All Quiet on Eastern Front

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 22, 2010, issue of December 31, 2010.
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Virginia Gross Levin writes from Broomall, Pa.:

“Are you familiar with a Yiddish expression greynetz mentshn “border people”? My great uncle used it to describe our family’s secretive nature. In the 50 years since then, I have never heard it from anyone else. I understand that people on the border had to learn to hold their tongues because they never knew who might be listening. But was this just an expression used by my Polish Jewish family or was it more widespread?”

I, too, have never come across the expression grenets-mentshn (as YIVO has it). whose transcription by Ms. Levin indicates its origins in Polish Yiddish. (In the Yiddish of Lithuania and Belarus, the word for “border” was pronounced grenets, with the first vowel as in “get.”) Presumably, not only did Ms. Levin’s family hail from Poland, but they also were close to the border that separated the czarist empire, to which most of pre-World-War-I Poland belonged, from Prussia and Austro-Hungary. On the Austro-Hungarian side of the border was Galicia, a region inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews — or, as its Jews were called in Yiddish, galitsyaners.

Indeed, it’s a safe guess that Ms. Levin’s family came from along the Galician frontier, which was crossed by large numbers of illegally emigrating Russian Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the czarist government was happy to let Jews depart legally, it had strict laws barring the emigration of young men eligible for military service, and many families with such sons chose to sneak across the border with them. For such purposes, the Austrian frontier was preferable to the Prussian, since Prussian Jews spoke German and were readily distinguishable from Russian Jews by language, manner and dress, whereas galitsyaners, apart from having their own Yiddish accent, were not. A gentile policeman or official on the Austrian side could not easily have spotted illegal Jewish emigrants, nor could he have told them apart from local Jews.

As a result, the smuggling of emigrants was a major business along the pre-World-War-I Russian-Austrian frontier. Russian and Austrian border towns teemed with smugglers, go-betweens, swindlers, police, army patrols and government informers, and Jews crossing the frontier had to pray that they wouldn’t be betrayed or cheated. In his novel “Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son,” Sholom Aleichem tells the story of a family that crosses the border near the Galician town of Radziwil. A Jewish woman on the Russian side arranges for Christian smugglers to lead them through a forest at night to the Austrian side. In the end, they make it safely across, although not before the smugglers try robbing them and Austrian troops open fire on them, after which the woman steals the belongings that she was supposed to have shipped to them. Looking back on the adventure, one of its participants writes some doggerel that goes:

The town of Radziwil’s the size of a yawn
With a border that has to be run before dawn —
And while you are running it, thieves run away

With all that you have and leave you to say:
“Thank God that it didn’t turn out to be worse!
We might have ended our lives in a hearse
With a slit in our throats and a slash in our purse!

In such places, one had to be careful who one’s contacts were and what one told them. Trusting or confiding in the wrong person was dangerous. Whether it was Ms. Levin’s grand uncle or someone else who coined the expression greynetz mentshn for “close-mouthed people,” it was an apt turn of phrase.

Edward Reingold of Evanston, Ill., inquires:

“Can you shed any light on the etymologies of bubbe and zeyde, the Yiddish words for grandmother and grandfather? Presumably, bubbe is from Russian babushka, ‘grandmother,’ but none of my Yiddish dictionaries gives me a clue about zeyde.”

Although bubbe is closely related to babushka, it does not come from it, just as zeyde does not come from Russian dedushka, “grandfather,” of which it is also a cognate. In general, when one looks for Slavic origins for a Yiddish word, one has to look not at Russian, but at Polish, Ukrainian or Belarussian, since these were the languages spoken by non-Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the territory at the western end of the czarist empire to which Jews were confined up to World War I. Relatively few Jews lived in the Russian-speaking areas outside the Pale, and Yiddish vocabulary was not greatly affected by Russian prior to Soviet times.

Zeyde comes from the Polish word for grandfather, dziad, or (in its affectionate form) dziadek, and bubbe from Polish bab, an old woman (from which comes babka, grandmother), or from Ukrainian baba, which means “grandmother,” too. (The Ukrainian for grandfather is did.) The phonetic shift to the Yiddish “z” of zeyde from the Slavic “d” of dedushka and did took place, first, through a palatalization of the “d” to “dy” (compare Russian dyadya, “uncle”), then through a Polish thickening of “dya” to “dzia,” and finally through Yiddish’s loss of the initial “d.” Had Mr. Reingold had a good Yiddish etymological dictionary to consult, he would not have needed the help of this column, but alas, no such thing exists.

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


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