Dialecatessen

My son Meilech has a friend who studiously cultivated his New Yorkese. Once, after hearing my wife speaking, he ran over to Meilech and said, “Your mothah’s got ACCENT!”

Accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, but technically, accent is how words are pronounced, i.e. phonology — related to phonetics. Dialect includes accent, as well as vocabulary, or lexicon.

To illustrate: When my son Meir was 10, I asked if he can tell that his mother has a New York accent. He said, “Of kawss.”

In 2013, on a trip to Grand Canyon, we drove from Flagstaff, Arizona, past Coconino National Forest. Then, as we passed by a vast open plain with hills rising in the distance, my wife asked, “What neighborhood is this?”

That’s dialect.

A friend, bothered by the divergences from what he believes is standard Hebrew pronunciation, told me a theory he heard: A Rebbe in the 1800s decided to change the pronunciation of Hebrew, to distance the community from the antireligious Haskalah movement.

Fake news.

The differences in pronunciation came long before 1800 and cut across Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish. And, as the eminent linguist Max Weinreich wrote in History of the Yiddish Language, pronunciation was divided along regional lines.

Weinreich dated the origins: “It is demonstrable that the present Yiddish dialect system took shape between 1500 and 1700. But to conceive of the existence of dialects in Yiddish one need not be a linguist. Every ordinary Jew who traveled or met strangers in his locality had an opportunity to hear that some said tug (day) and others tog.”

He added that “more experienced and sensitive observers, although they have not studied dialectology, can figure out that … regional characteristics of Yiddish speakers are not arbitrarily scattered, but organized in clusters.”

Dovid Katz, a Litvak and linguist (who moved from Boro Park to Lithuania), analyzed “The Phonology of Ashkenazic,” in Hebrew in Ashkenaz: a Language in Exile, edited by Lewis Glinert:

“For around a thousand years, Ashkenazic thrived in Ashkenaz, the Jewish culture area that covered much of central and eastern Europe. … Following the Holocaust, Ashkenazic survives among some of its progeny worldwide, most perfectly so among a number of the more traditional Hasidic and yeshiva-centered communities. In other communities … its use has diminished sharply, or disappeared, in response to a conscious campaign of discreditation and denigration.”

That campaign was spearheaded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, father of Modern Hebrew, who cobbled together Sephardic vowelization and Ashkenazic consonants to create a falafel cholent. (A mixed but piquant metaphor.)

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia, says that Modern Hebrew is so far removed from the language of the Nevi’im that he calls the language not Hebrew, but “Israeli.”

I consulted the Yiddish maven Michael Wex. He referred to the tragic civil war between Ephraim and Menasheh (Shoftim 12:5-6). The tribe of Ephraim could not pronounce the sh sound; they pronounced it s. When challenged by their enemies to say “shibboles (literally, ear of corn)” they would pronounce it “sibboles.” A fatal error.

Shibboles was the original password. In English it came to mean “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important” (The New Oxford American Dictionary).

Centuries later, many Lithuanian Jews still pronounce the sh sound as s.

I could sense Wex’s thumb waving as he replied, which is not easy while you’re typing. (I kept his spelling, for authenticity and flavor, adding some explanatory kibitzing in brackets.)

“That is a harbe [difficult] and extremely complex kasha [question], the teyrets [answer or solution] for which goes back at least as far as the Litvaks who were living in Ephraim in Sefer Shoyftim (or should we say Shoftim) and couldn’t say shibbolet (or maybe it was shibboles or shibboyles or shibbaules or shibboleth), but were yidn nonetheless.”

Wex added that the “current ‘standard’ is a pretty recent and somewhat artificial development.”

As for the suspected tactic against the Haskalah, Wex said, “No rebbe changed any pronunciation. If the man who made this claim is a hasid, all I can say is niskatnu hadoyros [the generations have declined].”

The means of communication — let alone persuasion — weren’t available to run such a campaign. Wex concluded, “My zeyde, a”h, a Strykover eynikl who grew up in the hoyf [Rebbe’s court] in the 1890s and early 1900s, would have laughed himself silly at such a suggestion.”

It’s fascinating that Weinreich — a founder of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO — was dismayed when a teacher from a Bronx high school challenged him, asking whether Yiddish was a language or a dialect. Weinreich wrote, “I thought that the contempt of the Haskalah movement [against Jewish tradition] had affected the man, and I tried to lead him to the right path.”

But the teacher interrupted him.

“I know that; but I will give you a better definition. A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”


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