Sunday, January 20, 2008


On a recent trip to the Poconos, our family went horseback riding (we found out later that they were really mules). Two of the three guides were actually German and spoke a dialect called Schwäbisch (sounds like shvedish, which is what I originally thought it was; that means "Swedish" in Yiddish), a thick countryside version of German in the family of Alemannic dialects. It has a sing-songy quality to it and is pleasing to the ear. Anyhow, when they heard us singing horse songs (inappropriate to the animal, but effective in spurring them on to go faster) in Yiddish, we got into a discussion about the connection between the two languages. Sabina, the woman (the other guy was her son), explained that there are many words in Schwäbisch which appear in Yiddish but not in standard German. For example, she said, the word for "to haul" in Schwäbisch is schleppen, akin to the Yiddish shlepn ‫שלעפּן ‬, whereas standard German uses the more common schleifen. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I found some more interesting similarities.
The diminutive ending "-le" (spoken very quickly, e.g. Haus may become Häusle, Bisschen may become Bissle) and "-la" for plurals (e.g. Spätzle becomes Spätzla). Wow. This is exactly like Yiddish (at least, the first part)! Hoyz הױז in the diminutive becomes hayzl הײַזל, and bisl ביסל is the Yiddish equivalent of standard German's Bisschen.

They always say that Swiss German is the closest form of German to Yiddish. What I didn't realize is that, as Wikipedia put it, "occasionally, the Alemannic dialects spoken in other countries are called Swiss German." Hmmm.


I always presumed, as many have before me, that the word "butterfly" is a spoonerism of the word "flutterby," a description of its motion (maybe it was just something I came up with on my own, influenced by the Yiddish flaterl, meaning "little flutterer"). Boy, was I dead wrong. The Old English buttorfleoge is most probably a reference to the myth that witches disguised as butterflies would consume uncovered milk and butter. They didn't think that they were just butterflies or whatnot. Had to be witches, eh? The German schmetterling lends support to this theory seeing as it means "cream thief." (Compare schmetter with smetene, the Yiddish for sour cream, and tseshmetern, to smash, also Yiddish.) The Russian babochka helps out too - it means "grandmother," something akin to a witch.
Anyhow, an alternate suggestion is the fact that its waste resembles butter, supported by the Dutch
boterschijte (do you recognize any cognate there? I'm not sure I see the connection between excrement and schijte - do you?).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Forced Assimilation

Yes, this is a crusade of sorts.
English speakers have this annoying tendency to take words from foreign languages and put them into a format that they're familiar with. For example, the word juggernaut: you might have thought that the "naut" suffix has something to do with the words "astronaut," "cosmonaut," or "nautical," (naus in Greek means ship, and is related to the English "naval"). But no. Those English speakers got you again. There is absolutely no connection. It actually is the following:

1638, "huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna," especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession in which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. Altered from Jaggernaut, a title of Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu), from Hindi Jagannath, lit. "lord of the world," from Skt. jagat "world" + natha-s "lord, master." The first European description of the festival is by Friar Odoric (c.1321). Fig. sense of "anything that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice" is from 1854.
(By the way, my last name, Viswanath, is related to this word; viswa means "universe" and, as you now know, nath means lord. So my name means "lord of the universe." Not pretentious at all. But certainly befitting if you know my father's Yiddish/Hebrew name: Meylekh מלך.)

Now consider this: the Yiddish for "to bless" is bentshn בענטשן from the Latin benedecire. When this entered the vocabulary of the second-generation, the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and probably influenced by German spelling, it became bentshen. This further evolved into "benchin'," and, under the impression that this was formed in the same way that "whistling" becomes "whistlin'," converted it into the more English-friendly benching (barbells, anyone?).
I recently saw a similar ignorance of a word's Yiddish origin in a caption of a picture in a wedding album on Facebook: "the bedeckin'." I was tempted to break out into a spontaneous round of "Deck the halls with boughs of holly," but I was already marching onto the next picture. (I treat this with considerable sarcasm, but the Yiddish badekn באַדעקן is, in fact, related to "deck" and "bedeck.")
One more example before you start scoffing: it's not "good shabbos," as you might think, but rather gut גוט. This is a pet peeve of mine. But hey, not everyone knows Yiddish. ‫.הלװאַי

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ultimate Stress = French Origin?

