Sussat!” is the plural, so depending on the object of indifference/light scorn, this word is altered accordingly.
This word is “egal” with 70 times the personality. It is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable and the “a” is pronounced like English “at”, but slightly closer to a standard “e” sound, as found in the Romance Languages.
Sometimes when I am extraordinarily frustrated (but not angry), but still want to convey a certain sense of class, I’ll use this word, regardless of what language I’m actually speaking at the moment.
I really recommend using it whenever possible.
It definitely deserves memetic status, and an occasional “sussa!” here and there can work wonders for your feelings, bordering on therapeutic.
Interestingly, one of the best-known musical hits in the Greenlandic Language, “Sila Qaammareerpoq” (Roughly, “The Weather is Sunny, Beautifully Shining”), is the creation of a band with the same name:

What are some of your favorite one-word expressions? Share them in the comments!