Think 'Fast'

By Philologos

Published December 24, 2007, issue of December 28, 2007.
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Tantalizingly brief is a note from an e-mailer who identifies himself only as “Brodetzky,” no first name given. It says:

“‘Mach gich!’ was my command to a platoon of German soldiers that had ambushed my battalion’s advance to the Rhine River in March 1945. We had outflanked and ambushed the ambushers, but they did not understand my mameloshn.”

That’s the whole e-mail. It’s unfair of Mr. Brodetzky to leave us in such suspense. Had the German soldiers already surrendered when his command to them — a Yiddish-influenced notion of how to say, “Move fast!” in German, in which the correct expression is mach schnell — was given? And what happened when his prisoners failed to understand him? Did they look at each other in bewilderment? Pick up their guns and start shooting again? One would love to know.

But Mr. Brodetzky, who today must be in his 80s, is a man in a hurry. He did not even have time to ask his question, which I take to be: Why does Yiddish, despite its closeness to German, have a word for “fast,” gikh, that Germans don’t understand?

Of course, Yiddish has thousands of words for things and concepts that are different from their equivalents in German. This is why the two are different languages. But the great majority of these words have Hebrew or Slavic origins. (Many of the Hebrew ones replaced Germanic ones even before Jews migrated in the Middle Ages from the German-speaking lands of Central Europe to the Slavic-speaking lands of Eastern Europe.) Gikh, on the other hand, involves the rarer case of Yiddish’s preserving an old German word that disappeared from German itself — or more precisely, that survived in modern German with another meaning.

This survival is modern German keck, which means “daring,” “dashing,” “saucy” or “pert.” It comes from Middle High German quec, which in turn derives from Old High German’s alternate forms of chec, checch and quecch, all meaning “alive.” The word is closely related to English “quick,” whose

original meaning in Old and Middle English, where it can be found spelled as “cuic,” “cwike,” ‘quyk,” “quycke” and “qwyk,” was also “alive” or “living.” And since what is alive is lively, and what is lively is fast, Mr. Brodetzky, had he been a Brit rather than a Yiddish-speaking Yank, might have told his German prisoners, “Step lively!” This is the logic by which “quick” came to mean “fast” in medieval times, although English has also kept alive the old meaning of “alive” in the expression “to be cut to the quick” — that is, to be pierced to the living flesh — as well as in the semi-archaic verb “to quicken,” in the sense of “to be restored to life.”

In becoming Yiddish gikh, German quecch followed the same trajectory of meaning. Something similar happened, too, with schnell. Although schnell already meant “fast” in the 11th century, its original sense, which it continued to keep for a long while, was “brave” or “agile.” And while standard English has no cognates of schnell, Scots English does. Alexander Warrack’s Scots Dialect Dictionary gives the following 18 definitions for “snell”: “quick,” “sharp,” “keen,” “eager,” “fierce,” “severe,” “painful,” “cold,” “piercing,” “bracing,” “pungent,” “acrimonious,” “tart,” “sarcastic,” “austere,” “clear-sounding,” “firm,” and “resolute.”

Yiddish also has the word shnel in the sense of “quick,” and had Mr. Brodetzky resorted to it, he would have been better understood that day near the Rhine. On the other hand, just as Yiddish kept gikh while German lost it, yet another synonym for “quick,” rasch, was kept by German and lost by Yiddish. In English, rasch has the cognate “rash” (he who is rash is a bit too quick), but in Scots, once again, “rash” can also mean “brisk” or “agile,’ just as it originally did in German.

We have here not only some specific linguistic history but also material for some broad linguistic generalizations. Languages are constantly changing, and two of the ways in which they change are by adding new words to their vocabularies while deleting old ones and by expanding, contracting or shifting the meanings of existing words. Often there is competition between these words and meanings, and some win out at the expense of others. Neither German nor Yiddish needed three different words for “fast,” and when all three converged on the same semantic space, one of them was either pushed out, as rasch was in Yiddish, or redefined, as keck was in German. Sometimes, such redefinitions involve chains of meaning in which redefinitions themselves are redefined. Although you can probably figure out for yourselves how Scots “snell” came to mean “acrimonious,” “sarcastic” and “clear-sounding,” you have to go through several steps to do so. Over hundreds of years, such developments help cause regional speech variations to develop into separate dialects, and separate dialects to grow into different languages.

And now, if Mr. Brodetzky would find the time to let us know how things turned out on that March day nearly 63 years ago, I’m sure we’d all be grateful.

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


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