“Anyone more or less acquainted with the regional varieties of Yiddish will realize that although the large-scale delineations of ‘Lithuanian,’ ‘Polish,’ and so on are justified, they do not exhaust the description.”
Only the readers get exhausted!
“When a Lithuanian Jew listens … to a non-Lithuanian speaker, he must, in addition to concentrating on the content, also go through a complicated linguistic procedure to translate from the other’s dialectical subsystem into his own.” He said this is “no leisurely conscious thinking.” Is it any wonder so many Yiddish speakers look ill-at-ease?
And try reading this linguistic clarification:
“The difference between /nain/ (no) and /na:n/ (nine) in Polish Yiddish or between /nein/ (no) and /nain/ (nine) in Lithuanian Yiddish must be considered a phonemic difference in the bounds of each of the two dialectical systems. … The versions differ phonetically and acoustically, but not in meaning.”
Nu, and you thought it’s all fun and no work being a word nerd? I read this stuff so you don’t have to. You should thank me for this.
“Phonemic” has nothing to do with being a phony. It refers to phonemes — the little bits of sound that form words.
“Phonemic difference” is a straightforward, noncontroversial way to look at the distinction between Zeidy and Zaidy. But there’s nothing straightforward or noncontroversial in Yiddish. You take your chances just greeting someone with ‘Hello, how are you?’ It’s that highly charged.
When Rachel Leah challenged me, “You’re not a Zeidy,” I knew she meant more than just my accent, which lacks the rich ethnic flavor of her other grandfather’s Yiddish. My mechutan is a natural Satmar Chassid. I’m a naturalized Chassid.
(I think “naturalized” is an oxymoron. But it can be a serviceable villain. Or, as they say, “Az men darf dem ganef, nemt men em arop fun der t’liye. — If you need the thief, you take him down from the gallows.”)
If you don’t know what a mechutan is, may you be blessed soon.
William Safire once asked his readers to suggest a “neologism to mean ‘the in-laws of your children.’ In Yiddish,” he said, “the relationship is denoted by the word machetunim, derived from the Hebrew noun plural of mechutanim, ‘related by marriage.’”
I love Safire’s phonemic slide from mechutanim to machetunim. His father was a Yiddish writer from Romania. It shows.
“Most Lexicographic Irregulars,” Safire’s name for his guerrilla band of readers, “let me down on ‘the relations of your married children.’”
One reader suggested the Spanish word consuegros. Those are in-laws “once removed — via your children.” Safire’s response? “If we’re going to use a foreign word, we might as well stick to machetunim.”
No, I didn’t forget about my unforgettable granddaughter. I just had a digression. For that, thank G-d, you don’t need pills. You just go back to what you were writing before. So let me remind you…
When Rachel Leah posed her “Zeidy” challenge, I replied,
“Why aren’t I a Zeidy?”
“You speak English!”
Stunned silence …
But she wasn’t finished. She took a breath and added, “And you’re not chassidish.”
My wife jumped to my defense: “Zaidy is a Chassid.”
Rachel Leah parried and thrust: “He’s a Chassid, but he’s not chassidish!”
I half expected Rachel Leah to add, “We’re discussing sociolinguistics, not theology.”
Touché. She was right. I speak Yiddish, but not heimish. It’s still Yiddish as a second language. I’m a sociolinguistic immigrant. Only my English is unbroken.
But, baruch Hashem, my mesorah is unbroken. No matter how you pronounce it.
Please send smiles, sticks and stones to email@example.com.