The Mentsch as Everywoman?

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 05, 2010, issue of May 14, 2010.
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Sherry Leffert writes from Cambridge, Mass.:

“A German-speaking, non-Jewish friend of mine likes to compare German words with Yiddish ones. Recently, we were talking about Yiddish mentsh and German Mensch. Since the primary meaning of both words is a man, we were wondering: Does their secondary meaning of a person of integrity and honor refer only to males or does it refer also to females?”

Actually, German Mensch does not appear ever to have had, like Yiddish mentsh, the secondary meaning of “a person of integrity and honor.” Neither of the two good German dictionaries in my possession, Langenscheidt New German College Dictionary and the Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch, ascribes to Mensch the connotation of moral and social decency that goes with mentsh. On the contrary: To be a Mensch in German is to be an ordinary person rather than an exceptional one. When one says of someone, “Er ist auch nur ein Mensch,” “He’s only human,” one is not praising him for his virtue, but rather pointing out that he is imperfect and as capable of lapses of behavior as is anyone else.

That the social and moral dimensions of Yiddish mentsh are not echoed in German Mensch is also the opinion of the knowledgeable author, humorist and cultural commentator Michael Wex in his latest book about Yiddish and Yiddish culture, “How To Be a Mentsh (& Not a Schmuck).” To be a mentsh, as Wex puts it, is “to do what you know to be your human duty, even when the obligation is at odds with your own preferences,” whereas to be a Mensch is simply to be a human being like the rest of us.

And yet, to get back to Ms. Leffert’s question, mentsh and Mensch are alike in that the human being they refer to can, in certain contexts, be of either sex. “Ich bi n auch nur ein Mensch,” “I’m only human,” can be said by a German-speaking woman no less than by a German-speaking man, just as “Zi iz a mentsh,” “She is a mentsh,” meaning, “She is a fine person,” is perfectly good Yiddish. Indeed, “Sie ist ein Mensch” is also good German — and yet precisely here one sees the great difference between the word’s use in the two languages, for in German the expression means, “She is a slattern.”

Of course, English “man” can be gender-free, too. An English phrase like “man’s inhumanity to man” is not restricted to males alone, and the notion of “mankind” takes in women, as well. And yet not only is “mankind” frowned upon by linguistic feminism, but even in the past, before the age of political correctness, no female English speaker would have said, “I’m only a man” when she meant, “I’m only human.” Mentsh and Mensch have always been more sexually inclusive than “man.”

For this reason, I’m not at all sure that Wex is right when he seeks to trace the genderless nature of Yiddish mentsh in its sense of “a person of integrity and honor” to a Hebrew influence. In doing so, Wex bases his case on two Hebrew words for “man”: adam and ish, as they appear in the Bible. Although the former, he observes, first occurs in Scripture as the name of the first man, it generally indicates a human being of either sex, and while the latter frequently means “man” in opposition to isha, “woman,” it can also refer to men and women together. Thus, for example, when God says in Genesis 9:5, “And at the hand of every man’s brother [u’mi-yad ish ahdotiv] will I require the life of man [nefesh ha-adam],” it is obvious that both ish and adam are genderless and include all humanity.

Wex contends that it was medieval Yiddish translations of adam and ish as mentsh that gave mentsh its sometimes genderless aspect. Perhaps so; yet this could equally well have been a result of the occasional genderlessness of Mensch, or of the joint influence of Hebrew and German. The interesting question, in any event, is not which of these two languages shaped Yiddish mentsh more, but why mentsh came to mean ‘a person of integrity and honor” when neither adam, ish nor Mensch has such a meaning. (In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, it is true, ben-adam — “man” or “person” — can also denote someone of upstanding character, but this is a strictly modern development in which it is Yiddish that has influenced Hebrew.)

This is a question, however, that removes us from the sphere of linguistics to that of cultural history. Even though Wex writes, “Since the days of the Prophets, [Jews have been] told that if you don’t observe the commandments that govern relations between people, God isn’t going to be too impressed by the care that you take in fulfilling more ceremonial obligations,” this still doesn’t explain why, among Jews, it was only in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe that the word for “man” and the word for someone of either sex who observes the commandments that govern relations between people became synonymous. That’s something we’ll have to leave to the speculations of others.

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


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