Sorcerer for the Goose and Gander

Jewish Mothers, Witches and the De-Gendering of Yiddish

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By Philologos

Published January 03, 2012, issue of January 06, 2012.
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When it comes to Yiddish words in English, however, this distinction — as we have seen in the case of “machasheyfer” — has disappeared entirely. Whereas a female nudnik in Yiddish is a nudnitse, in Yinglish she’s a nudnik, too. And if she’s wacky to boot, she may be a meshuggener nudnik, just as her male counterpart may be a meshuggene one. Not only is Yinglish indifferent to the difference between the two endings, it uses them interchangeably. Among the Yinglish expressions I have come across in print recently are “a meshuggene putz” and “a farbissene misnaged,” (“a stubborn reactionary”) in both of which a feminine Yiddish adjective is attached to a masculine Yiddish noun, and “a wonderful balbooster,” in which Yiddish balebuste, an able housewife, is given a masculine ending.

There is nothing surprising about this. Not only do many English speakers, particularly along the Eastern seaboard, where Jews are concentrated, often drop “r”s where they belong and insert them where they don’t, saying things like “I neveh thought the lore would catch up with him,” but English is also a practically genderless language in which there is no such thing as male or female adjectives and in which very few male or female nouns exist. (Even the small number of them that do are gradually vanishing under the impact of feminism, so that, for example, “She’s an actor” has been replacing “She’s an actress,” and “chairperson” is pushing out “chairman” and “chairwoman.”) You can’t expect people to make distinctions in words borrowed from other languages that they don’t make in their own language.

In fact, apparently influenced by English, the Yiddish spoken as a first language by various Hasidic groups in America has also been losing its gender distinctions, with a strong tendency to use feminine adjectives with all nouns; a farbissine misnaged or a meshuggene nudnik can now be heard in Yiddish conversations in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Williamsburg, too. This is a fascinating development that calls for further discussion, since it’s not often that one sees a language changing its basic structure under the impact of another language before one’s eyes.

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


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