Alack and Alas, We’ve Lost Our Glottal Stop

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 29, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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Andy Farber of Terre Haute, Ind., writes to ask, “What does zuchem vey mean?”

Zuchem vey” means nothing that I know of. But what Mr. Farber has undoubtedly heard is a slight garbling of Yiddish s’iz okh un vey, an expression that is easy to understand but not so easy to translate into contemporary English. For okh un vey (the s’iz is simply Yiddish for “it’s”), Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary gives us “alas and alack,” but alas and alack, “alas and alack” is not very modern. Alexander Harkavy’s older Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary has only the expression okh un vey tzu mir — that is, “Okh un vey to me,” defined by it as “Woe is me!” “Woe is me,” methinks, would raise a few eyebrows in Terre Haute, too.

More likely, today’s Terre Hautian would say something like, “It looks bad,” or, “Boy, am I in trouble!” Okh by itself in Yiddish is an exclamation of disturbance or displeasure, a cognate of German ach, while vey, a cognate of German Weh and English “woe,” means “pain.” Taken together in an expression like okh un vey tsu mir, they are a stronger version of Yiddish vey iz mir or veyz mir, which is, (except for it’s not being archaic at all) the word-for-word equivalent of “Woe is me.” One might say that oy vey, veyz mir and okh un vey tsu mir form a kind of progression from mild to serious dismay. If, for instance, you are peeling potatoes with a knife and feel a pain in your finger, your first reaction might be “Oy vey!” When you look down at the finger and see that it is bleeding, this might escalate to “Veyz mir!” And when the blood keeps gushing out, and you realize you had better get yourself to an emergency room in a hurry — well, s’iz okh un vey.

Schreien ach und weh, “to cry ach and weh,” is an expression in German, too. This raises the question of which language borrowed from which. My guess is German from Yiddish, and my reasons for thinking so are biblical. This is because in Chapter 23 of the Book of Proverbs, we read (I use the King James translation), “Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine.” The first two questions, “Who hath woe, who hath sorrow,” are in Hebrew le-mi oy le-mi avoy, literally, “Who has oy, who has avoy,” oy and avoy both being exclamations of dismay. And from this we get the Hebrew expression oy va’avoy or oy vavoy, which is still a common idiom in Israeli speech and has the same sense as okh un vey.

My theory then would be that okh un vey first originated not as a borrowing from German, but as a Yiddishization of oy vavoy, in which Hebrew oy was translated as okh and Hebrew va’avoy, and avoy, because of the phonetic similarity, as un vey. The borrowers would have been the German speakers, who heard Jews saying okh un vey and took the expression for themselves.

Bert Horwitz of Asheville, N.C., sent a question a few months ago that I apologize for not answering sooner. Writing about an off-Broadway musical production of “Gimpel Tam,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story that was translated from Yiddish by Saul Bellow as “Gimpel the Fool,” Mr. Horwitz relates that there was a dispute in his local Yiddish club “about the meaning of tam. A search of the Weinreich dictionary revealed only one meaning — fool, moron, naïve person, etc. Yet a member of our club insisted on a second meaning. Tam, she claimed, is often used with exceptionally delicious food, as in ‘This cake has tam.’ What do you think?”

I think we are dealing with Yiddish homonyms that come from two different Hebrew words: tam, spelled taf-mem, which indeed means “simpleton” or “fool,” and ta’am, spelled tet-ayin-mem, which means “taste.” In Hebrew, the second of these words has two syllables with a glottal stop, which is a slight contraction of the throat muscle that separates a vowel from another that follows it. Glottal stops occur all the time in Hebrew. Although they also exist in certain varieties of non-standard English (think of how certain British and New York accents render “bottle” as “bah-ul”), they are rarely heard in standard English, which is why a word like “cooperation” is usually pronounced “cowoperation,” with an intervening consonantal glide.

In Yiddish, standard or nonstandard, there are no glottal stops at all. Any two Hebrew syllables with a glottal stop between them become a single Yiddish syllable, whether by means of a glide as in English (thus, for example, the Hebrew word da’aga, “worry,” becomes Yiddish dayge, pronounced “die-geh”), or by means of a vocalic elision, as when ta’am becomes tam. Had Mr. Horwitz’s Yiddish club looked for tam in its sense of “taste” or “zest” under its correct spelling, they would have found it in the Weinreich dictionary.

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