Daytshmer Nightshmare

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 07, 2010, issue of April 16, 2010.
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Vincent Daly writes from Baltimore:

“I’m wondering about the Yiddish word daytshmerish, denoting the Germanified Yiddish used (among other things) for speeches by well-born characters in the early Yiddish theater. Daytsh is clearly Deutsch, i.e., German, and -ish is no problem. But where does the syllable –mer come from?”

Daytshmerish is a 19th-century Yiddish word, coined, as Mr. Daly correctly states, as a derogatory term for a style of speaking and writing Yiddish whose many borrowings from German were intended to make users sound cultivated but actually made them sound pompous and pretentious. Nahum Stutchkoff, in his Yiddish thesaurus, Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh, lists the word as daytsh(m)erish, which would seem to indicate that at least some Yiddish speakers known to him said daytsherish, not daytshmerish. Since in older Yiddish, German was taytsh and Yiddish itself was called ivre-taytsh (“Hebrew-German”), so that a taytsher was an interpreter or translator (that is, someone who rendered another language into taytsh), a 19th-century daytsher would have been a Germanizer, and daytsherish the language he spoke or wrote. This leaves the –m of daytshmerish as its only puzzling feature, and perhaps it was inserted by popular usage to create the scornful “shm-” that can be pre-fixed to Yiddish words, and that exists in Jewish English, too, in such combinations as “educated-shmeducated,” “big shot-shmig shot,” etc.

That’s only a guess. Yet regardless of where its –m came from, daytshmerish was a widely noted phenomenon in 19th- and 20th- century Yiddish speech and literature. Its roots lay in the perception of some Eastern European Jews, especially in the more educated classes, that Yiddish (commonly called Zhargon, “Jargon,” by many of its 19th-century speakers) was at bottom a folkish and less cultured dialect of German that could be “improved” by the addition or substitution of as many “proper” German words as possible. To the great majority of Yiddish speakers, who had no sense of linguistic inferiority vis-à-vis German, such language seemed absurdly inflated, and it was often put to comic use by Yiddish playwrights and writers of fiction who parodied it.

Recently, I was reading Soviet-period Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak’s wonderful tragic-comic novel, “Di Zelmenyaners,” in which one of the minor characters speaks daytshmerish. She is known in the novel as “Esther the copybook author,” being an elderly person who has written several exercise books in Yiddish penmanship, and she has the habit of using such words as the German sogar (“even”) instead of the Yiddish afile, and the German niemand (“no one”) instead of the Yiddish keyner.

In one scene, Esther and three of her friends are eavesdropping on the highly articulate conversation of a young man and woman, and at one point, one of her friends whispers to her, “Esther what are they saying?”

To this question, Esther replies, “Zi redn di shenste vortn fun der zhargonisher shprakhe” (“They’re speaking in the most beautiful words of the Jargonic language”), saying Sprache (“language”) instead of shprakh.

“But what is it about?” she is asked.

Um tsu farbrengen, vi adelige kinder, in kise und geshphrekhn” (“About passing the time, like noble children, in kisses and talk”), Esther answers, using German adelige, “noble,” in place of Yiddish eydele, and German Küsse, “kisses,” in place of Yiddish kushn.

A friend asks her, “What are Küsse, Esther?”

Küsse are kushn,” Esther says.

“What, they’re kissing?” the shocked friend exclaims.

Nayn, dieses nisht” (“No, that’s not it”), Esther says, using German dieses (“that”) rather than Yiddish dos.

“Then what?”

“I said that,” Esther says (Kulbak describes her as having “a look of longing” as she speaks), “because it sounds beautiful.”

Esther is a touching figure in Kulbak’s novel. Her resort to daytshmerish springs not from pomposity, but from a genuine yearning to partake in what she conceives of as European high culture, one aspect of which is romantic conversations between youngsters. (The young man she is eavesdropping on is indeed in love with the young woman — who is not, however, Esther’s failure to realize as much notwithstanding, in the least bit in love with him.) Germanizing her Yiddish is for her a way of doing this, although it renders her preposterous in the eyes of both the novel’s younger characters and its readers.

An increasing object of ridicule, daytsh- merish gradually faded from Yiddish speech and writing in the first decades of the 20th century. As Yiddish literature developed into a world-class body of writing, any sense Jews might have had of its inferiority as a vehicle of expression and cultural creativity tended to disappear, and with it, the use of German as a means of elevating its status. True, as the Communist authorities gradually cracked down on Yiddish cultural life in the Soviet Union, they sought to eliminate as much of Yiddish’s Hebrew vocabulary as they could, often by substituting German words for it, as part of their anti-religious and anti-Zionist campaigns, but their motives for doing so were very different from those of the daytshmerish-speaking-and-writing Jews of earlier ages. Today, daytshmerish is gone, leaving us only that curious –m.

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


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