Saturday, 30 July 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (2): The Story of Yiddish in Five Dictionaries

I should confess that I have something of a dictionary addiction. I have dictionaries for languages I can understand a little (French, Spanish, German), for languages I scarcely recognize (Latin, Ancient Greek), and for languages I can’t speak at all (Russian, Polish, Norwegian, Czech).  It all started when I was studying Italian literature and realised that a modern Italian dictionary couldn’t tell me which obsolete farm tool was the murder weapon in the 19th century novel I was reading.  So I quickly accumulated four Italian dictionaries, including a pictorial one that not only gives the names of every part of a windmill, a snow mobile and a seed disinfector, but also tells me the names of different embroidery stitches and the constituent elements of a stag’s antlers.  It just doesn’t get any better that than.

Or so I thought.  I am currently the absurdly proud owner of no less than five Yiddish dictionaries, and the existence of every one of them fills me with a joy that is difficult to express.  Suffice it to say, I kiss these books better if they fall on the floor.  This lunacy aside, part of my love for these dictionaries is that they are a wonderful record of the changing fortunes of the Yiddish language.  You see, no matter how you cut it, Yiddish has a singularly odd linguistic status. Though far from dead (despite rumours to the contrary), it’s fair to say that until quite recently it has been somewhat moribund.

One factor is that Yiddish has no geographical homeland.  Israel, the one country where you might reasonably expect Yiddish to be thriving, opted instead to adopt modern Hebrew as its national language.  Yiddish was (and for some still is) seen as the language of the ghetto, meaning that Yiddish books and culture in Israel can have something of a hard time.

Another peculiarity is the speed of Yiddish’s decline as a first language. YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute) estimates that there were approximately 13 million native speakers in 1939, but the Holocaust, Soviet oppression, and migration meant that by the 1970s Yiddish was widely perceived as a dying language almost entirely irrelevant to modern life.

Of course, many Hassidic communities still speak Yiddish as a first language, which leads to some incredible cultural mash-ups (Justin Bieber in Yiddish, anyone?).  However, the Hassidic community is not usually that interested in preserving and promoting secular Yiddish literature and culture, so despite the language being alive and well in the 21st century, it isn’t necessarily in touch with its cultural and literary past.

So, what do my five Yiddish dictionaries tell us about the state of the Yiddish language? Between them they span the years 1900 to 2016, with a very telling gap between 1928 and 1968.  If any Yiddish-English dictionaries were published in that time you can bet your ass I’ll buy them, but so far I’ve not found any.  That’s not to say that Yiddish wasn’t being spoken in those years; far from it.  I have a Say it in Yiddish Dover phrasebook from 1958 (presumably essential kit for any travellers to the Bronx), and the most beautiful Yiddish thesaurus that was published in 1950.  The Yiddish word for thesaurus is אוצר (oytser), which also means treasure, and it absolutely is.  That book gets a kiss every time I take it off the shelf.

Since 1968, however, the Yiddish dictionary has returned with a vengeance, with each new version being fatter and more comprehensive than the last.  The 2012 Benfield and Bochner dictionary has 37,000 individual entries, while this year’s behemoth, the Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, has 50,000 entries and 30,000 sub-entries.  What a מחיה!*

Admittedly, the Harkavy 1928 dictionary has approximately 30,000 entries, bigger than Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 one (in Weinriech’s defence he did die before he could expand it), but this is not necessarily an accurate representation of their respective usefulness.  Harkavy’s 1900 English – Yiddish Pocket Dictionary and, to a lesser extent, his 1928 Yiddish – English – Hebrew Dictionary are full of words that I don’t even understand in English. If I ever need to kyanize anything, learn ectypography or buy a hanaper, Harkavy will be invaluable.  Also, thanks to Harkavy, I know that offering to keelhaul someone in Yiddish makes for a remarkably wordy threat.** So, while the very existence of a pocket English – Yiddish dictionary tells you how widely the language was spoken, I’m not sure what occasion would require someone to look up the Yiddish for “foveate” or “sphenoid”.

Ripping on Harkavy’s obsessive 19th century completism is one thing, but it’s not as though Weinreich’s dictionary is faultless.  As much as I love this book, it does feel as though Weinreich has tidied up the messy colloquialism of Yiddish, meaning that some archaic words, Slavicisms and general eccentricities have been lost.  For example, the “hak” from my great-grandmother’s expression of exasperation, “Hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik!”, which my mum understood as “Don’t knock on my teapot”, is not to be found in Weinreich’s dictionary.  Call me pedantic, but “Klap mir nisht keyn tshaynik!” just isn’t the same.  For me, Weinreich’s feels like a scholar’s dictionary rather than one for a living, breathing language, as though Yiddish at this point was slowing down to the point of immobility.

What Weinreich does have in his favour is that his dictionary is dual current: it goes from Yiddish to English and English to Yiddish, which none of my other dictionaries do.  However, the two most recent dictionaries are beautifully complementary to one another, with Benfield and Bochner’s going from Yiddish to English, and the Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser returning from English to Yiddish again.  

There are other important differences between these two recent dictionaries though. Benfield and Bochner’s is a window into the religious and cultural past of Yiddish, particularly in its explanation of the loshn-koydesh words. In going from Yiddish to English, their dictionary introduces you to concepts and terms that you might never have encountered before, some of which don’t seem to feature in the Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser dictionary; or at least, if they do, I don’t know how to find them.  A case in point: מישכּן (mishkn), the biblical name for the Ark of the Covenant, is listed in Benfield and Bochner’s dictionary but not in Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser’s.  It’s not that I intend to use מישכּן that much in everyday conversation (except, perhaps, when discussing Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it is a weighty word that feels like an important part of the history of Yiddish.  I suppose this is an indication of the next challenge that Yiddish will face: how much of the past can be preserved, and how much will be lost, as it fights to maintain its status as a living language?  These two recent dictionaries might complement each other but they demonstrate quite distinct impulses, one acting as the storehouse of Yiddish etymology, the other looking resolutely forward to a future where everyone could discuss hockey or heart surgery in Yiddish with as much detail as they might in English.  The  Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser dictionary is an incredible piece of work, but in making it English-Yiddish there are some terms and ideas that struggle to remain visible within this modern incarnation of the Yiddish language.

Of course, this means that I’ll be using each of these two recent dictionaries for a different purpose.   Benfield and Bochner’s is for literary translation, namely working out which varieties of plums Sholem Aleichem’s Motl is going to scrump next; while the Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser allows me to translate every cultural, social and technological development of the last fifty years into Yiddish, in all its variant forms.  The latter truly is the dictionary of a living language, and while I never expected to know how to buy a surfboard or invite somebody skydiving in Yiddish, I’m overjoyed that I could now translate the entirety of Point Break if I wanted.  Which I do, obviously.  That and Withnail and I.  And The Big Lebowski.  If it’s good enough for these guys, it’s good enough for me.

And yet, perhaps that’s really why I love my Yiddish dictionaries so very much. They show that Yiddish is far from dead, that it’s evolving and reinventing itself, and that it’s as much about the דיגיטאַלישע װעלט  (digital world) as it is about the יענער װעלט (other world). Plus, they look amazing when you stand them all next to each other, like Russian nesting dolls.


* That’s “mekhaye”, which means “delight”, one of my favorite loshn-koydesh words.

**לעגען אַ שיף אױף אַ זײט אום עס צו פֿערריכטען
or “to lean around the side of a ship in order to repair it”.  I’m not sure that quite captures the spirit of the high-seas retribution, but you can’t fault its accuracy.

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