Heading Into the 'I' of the Knaidel

Controversy Over Yiddish Spelling Bee Word Misses the Point

Spelling Trouble: 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali won this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee and uncorked a linguistic debate.
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Spelling Trouble: 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali won this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee and uncorked a linguistic debate.

By Philologos

Published June 16, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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But although the YIVO rules are consistent, they don’t guarantee success, either. What’s to keep our English speaker from seeing “kneydl” and saying “needle,” with the “k” silent as in “knight” and the “ey” as in “key”?

Moreover, the YIVO rules for transliteration into English can be confusing in their own right. In the first place, unlike Yiddish in Hebrew characters, a transliterated Yiddish unavoidably promotes a specific regional pronunciation — in the case of YIVO, that of the northeastern Yiddish of Lithuania, where the organization was founded, in Vilna, in 1925. Speakers of Polish or Ukrainian Yiddish, for example, whose word for “good” is git (pronounced “geet”), will find the YIVO spelling of gut (pronounced “goot”) off-putting.

Secondly, there are YIVO transcriptions, particularly of certain vowels, that are misleading for an English speaker unless he already knows what they stand for. The long “i” of English “eye,” for instance, is transcribed “ay,” even though in English this is almost always the vowel of “say,” so that the Yiddish word for “wine,” which, like its English cognate, rhymes with “fine,” has the YIVO form of vayn; the final Yiddish ayin, which stands for “eh,” is spelled with just an “e,” which may lead to a YIVO transliteration like mame, Yiddish for “mother,” being pronounced as “maim” instead of “MAH-meh.” YIVO’s vowel-less, post-consonantal “l” in a word like kneydl suggests a tongue-twister when it actually has the same sound as English “l” in “cradle” and “civil.”

In the final analysis, no system of transliterating Yiddish in Latin characters can be both consistent and natural in English, because the vagaries of English spelling rule this out. That being the case, one may as well let popular usage determine the matter with Yiddish words that have entered the English language. I don’t know why the organizers of the Scripps National Spelling Bee chose to stake $30,000 on “knaidel” when competing spellings exist, too, but if that’s what a kneydl is worth when spelled that way, who would want to spell it differently?

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


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