What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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At the end of last week’s column about the traditional use of Hebrew characters to write Jewish languages, like Yiddish and Ladino, I promised that this week’s column would deal with the opposite development — namely, the growing tendency in America to write Yiddish in Latin characters. More and more, one finds Yiddish written that way in books and articles, and on the Internet.

It’s not entirely new. As far back as 1947, European-born author Immanuel Olsvanger published in New York a collection of humorous Yiddish stories in Latin characters with an accompanying English translation, titled Röyte Pomerantsn, “Red Oranges.” (Why Olsvanger put a Germanic umlaut over the “o” in royte is something I’ll get back to.) On the one hand, he was responding to the fact that among children and grandchildren of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the United States, there were many who could speak or understand some Yiddish but were unable to read it because they had never received the rudimentary Hebrew education that would have made this possible. On the other, Olsvanger was hoping that in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, there would be an arousal of interest in Yiddish among American Jews who would want to know more about it, though not to the point of troubling themselves to learn the Hebrew alphabet.

Today, this hope has been borne out. Contemporary America is teeming with Yiddish clubs and Yiddish activities for non- or partial Yiddish speakers and dozens of Yiddish songbooks, how-to-speak and what-does-it-mean books, dictionaries, and anthologies of sayings and expressions are available in Latin characters.

You don’t have to know a single Hebrew letter to learn the words to “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” or “Oyfn Pripetshik,” to memorize 500 Yiddish proverbs or to find out how to say in Yiddish, “I love you madly,” or, “May you itch all over your body and your eyes crawl out of your head.” Are you stranded in a Yiddish-speaking country with an empty gas tank or a full bladder? There are books that will tell you what to say, even if you don’t know your alef-bays — viz., “Vu iz di gazolin-stantsyeh?” or “*Ikh darf a vashtsimmer.”

Even fluent Yiddish speakers who have no difficulty reading Yiddish in Hebrew characters now use Latin ones routinely for writing it. There is, for example, a Web site called Mendele.com on which serious scholars, students and speakers of Yiddish request and provide information on a wide range of Yiddish-related subjects. Most write in English, but those who write in Yiddish use the English alphabet only, keeping to the official transliteration rules of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Here’s a randomly chosen example:

Mit a por vokhn tsurik, hob ikh gekoyft Paula Teitelbaum’s CD, ‘Di grine katshke.’ S’iz oyser geveyntlekh. Yedn tog (un nakht) bet mayn zunele, ‘Daddy, zing a lidl. Di frosh. Di frosh. Di frooosshhhhh!’ Ot iz mayn zorg: ‘khob sheyn farloren di CD un ikh gedenk nisht mer di verter….” (“A few weeks ago, I bought Paula Teitelbaum’s CD, ‘The Green Duck.’ It’s great. Every day (and night) my little boy begged me, ‘Daddy, sing a song. The frog. The frog. The fro-o-og!’ But here’s the problem: I’ve lost the CD and can’t remember the words….”)

The Yiddish words to Paula Teitelbaum’s “The Frog” were quickly supplied by a Mendele reader — in Latin characters, of course.

Is this a good thing? It’s hard not to be of two minds about it. On the one hand, using the Latin alphabet makes a smattering of Yiddish available to large numbers of people who otherwise would have no access to it. It also enables those fluent in it to communicate by e-mail and Internet without a special computer program to handle the Hebrew alphabet. These are real advantages.

But on the other, a Yiddish written in Latin characters is no more “whole Yiddish” than an English written in Hebrew characters would be “whole English.” Although alphabets are not intrinsic to languages (many languages, after all, have switched alphabets in the course of their history, and a far greater number had never been written at all until modern times), an alphabet is nevertheless, as it were, the clothing in which a language dresses. Yiddish has always worn Jewish clothing. Is it really the same language when it dresses as a non-Jew? Can it give us quite the same feeling when we see it, read it, run our fingers over it?

Moreover, there is the question of Yiddish regional speech. When Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, every Yiddish speaker is free to pronounce it the way to which he is accustomed. The word for “red,” for example, רויט, can be read as “reyt” if your Yiddish is Lithuanian or Belarusian, and as “royt” if it’s from elsewhere, but if it’s written in Latin characters, you’re forced to pronounce the “oy” in non-Lithuanian fashion, as in “boy.” (This was the reason for Olsvanger’s umlaut, which was meant to create a special letter that would preserve the element of choice.) Jews have gone to war with each other over lesser things. There’s something to be said for sticking to the alef-beys.

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


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