|Shmerke Kaczerginski sorts through Jewish books in the YIVO building in Vilna during World War II. |
Courtesy of YIVO
Futurama has long been one of my favourite shows, but despite my profound love of sociopathic robots and animated swearing, there is one problem. Whenever I hear the name YIVO, I don’t think of YIVO, the incredible Yiddish academic organisation, I think of Yivo, the many-tentacled “Beast with a Billion Backs” (at least I’m not the only one). While this is clearly a personal failing on my part, my defence is that Futurama Yivo was the one I encountered first, and a planet-sized purple space pervert is a pretty memorable association to have with a name. I fear that Max Weinreich would not be impressed.
|The wrong Yivo|
This post isn’t an attempt to reclaim the name of YIVO, because they really don’t need any help from cartoon-obsessed נאַר like me. However, my YIVO/Yivo confusion made me realise that space monster Yivo highlights one of the most difficult aspects of research institution YIVO, namely the standardization of the Yiddish language.
Before I say anything else, I should point out that YIVO is arguably the most important Yiddish organisation in existence. These guys have saved a huge amount of Yiddish language and culture, and they continue to share that language and culture with overwhelming generosity. The institution was founded in 1925 in Vilna but relocated to the US after WWII, taking with it all the materials its members and their friends had risked their lives to conceal during the Nazi occupation. This is a collection founded on books, documents and other treasures that saw out the war hidden under floorboards and inside walls, saved by people who, in many cases, did not survive the war themselves. You can see now why I feel so bad about the whole Futurama association.
YIVO didn’t stop there, though. They produced Yiddish dictionaries, created research archives and sustained Yiddish through decades of popular decline. Now they provide a huge array of digital resources to the student of Yiddish, including the Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, online classes in Yiddish culture, and immense databases of archival materials. They run summer language schools and fellowships, exhibitions and live events, all to share and preserve Yiddish language and heritage.
As grateful as I am that YIVO exists, that last sentence carries a hint of the challenge they have inadvertently created. In seeking to preserve Yiddish in its pre-WWII state, YIVO has standardized that language. This made sense in many ways, since any language that stretches across such a huge range of countries is bound to have variations, dialectical differences, and all kinds of idiosyncrasies that would make it difficult to teach to new learners. In the absence of the majority of its native speakers, Yiddish had to switch from being a multitude of different variations into a single language that could be defined and recorded, in order to save it from being lost altogether.
This is where my irrepressible recollection of Yivo the Futurama space-vert becomes unexpectedly relevant. The whole experience of language is that words evolve. They shift and merge in response to cultural change, so as some become archaic and fall out of currency, others appear to replace them. A language is an organic process of growth and renewal, but YIVO standardized Yiddish has struggled, understandably, to achieve that.
The result is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of my great-grandparents. We could have understood one another, just about, in the way that a Londoner can understand a Geordie, but there would be a lot of contested vowel sounds and general confusion on both sides. Perhaps that is to be expected, since my whole point is that language needs to evolve over the generations. However, a more significant problem is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of contemporary native speakers either. Hassidic Yiddish is now the living Yiddish, the language that has had to incorporate terms for jet-skiing and fusion cuisine and desktop publishing. This is the Yiddish that is growing as a language, and it’s not as simple as me needing to shift my vowel sounds to match. If it were just a case of “You say shayne, I say sheyne”, it wouldn’t be a problem, but standardized Yiddish has frozen its entire vocabulary. It’s a little like learning English using only the works of Jane Austen. It’d get you through, right up until the point that you need to change a car tyre or really rip into someone for queue-jumping, but it just wouldn’t sound right. That is how a speaker of standardized or “classroom” Yiddish sounds to a native speaker – we’re speaking a fossilized language.
While there were still communities of native speakers from the pre-WWII generations, Yiddish retained its living fullness, as Nahum Stutchkoff’s work demonstrates. I love finding Yiddish words that my standardized dictionaries don’t have, because they represent the language at its most vital. And yet that’s what makes this whole issue so poignant: we don’t have to go back very far to find that living Yiddish with its regional variations and localised slang terms, where “gravy” can be “tunk” rather than just “zuze” or “sos”.
Learning Yiddish now, I can see that the language is changing right before my eyes. The most recent Yiddish dictionary seems designed to counteract that sense of Yiddish being preserved under glass, and there are increasing efforts being made to allow the language to keep up with twentieth-century life, as well as to reflect the full variety of its pre-standardized existence. Yiddish is slowly unfreezing after its period of stasis and is regaining its plasticity. This increasing flexibility should allow new learners to appreciate not just the difference between sheyne and shayne but also between fentster and vinde, as Yiddish begins to create new hybridized words from English just as it previously did from Polish, Russian and Lithuanian. Yiddish now has the strength to diversify again, so that there is room for both YIVO and Yivo, which makes my life easier at least.
!האָב ליב דאָס טאַפּ־הערנערל