Fantasies about Yiddish
Bloom’s comments derive from a new edition of a book first published in translation in 1940. Max Weinreich, the author, had died in 1969 without making any substantial revisions. As such, the book can hardly reflect recent advances and controversies in scholarship. On this basis, however, Bloom makes various debatable assertions about the origins and nature of Yiddish, which I won’t attempt to replicate.
He quotes a poem from Jacob Glatshteyn about his arrival in New York City in 1919. This poem consists of 113 words, of which only 8 are NOT German. Compare English where only an estimated 16 per cent of the vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon--a proportion that is close to the reverse. In any event, the massive presence of foreign loan words, the majority from Romance, does not alter the fundamental nature of our language, which remains Germanic. Ditto Yiddish. For political reasons, though, one tends to limit this fundamental Germanness with regard to Yiddish. That is just PC nonsense.
In addition to the vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly Germanic with small admixtures of Slavic and Hebrew, there is the matter of syntax, always the most decisive marker in the classification of languages. Consider the familiar Yiddish refrain in the delightful song popularized by the Andrews Sisters: “Bei mir bist du sheyn.” Obviously, this utterance corresponds to the High German “Bei mir bist du schön.” With a minor shift in pronunciation the vocabulary is just the same. The word order is also revealing, for the Yiddish expression follows the familiar and distinctive German rule in declarative sentences: the verb must always be in the second place. Such a rule does not occur in Hebrew or Slavic languages.
Further to illustrate the point, here is a sentence from Glatshteyn’s poem: “Der oyberhar hot mit dem himelbloy di gantse erd arumgeringelt un nito keyn retung.” Setting aside the idiosyncracies of transcription of Yiddish into English, this is simply the German “Der Überheer hat mit dem Himmelblau die ganze Erde herumgeringelt und nicht kein Rettung.” Vocabulary and syntax correspond exactly.
The truth is that Yiddish is not an autonomous language, but a nonstandard variant of High German. It is closer to High German than are either Plattdeutsch or Swiss German. Revealingly, the Yiddish word for “to translate” is fartaytshn, to Germanize.
As with all sorts of languages, from Sumerian to Old Provençal, most people will know about the glories of Yiddish only through translation. Bloom is resigned to this. “The vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday soon will be no more.”
[PS October 23, 2008. The following comments respond to the courteous remarks posted by "Anonymous" (below, in Comments). Please read these first.
The writer’s grammatical observation is correct; in High German it should be "keine" before "Rettung." Yiddish tends to be selective in its adherence to such grammatical rules.
Plattdeutsch, sometimes called Low German, is spoken in North Germany and some eastern parts of the Netherlands. Its primary marker stems from the fact that the language did not undergo the High German consonantal shift: thus maken/machen, eten/essen, teihn/zehn, sitten/sitzen/Peper/Pfeffer. In each case, the Yiddish term corresponds to the second, High German form.
Swiss German stands at the opposite pole to Plattdeutsch, in that many words have been subjected to a second sound shift. Thus the shibboleth chuchichäschtli/Kuchenkasten [kitchen cupbard]. Again, Yiddish follows the High German preference.
If I find that a Nazi writer observes that there are twelve months in the year, or that it gets dark at night, am I obliged to abandon these beliefs? As an art historian, I was at one time influenced by the Austrian scholar Hans Sedlmayr, who was a Nazi; he made many important observations about Renaissance and Baroque art, which it would be unwise to neglect. In such instances, one must follow the path that is correct, and not be frightened off by the fact that some undesirable group has at one time or other espoused such a view.]