Saturday, 21 January 2017

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (12): Word treasure

Bloy vi a bliml tsvishn korn

Rather wonderfully, the literal meaning of the Yiddish word for thesaurus, אוצר (oytser), is treasure.  For someone who has been known to read a thesaurus for fun, discovering this was a rare moment of cultural resonance, when the name of an object captured not only its function but my emotional reaction to it.  Of course, there’s an echo of this in English, where a collection of literature can be called a treasury, but somehow אוצר is even more direct about the joy to be found in language and the building of meaning.
The אוצר I have is the one produced by Nahum Stutchkoff in 1950 and it’s a hearty breezeblock of a book.  Given the size of it I’m not surprised that there’s only ever been one reprint edition, since a 940-page exploration of what was then a fading language would have been a challenging sell.  Luckily, this book was built to last.  Mine is one of the 1950 ones and it’s printed on the type of heavy paper that has a lot to say for itself – there’s plenty of crackling and chatter when you turn the pages.  You know that sound, like when you flex a really fat telephone directory in your hands?  It’s that, as though the words are trying to speak themselves.  This אוצר is bound in heavy green book linen with gold lettering, and they even marbled the page edges for crying out loud.  It might be 67 years old, but this book still shows up almost everything else on the shelves.
The 1991 reprint edition of Stutchkoff's אוצר  
I bought my copy of Stutchkoff’s אוצר on eBay for $27, from some guy in West Virginia.  He might not have realised what a treasure he had but someone somewhere took mighty good care of this book.  I’ve not been able to find a single blemish on its pages, not one spot of foxing and not a single rip.  It’s the kind of volume you’d expect to see in a library, but this one has no labels or stamps, no inscriptions or marginalia.  The covers are worn where it’s been sitting on the shelf, but beyond that it looks like it’s gone unread for most of its life.  Happily, not anymore.
This אוצר was one of the very first Yiddish books I bought, almost two years ago, back when I was slowly piecing words together on the page.  I was still freaking out about the cost of the postage as I was unwrapping it, but this is one of those books that can silence all doubts.  I might have struggled to read it back then, but now this one volume is probably the most comprehensive representation of the Yiddish language that I could ever find.
Just like a Roget’s Thesaurus, Stutchkoff’s אוצר is organised according to categories, and like Roget’s it starts with the big existential ones, namely Being (zayn) and Not-Being (nit-zayn).  Clearly Stutchkoff wanted Yiddish to be represented with as much seriousness as all the other European languages, not as some inconsequential זשאַרגאָן (zshargon/jargon).  He divided the entire shprakh into 620 categories of concepts, everything from elements to wild animals to music to foods to emotions, then he absolutely went to town.  Now that I can read and understand great swathes of this book, I can see that there is real gold in the sheer linguistic variety that Stutchkoff recorded.
Officially, the אוצר contains over 150,000 words, concepts and phrases, making it almost twice as comprehensive as my largest Yiddish dictionary.  There are words in here that none of my Yiddish dictionaries have, and Stutchkoff has been careful to track the different variants of Yiddish across its full linguistic range.  To use the section on blue (בלױ) as an example, there’s a huge array of detail that would be impossible to find elsewhere.  Not only does it list the different ways of saying “blue”, depending on which version of Yiddish you are using (bloy, blo, blov, azur, lazur), it also gives a wonderful range of specific and recognisable blues, such as עלעקטריע בלױ (elektrie bloy), הימל בלױ (himl bloy) and אולטראַמאַרין (ultramarin).  Then there’s the more mysterious blues, such as קינדער בלױ (kinder bloy), which I can only guess would be pastel blue, or בערלינער בלױ (berliner bloy) and קאַדעט בלױ (kadet bloy), which sound rather more like heritage paint shades.
Berliner blue has to be in here somewhere
However, it’s the similes that really deliver the goods.  As well as the expected bloy vi der yam (blue as the sea) and bloy vi der himl (blue as the sky), we have bloy vi bliml tsvishn korn (blue as a little flower amongst rye, presumably a cornflower), bloy vi a milb (blue as a moth), bloy vi a milts (blue as a spleen), bloy vi a gehangener  (blue as a hanged man) and, my own personal favourite, bloy vi mayne gesheftn.  I’m not entirely sure, but I think that last one means “blue as my deals”.  I’m almost sure that it’s not obscene.
What I love about these similes is that they call up a world in its own words, in the language that people spoke on the street and in their homes.  They add the fine detail that has often been lost in standardized Yiddish, where bloy is usually just bloy.  Stutchkoff’s אוצר is the only one of its kind, a lifetime’s work, and perhaps the closest we non-native speakers can get to understanding not only what we have already lost but also what there is to rediscover.


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