It seems to me as though most words in Yiddish with stress on the ultimate syllable come from French. The exceptions, it seems to me, are those words with prefixes such as ge- and those Germanic-derived words such as dertsu, faran, aroys, etc.

Examples: kapitan, internat, koridor, palats, balants, telefon, parad, tirazh, aktivitet, zhurnal, papir, kolir

I recently proposed this theory to someone who tried to disprove my hypothesis. I asked her to name a single word with ultimate stress that doesn't derive from French. The only possible refutation she managed to come up with was "tararam." I searched for it in French dictionaries in vain. I searched it on Google and only managed to come up with a Russian movie called Tram-tararam Ili Bukhty-barakhty, an Arabic song, and an Israeli dance troupe.
I'll assume this to be a Slavic word and therefore a refutation of (or perhaps simply an exception to) my proposed rule...


How did it come about that aderabe in Yiddish came to mean, besides the obvious "on the contrary" as used in the Gemara to refute a suggestion, "be my guest?" It seems contrary to its original meaning (no pun intended)!
To figure this out, you have to deconstruct the word:
a = on (equivalent to Hebrew "al")
de = that (eq. "she")
rabe = great
When you put that together, you get something along the lines of "on that which is greater." So now I'm actually going to reverse my question. For the Yiddish, I suppose it would make in meaning "all the more so," but how would it mean "on the contrary" in Aramaic... any ideas?

How Come?

To answer Bekkster's question, the following is speculative at most. Here's what I was able to find on the origins of "How come" in the sense of "why."
It seems to be a feature of Germanic languages:
German - Wie kommt es
Swedish - Hur kommer det sig
Dutch - Hoe komt het

Nor is it uncommon to find variants of this phrase in well-known English literature such as Shakespeare:

The Comedy of Errors, Act II, Scene 2
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?

The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Act III, Scene 1
Sir, how comes't that you
Have holp to make this rescue?

It seems that "How come" is elliptical in that one must fill in the missing words to deduce what the original phrase was trying to say. One possibility would be:
How [did it] come [to be that], which is clearer than the Shakespearean version, which has already dropped the "to be" for the more favored abridged version.

Take Our Word For It offers a historical context:

That's exactly what how come? means. Surprisingly, it is American in origin, at least in that form. It dates from the middle of the 19th century, and its first recorded form is in Bartlett's Dictionary of American English: "How-come? rapidly pronounced huc-cum, in Virginia. Doubtless an English phrase, brought over by the original settlers, and propagated even among the negro slaves. The meaning is, How did what you tell me happen? How came it?"

Its predecessor in England was how comes it that...? That phrase was used by Shakespeare in 1607, in his Coriolanus: "How com’st that you haue holpe To make this rescue?" However, he was not the first to use it; we find it first recorded in 1548 by Hall in Chronicle: "How commeth this that there are so many Newe Testamentes abrode?"

That this phrase dates back to England would therefore leave no doubt in my mind of its distinctly Germanic origin.

Interesting how the pronunciation reverted back to "how come" instead of "huc-cum"...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Yiddish Revolution

One man's observations of a Yugntruf meeting held a few weeks ago.

‫לעבן זאָל דער רעװאָלוציע!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

‫די, דער, דאָס: An Enigma for the Ages

I have long promised my cousin that I would compile a list of most frequent words in Yiddish whose genders are feminine, marked by the feminine definite article di, and neuter, marked by the definite article dos. Most words tend to be masculine (דער/der); in fact, the little ditty my family uses when attempting to ascertain noun genders is "When in doubt, make it דער," which works.
For everything else, we have ... nothing. Which is why I am trying to make this list. Here's what I have so far, and please help me out here if you have words to add to the list. Thanks!

