When I tell people that I’m learning Yiddish, the most common response is a perplexed “Why?” I will admit that Yiddish is perhaps a less practical choice than Spanish, Mandarin or Russian, but, quite frankly, practicality can do one. Admittedly, I’ve got form when it comes to eccentric linguistic choices: I spent four wonderful years learning Italian, which, as my Italian teacher loved to tell us, is the most geographically limited of the Romance languages. Then there was the summer I spent trying and failing to teach myself Ancient Greek after reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I even had a long-cherished and inexplicable childhood desire to learn Latin, but unfortunately my school was not exactly a bastion of classical virtues: we were taught just enough French to be able to discuss the weather, describe our pets and talk smack about each other’s mums, and that was it.
In this context, learning Yiddish was an entirely appropriate choice. I loved the idea of being able to understand the language of my great-grandparents, of stitching the scattered words I already knew (mainly swears and foods) into the cultural fabric of their everyday lives. Growing up in a less than diverse neighbourhood meant that Yiddish was a secret language that nobody outside my family knew. Calling the class bully a ממזר right in front of your teacher and getting away with it, obviously that was pure gold, but even the best insults can only get you so far. A page of real Yiddish, resonant with the echoes of lives I couldn’t live, was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.
And yet learning a new alphabet is learning to read again. The mechanisms that we take for granted – how letters become words, words become sentences – slow, stutter and then stall. You trip over the sounds; you confuse the letters with one another. Language disintegrates into a chaos of disconnected symbols whose meaning has slipped into an unreachable dimension of soundless space. This isn’t an experience unique to learning Yiddish, but Yiddish has some particular quirks that generate an optimum level of confusion, whilst offering vague glimmers of understanding. Those brief moments where it all makes sense are exciting for many reasons, not least because they give me an insight into the point at which comprehension occurs; namely, when the little voice in my head sounds out the words on the page. Without that internal reader, for me, the whole mechanism of language fails.
One of the first revelations is that Yiddish isn’t one language, it’s two. Mama-loshn is Yiddish Yiddish, the words drawn from Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages; loshn-koydesh, meanwhile, is Hebrew Yiddish, words that a beginner has absolutely no hope of recognising, because they play by their own rules with their own letters and their own, rather idiosyncratic, rules of pronunciation. So, a “V” sound is װ in mama-loshn but it’s בֿ in loshn-koydesh. “S” is ס but it’s also ת. “Kh” = כ = ח. An aptitude for algebra seems helpful at such times.
Then, you have to find your own ways of distinguishing between individual letters and their diacritical marks. פּ (Pey) is Pacman; פֿ (Fey) is dead Pacman. ײ makes an “ey” sound but ײַ makes an “aye” sound, because the line is fine. י is “i” but, counterintuitively, יִ is “y”. It’s sometimes difficult to remember where the letters end and the punctuation begins. Of course, some older Yiddish texts don’t always give you the diacritical marks, leading to further, glorious, ambiguity. Such ambiguity means that a saucepan (פֿאַן) can become a flag (פֿאָן) can become a lord (פּאַן). A girl (מאַד) transforms into a maggot (מאָד), then changes back into a מאַד again when you’re not looking. The narratives pluralize as the words shift and flex, hovering between two possible meanings that are, in some instances, equally plausible but radically different.
Of course, this alone would be confusing enough, but several of the letters also have special forms if they are used at the end of a word. Some are easy to recognize, like ף (lange fey), the shepherd’s crook, but others resemble other letters to the point that you can only guess which is which. ם (shlosmem) looks a lot like ס (samakh) and both are used to pluralize nouns. Even ט (tet) and מ (mem) can look alike, especially in the over-inked print of twentieth century Yiddish novels. Not being able to tell your מאַמע (mother) from your טאַטע (father) isn’t a good start.
I can remember a time in childhood where longer, complex words were a challenge, but I can’t remember a time before letters. That sounding out of a word in my head, the pinning of it to a meaning, is a process I’ve long taken for granted. Much of the joy of learning a new language with a new alphabet is in the exploding of that mechanical routine, a routine so familiar that it no longer feels like an action on my part. Without those instantaneous connections between letters, words and meanings, you become aware of the various acts of translation that reading requires in order for a series of discrete symbols to result in the communication of an idea. Those curious moments of blankness when the bodiless reader inside my head can’t sound out the words I’m seeing made me realize that there is no truly silent reading, that all reading is the weaving of sound, even if I’m the only one who hears it.
That, it would seem, is the moment of comprehension, at least for me. Because the real beauty of Yiddish is that once you have navigated the alphabet, remembered the difference between ײ and ײַ, and worked out whether Pacman is dead or alive, the resulting chain of letters often produces a word that you recognise as soon as you can say it in your head. A ראָז is a roz is a rose. A בוך is a bukh is a book. יִידיש is Yiddish is יִידיש. And if you don’t know what a ממזר is, I’m certainly not telling you.