Last Names, Lost in Translation

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 13, 2008, issue of March 21, 2008.
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Dennis Fleishman of Toms River, N.J., has a question that, he writes, “has been lingering in my mind for quite some time. What determines the pronunciation in English of the vowel in names ending in ‘-stein’? Sometimes it’s pronounced like the vowel in ‘pie’ and sometimes like the vowel in ‘feet.’ Is there a rule of thumb?”

None that I can think of. Eastern European Jewish names such as Goldstein, Blaustein, Farbstein, Finkelstein and so on have as their last syllable the Yiddish word for stone, shtayn, which was pronounced in most parts of the Yiddish-speaking world to rhyme with “wine.” (In Lithuania, however, it rhymed with “wane,” and in Galicia with “wan.”) This is also the pronunciation of the German word for “stone,” Stein, and since American immigration officials at Ellis Island had already dealt with German immigrants having such names like Rosenstein and Morgenstein long before Eastern European Jews began arriving on American shores, they recorded the -shtayn of Eastern European Jewish names as “-stein.” (The Eastern European Jews themselves only knew how to write their names in the Hebrew characters used in Yiddish.)

And yet, “ei” is a fairly rare combination in English and is not always pronounced like the vowel in “wine.” Sometimes it’s pronounced like the “ea” in “wean,” as in “weird,” “seize” and the standard American pronunciation of “neither.” And so when Americans encountered such Eastern European names as Goldstein, Blaustein, Farbstein and Finkelstein, some pronounced the last syllable to rhyme with “wine” and some to rhyme with “wean,” and the possessors of these names reacted accordingly and pronounced them in these two different ways, too. Yet while this explains the inconsistency that Mr. Fleishman has been wondering about, it still doesn’t help him to guess whether the next Finkelstein he meets prefers to be called “Finkelstine” or “Finkelstean.” My own impression is that the first of these two pronunciations is more common, so it probably should be the default choice.

And on the same subject of Jewish immigrant names, another New Jerseyan, Manus Gass from River Edge, sends this e-mail:

“My Hungarian mother-in-law has always insisted that her name was Weitz (according to her a ‘w’ was pronounced like a ‘v’ in Hungary) and that this became Weiss when she came to America. Many members of the family subsequently changed Weiss to White by translating it into English. But since my mother-in-law’s family were millers and vaytz means ‘oats’ in Yiddish, isn’t it more likely that Weitz was the correct form?”

Although veytz (with the vowel like that of “ate”) means “wheat” and not “oats” (the word for which is hober) in Yiddish, I see no reason to doubt Mr. Gass’s mother-in-law. Once again, one has to put oneself in the shoes of a harried immigration official at Ellis Island who was obliged every day to hear dozens of strange-sounding Jewish names and make a hurried decision about how best to write them in English. Had the members of Mr. Gass’s mother-in-law’s family given such an official the German spelling of Weiz, or the Hungarian spelling of Vèc, this would have ended up on the their immigration form, but since they could only spell their name in Yiddish, they simply said “Veytz” out loud. The official, however, would have heard this as the more common “Veiss,” which — again under the influence of German (in which, as in Yiddish, weiss means white) — already had the conventional Ellis Island orthography of Weiss, and so the official would have written it down in that fashion.

This reminds of a story that I suspect I may have told many years ago in this column, one that, even if I did, bears repeating.

One day, a Jew was introduced to another Jew name Sean Fergusson who spoke with a Yiddish accent. “Sean Fergusson?” the first Jew asked. “Vi kumt a yid tsu Sean Fergusson?”

“It’s like this,” the second Jew said. “My name was Moshke Rabinowitz. The first time I arrived at Ellis Island, I failed the eye test, so the doctors sent me back to Europe. There my eyes were treated and cured, and I decided to try again. But what would happen, I thought, if I turned up a second time as the same Moshke Rabinowitz? They’d already know me and send me back again. And so I decided to call myself Yankl Katzenstein. Still, what if someone recognized me? And so there I was, standing in line at Ellis Island and getting more and more nervous all the time, and when it’s finally my turn I’m so flustered that I can’t remember my new name. The immigration official asks me what it is, and I can’t think of it; it’s simply escaped me. ‘Oy, kh’hob shoyn fargesn!’ I say. ‘Sean Fergusson?’ the official repeats, and writes it down on the form.”

In Yiddish, of course, kh’hob shoyn fargesn means “I’ve forgotten.” Is it a true story? I leave that for you to ponder. As one says in Italian, “Si non è vero, è ben trovato,” which roughly translates as, “If it didn’t happen, it should have.”

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


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