Yiddish’s Linguistic Drift

By Philologos

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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Stephen Fisher of Missouri writes:

“My grandparents were native Yiddish speakers and my parents were native English speakers. I heard my grandparents speak Yiddish among themselves, but they spoke English to their children and grandchildren. In my childhood, we used a number of Yiddish words in our English; however, I soon learned not to include them in conversation outside the family. One word we used was shmatte, meaning rag, which I found other Jews knew also. However, we had another word, trante, which no one ever seems to know. Even my rabbi, a friend of mine, who speaks Yiddish, has never heard of it. Although I found one Yiddish dictionary that lists trante as a synonym for shmatte, for us a shmatte was a rag but a trante was a piece of junk, something old or worn out. What do you know about trante? Why was it so common in my childhood but hardly known by others?”

Mr. Fisher will be happy to know that Yiddish trante is alive and well in Israel as the Hebrew slang word tarante (tah-RAHN-teh), which refers to an old car, or jalopy. In older and now dated Hebrew slang, a tarante could also be, as Mr. Fisher remembers it from his childhood, any piece of old junk, and could even be used ad hominem, as in a sentence such as, “Her husband is such an old tarante that I don’t know how she puts up with him.” Today, though, the word applies pretty much exclusively to vehicles. If your car is more than 10 years old, needs bodywork and suffers from a chronic cough, it definitely qualifies as a tarante.

Yiddish trante comes from Ukrainian drantye, rag, a word that does not, to the best of my knowledge, occur in other Slavic languages and that also is not, according to an informant from Kiev, very common in Ukrainian anymore, either. Perhaps it was used in the past only regionally by Yiddish speakers native to Ukraine, which is why Mr. Fisher, whose grandparents may have come from there, never ran into American Jews who were familiar with it. In any case, trante’s trajectory is clear: From “rag” it also came to mean “piece of junk,” a development that took place in Eastern Europe (since otherwise, we would not find this meaning both in Israel and in Missouri), and from “piece of junk” it took on its strictly Israeli meaning of “jalopy.”

Why certain Yiddish words have entered both American Jewish English and Israeli Hebrew while others have made it into only one of the two is an interesting question. The list of Yiddishisms common to both Jewish English and Hebrew is a long one, and includes such items as shmatte, krechtz, nosh, shnorrer, gevalt, schmuck, dreck, tchotchke, pupik and so on. And yet the list of those words that are found in only one or the other language is far longer. Numerous American Jewish words derived from Yiddish, such as shmooze, kvell, klutz, shlep, kibitz, schmear, bubkes, yenta, shlock, farmisht, chazzerei, mensch, shtick, etc., do not exist in Israeli Hebrew at all. And by the same token, a very large number of Yiddish-derived words in Hebrew, such as balagan (amess), bok (idiot), shlumper (sloppy dresser), tararam (commotion), tamavatte ( innocent or naive person), trask (fuss), mammale and tatale (terms of endearment), loksh (tall tale), tsutsik (little boy), foyleshtik (underhanded business), and so on and so on, are absent from American Jewish English.

There’s no single explanation for these divergences. Regionality cannot be a factor, since Jews came to both Israel and the United States from every part of the Yiddish-speaking world in roughly the same proportions and speaking the same dialects of Yiddish. Different origins cannot have played a role here.

Most likely we are talking about a process that is known as linguistic drift and that also explains — or doesn’t explain, if you prefer, since it depends at least partly on random events — such things as phonetic changes in languages over time, shifts in the meanings of words, and the like. If we take a word from each of our three lists — let’s say mensch, kibitz and trask — we have to assume that every Yiddish speaker immigrating to both America and Israel knew all three of them, and that some of these speakers proceeded to introduce these words into their immigrant English and Hebrew speech. Whether these words then caught on in the English and Hebrew speech communities to which such speakers belonged would have been affected by many things, such as their filling a vacant space in the semantic field of the recipient language, their adaptability to that language’s morphemic and phonetic systems and so on, but there also would have been a decided element of chance. If Yiddish Speaker X, for instance, came to America, was fond of using the word kibitz in his English and had many friends, he would have helped to spread the word in a way that speaker Y, who was equally fond of trask but had few friends, would not have helped to spread it. A large number of variables must have decided the fate of each one of such words. Trante was but one of these words.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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