Thursday, September 01, 2011


Summer is a time when newspaper columnists, short on time because of vacation, nagging kids and other distractions, decide to dig out old essays that would have been better left unpublished. Such is (I think) David Brooks' effort of August 29 in the NY Times. A luxurious safari trip with his family to Kenya brings to mind a particular expression: "haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality."

Using a phrase that is curiously similar to "the color line," Brooks posits the existence of something he calls the haimish line. Settings and events that are on one side (ostensibly the right side) of this line are comfortable, modest, and pleasantly convivial. On the other side are upscale, hoity-toity, chilly venues in which people are discouraged from being friendly with one another. During his safari, Brooks spent both time on both sides of the line. Yet he doesn't deal with the situation of poor people who must always dwell on the haimish side; they can't afford to traipse off to the other, fancy one--as individuals of his class easily can. In this way there is an element of slumming in his praise of the modest, homey spots. One is reminded of the film "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," in which the wealthy hero opts to spend one night hobnobbing with homeless men at the beach, where he eats garbage. He pronounces the experience wonderful, but he never goes back.

As with so many purportedly distinctive Yiddish terms, haimish is a borrowing from high German, stemming from the noun "Heim," home. The English adjective would be "homey." Why not use this term? But Brooks opts for a cognate that will strike most readers as exotic, and hence the bearer of some special wisdom.

As it happens, German also supplies the antonym: "unheimlich," meaning uncanny, unexpected.

In life we need both the reassurance of particular things, the heimisch/haimish dimension, and also a sense of surprise and the unexpected: unheimlich.


Faithful readers of these pages will note that this latest comment reflects, in the context of my general interest in linguistics, a skepticism regarding the idealization of Yiddish in this country. Let me be honest: could it be that I am flagging these words simply because they are Jewish? Most of them, though, as in this example, are of German origin. Although I have become reasonably proficient in German, a requirement for my academic studies, the language has always retained for me a certain taint, based upon what we learned about National Socialism during and after World War II.

Well, that quirk aside, what is wrong with borrowing words? Much of the standard vocabulary of English is borrowed from French and Latin.

What really concerns me, I think, is the linguistic populism inherent in the wholesale importation of the such words, the idea that the ordinary language of the people contains some great repository of inherent wisdom. Since this country has many ethnic groups, there must be--according to this line of thinking--some unique Irish, Italian, or Hispanic folk wisdom. That is what seems to me uncertain. Almost without exception, our immigrant groups (and I stem from one) came to this country from a culture of poverty. That status meant limited cultural resources, not vast ones.

There is, of course, a contemporary sociological element: many of our most successful figures in the worlds of journalism and entertainment are of Askenazic Jewish heritage. Their achievements are due to merit, without question. If Italian-Americans were prominent in these fields in such numbers, we would expect a profusion of such words as gumbah and agita--and I would be compelled to ask what profound folk wisdom was being transmitted by the importation of this vocabulary. Not much, I fear--certainly very little in comparison to what is found in Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch.

It is an interesting fact that the tapping of this Jewish cultural heritage is limited to one particular segment of the Jewish people, the Ashkenazim. Where is the contribution of Mediterranean (sometimes inaccurately termed Sephardic) Jews? Historically, their achievements have been considerable; one need only think of Maimonides, Spinoza, and Cardozo. Moreover, greater knowledge of classical Hebrew would be useful in understanding Biblical concepts, which remain important in our civilization. King James I, the creator of our most influential version of the Bible, acknowledged this point by actually learning Hebrew and delivering speeches in that language.

Instead of such illumination, we get this plethora of German-Jewish argot terms, many of which, like "heimish" and "mensh," "shonder" and "nosh," have perfectly good English-language equivalents, and are therefore redundant.

NOTE. The concept in social theory known as the “culture of poverty” stems from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, as seen in his groundbreaking ethnography "Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty" (1959). Lewis argued that although the burdens of poverty are systemic, being imposed upon specific strata of society, they foster the formation of an autonomous subculture as children are socialized into behaviors and attitudes that serve to perpetuate their underclass status.

Clearly this concept has transnational implications. As the various groups subject to the culture of poverty manage, some of them at least, to migrate to more prosperous nations, they nonetheless bring with them many social patterns, including language habits, that have been nurtured at home.

I recently came upon an acknowledgment of this transnational phenomenon in a book first published eighty years ago: Fontamara, a novel by the great Italian writer Ignazio Silone. The little village of Fontamara in the Abruzzi was a specific place, yet the things that occurred there have broader, perhaps universal application: “i contadini poveri, gli uomini che fanno fruttificare la terra e soffrano la fame, i fellahin, i coolies, i peones, i mugic [muzhiks], i cafoni, si somigliano in tutti i paesi del mondo.”

In the novel one of the peasants makes an interesting observation. He says that he had spent several years working as a laborer in Argentina. Out on the Pampa he and his fellow immigrants never had any trouble communicating with the local laborers and the gauchos, even though one group spoke in rudimentary Italian and the other in rudimentary Spanish. Yet when an educated official from the Italian consulate would show up once a week to see how they were doing, the poor immigrants just couldn't communicate with him.



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