Yiddish for Comrades

Official Spellings by Order of the Soviet Union

Eastern Rule: Letters from a Yiddish primer published in Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region (Birobidzhan) on the Chinese border.
Eastern Rule: Letters from a Yiddish primer published in Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region (Birobidzhan) on the Chinese border.

By Philologos

Published December 02, 2009, issue of December 11, 2009.
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The week of Yom Kippur, you may recall, I published a column about a Yiddish letter, written by a young soldier in the Russian army to his family during World War I, that a reader asked me to decipher. In doing so, I pointed out that the letter writer, although his spelling was generally good, misspelled several Hebrew words. As Hebrew is traditionally spelled in Yiddish by its own rules, which differ from the strictly phonetic ones used for the non-Hebrew component of the language, I concluded that he had had no or little Hebrew education.

Now, reader Rochelle Mogilner writes to ask whether I may have been unfair to the young man, who — so she surmises — might have spelled the Hebrew words as he did not out of ignorance, but because he was adhering to “the new Soviet system of Yiddish orthography” that was instituted in the 1920s. This system brought the spelling of Yiddish’s Hebrew component into line with that of its other vocabulary by a number of measures, such as regularly using the letters aleph, ayin, vov and yud to represent vowel sounds where Hebrew failed to indicate them, and eliminating the letters taf and khes while substituting tes or samekh for the former and khof for the latter. (In a later stage, the Soviet spelling reform also eliminated the special forms of the letters khof, mem, nun, peh and tsadi at the ends of words.)

Thus, for example, shabbes, Saturday, was now spelled שאבעסinstead ofשבת and toyreh, Torah, טוירע instead of תורה. This new system had two objectives. One was to make Yiddish spelling easier for Jews who knew no Hebrew. The other was to efface the Hebraic character of Yiddish entirely, since, as Ms. Mogilner accurately observes, “Hebrew was considered the language of religion and of Zionism, both of which were anathema to Soviet ideology.”

It’s an interesting theory. Inasmuch, however, as the young soldier wrote his letter in pre-Revolutionary czarist times, years before the Soviet spelling reform, I did not at first think there could possibly be anything to it. Yet, having in my library a book on Soviet Yiddish by the British scholar Gennady Estraikh, in which there is a chapter on this reform, I took down the book from its shelf to read up on the matter — and to my surprise, I discovered things I hadn’t known.

To make a long story short, though a comprehensive Yiddish spelling reform was never put into widespread practice anywhere in Eastern Europe before the Bolshevik Revolution, nearly all of its principles had been proposed in czarist times by various Yiddish scholars and intellectuals, many of them not communists at all; a few, in fact, such as Marxist theoretician and Yiddish linguist Ber Borochov, were even Zionists. As early as 1908, at the famously controversial first Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, the conference’s initiator, Nathan Birnbaum, came out in favor of “Yiddishizing” the language’s Hebrew component. Birnbaum made the same case as did the later Soviet spelling reformers — namely, that the average Yiddish speaker who knew no Hebrew was at a disadvantage when having to read or write Hebrew-derived words in which the traditional spelling had persisted under the influence of the rabbinic establishment and its allies, the educated Jewish upper classes.

This argument was especially popular in left-wing and anti-religious Jewish circles, such as that of the Yiddisher Arbiter Bund, the Jewish socialist party founded in 1897. Is it possible, then, that our letter writer was a Bundist, or someone of similar views, who jumped the gun by instituting his own private spelling reform without waiting for its official promulgation?

This would make our young soldier an intellectual rebel rather than merely a poor speller. Yet, going back to his letter, I quickly realized that a poor speller is what he was. This is because if one looks at his misspelled Hebrew words, the way they are written is not how they would have been had he deliberately been applying new rules to them. For example, whereas the kippur of Yom Kippur, whose Hebrew spelling is כיפור, became קיפער in Soviet orthography, in line with earlier, pre-Soviet proposals, our soldier spelled it קיפר. And whereas the Hebrew-derived word for a fast, taynis, is traditionally spelledתענית and became טייניס in reformed spelling, our soldier spelled it טענת.

Clearly, then, we are indeed looking at the errors of someone who never had a proper Hebrew education. These errors, however, so at variance with the rest of the letter, do show why Yiddish spelling reform had many backers long before it was adopted by the Soviet authorities. Today, we tend to think of the Soviet measures as motivated solely by a desire to de-Judaize and de-Hebraize Yiddish and Yiddish culture. But though this was a large part of it, it was not the whole story. Many speakers of Yiddish sincerely felt that something had to be done to make reading and writing easier for those who had never gone at all, or for very long, to heder, the traditional Eastern European Hebrew school. Our young soldier might have agreed with them.

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


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