  1. ‫[דימינוטיװן] _ל, _לע, _עלע
  2. _גע
  3. עכץ_
  4. [אינפֿיניטיװן]
  5. עניש_
  6. ות_
  7. [מעטאַלן]
  8. אָרט
  9. בילד
  10. ליד
  11. קינד
  12. יאָר
  13. מױל
  14. האַרץ
  15. מענטש***
  16. װאַסער
  17. עסן
  18. הויז
  19. שטול****
  20. העמד
  21. בוך
  22. געלט
  23. װאָרט
  24. קלײד
  25. לאַנד
  26. בלוט
  27. זאַמד
  28. פֿלײש
  29. ליכט
  30. ברױט
  31. אױג
  32. גליק/אומגליק
  33. אײַז
  34. גיהנם
  35. אײַנגעמאַכץ
  36. ארץ־ישׂראל
  37. גלאָז
  38. אַש
  39. ביוראָ
  40. ביר
  41. בית־דין
  42. בלאַט
  43. בית־הכּנסת
  44. גליד
  45. בלעך
  46. גראָז
  47. רובֿ
  48. *בלאַט
  49. בײַטל
  50. רענצל
  51. לײַב
  52. פּנים
  53. וועש
  54. מזומן
  55. לשון
  56. מזל
  57. הקדיש
  58. נחת
  59. קול
  60. רחמים
  61. בעט**
  62. דאָרף
  63. רײַ*****
  64. משוגעת
  1. ע_
  2. ונג_
  3. קײט_
  4. הײט_
  5. שאַפֿט
  6. זאַך
  7. צײַט
  8. ‫עװעניו
  9. גאַס
  10. האַנט
  11. נאָז
  12. שיסל
  13. זײַט
  14. מינוט
  15. נאַכט
  16. װאַנט
  17. טיר
  18. ערד
  19. באָרד
  20. האָר
  21. שטאַט
  22. הױט
  23. הײם
  24. לענג/ברײט
  25. שול/שיל
  26. שפּיל**
  27. פֿױסט
  28. גאַל
  29. לענד
  30. ניר
  31. ליפּ
  32. לעבער
  33. לונג
  34. ריפּ
  35. מילץ
  36. צונג
  37. אָדער
  38. נאָדל
  39. שאַל/שאַרף
  40. זשאַקעט
  41. טוך
  42. ‫פּראָגראַם
  43. האַלדזבאַנד
  44. גריל
  45. קראָ
  46. טױב
  47. פֿליג
  48. בין
  49. לױז
  50. מױז
  51. שלאַנג
  52. שפּין
  53. װעספּ
  54. מידבר
  55. רײַ*****
  56. זון
  57. ‫שעה
*Also feminine when meaning "leaf, sheet of paper, or (if veb is added at the beginning) webpage"; However, when meaning "newspaper," it is always neuter
**Also feminine
***When referring to a female
****Also masculine
*****When referring to a place (e.g. bakery), it is feminine, but when referring to the field (e.g. baking), it is neuter

To be continued... as you can see, I have a long task ahead of me (that is, if I really want to do 100 each... or maybe I should just do 100 total? Hmmmmm...)
Please let me know if you have anything to add to the list (which you surely must!) so we can get this show on the road, baby!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Tmesis Revisited

Another grammatical shenanigan that always bothered me, but that I never cared to actually look up.
Consider this dialogue:
A: I don't want to go because it'll be too crowded.
B: But that's a whole 'nother thing! You told me you didn't want to go because you're socially awkward!
Note how anyone with grammatical OCD would cringe upon hearing the bolded section. I happened to look up tmesis on Wikipedia, and I glanced at the examples they gave. One of them, of course, was "congratu-f#$%-lations", akin to my example "abso-bloody-lutely," but their second one was the phrase bolded in the above dialogue. I took the liberty of naming this phenomenon casual or unaccustomed tmesis, a term which I'm sure will be quoted for generations to come. So in this case, you have "another" interpolated with "whole" to create "a-whole-nother." So next time you wish to express this idea, I would suggest "a wholly different idea," because I can't seem to figure out a way using "whole" and "another" that sounds right. Ideas?

Are You Serious?

After pouring my heart out regarding my frustration of misspellings of the word "medieval," I happened to look through the Google queries that lead to this blog. Tied for first with "tmesis" is (drumroll please): "cool mideval words." Are you serious??