By Philologos

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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Bill Morris writes from San Diego:

This last weekend I heard someone talking about an “ufruf (“oof-roof”). In English contexts, I’ve always seen this word given the German spelling of “aufruf,” which should be pronounced “owf-roof,” while in Yiddish it is spelled sextie`, which should be pronounced “oyf-roof.” Are there Yiddish dialects in which the term is pronounced “oof-roof”? And which, if any of these pronunciations, is correct?

However it is pronounced (we’ll get to that in a minute), an “oof-,” “owf-” or “oyf-ruf” is, for those of you unfamiliar with it, a Jewish custom in which the bridegroom, on the Sabbath prior to his wedding, is called to the Torah for the traditional blessings and receives a Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for his health and welfare. Often he is given maftir, the honor of reading the haftarah or a chapter from the Prophets that follows the Torah portion. Often, too, he is showered like a bar-mitzvah boy with candies and sweets upon returning to his seat when he has finished.

So much for the custom. And now for Mr. Morris’s question — which, although I’m sure he didn’t intend it to, lands me in the middle of a hornet’s nest. This is the debate, which has been going on for years among scholars, teachers and students of Yiddish, over the preposition sie` and the verbal complement -tie`, and whether it is proper, as their spelling would seem to indicate, to pronounce either of them “oyf.”

Let’s begin by distinguishing between the two, both close cognates of the German auf. The preposition, which can be translated variously into English as “on,” “in,” “at” or “for,” was traditionally pronounced “af” (ahf) by Yiddish speakers in Lithuania and Belarus; “of” (awf) in Poland and Ukraine; and “ouf” (as in “roof”) in parts of Hungary and Rumania. The verbal complement, on the other hand, was “uf” (as in “foot”) in Lithuania and Belarus, “if” in the northern Ukraine, and the same as the preposition elsewhere. Thus, for instance, we have (adopting the Lithuanian pronunciation) shteyn, “to stand,” and ufshteyn, “to get up”; klaybn, “to choose,” and ufklaybn, “to assemble”; raysn, “to tear,” and ufraysn, “to tear open,” et cetera. And we also have rufn, “to call,” and ufrufn, “to call upon” or “to call up,” from which comes ufruf, the calling up of the groom to the Torah — pronounced by other Yiddish speakers as ofruf, ufrif, ifrif or otherwise, depending on where they came from.

So far, so good. The problem begins when we ask why, if no one traditionally pronounced them as “oyf,” both the preposition and the verbal complement are spelled that way, and whether there is any justification for pronouncing them so today. There are two schools of thought about this, the pros and the antis.

The anti-“oyf” position is clear. “Oyf,” it is maintained, was never the pronunciation of Yiddish sie` or -tie`, which were only spelled that way under the influence of the German auf, since the German au vowel generally becomes “oy” in Yiddish. (Thus, German aus, “out,” and Yiddish oys, German laufen, “to run,” and Yiddish loyfn, and so on.) It is only in America, partly from ignorance and partly from the pedagogical desire to find a compromise form of the word that transcends its regional variations, that “oyf” has begun to be heard — and should not be, the opposition contends. It is an ersatz creation that has no place in Yiddish.

Not so, the partisans of “oyf” reply. In the first place, even if “oyf” is an American development based on spelling rather than native linguistic familiarity, there is nothing wrong with it: If we can have the Lithuanian-Yiddish uf and af, Polish-Yiddish of, and so forth, why can’t we have an American-Yiddish oyf? And secondly, linguistic research has shown that “oyf” historically was a real pronunciation in at least one small part of Eastern Europe, along the borderland between Poland and Lithuania. This was a small area, to be sure, but what of it? It makes “oyf” as authentic as any other pronunciation.

Not being an expert on Yiddish, to say nothing of Yiddish dialectology, I hesitate to put in my own two cents. And yet, there is one more point, I think, that strengthens the pro-“oyf” position — namely that, while the Germanization of Yiddish spelling was on the whole a 19th-century phenomenon, a product of the desire to raise Yiddish’s lowly reputation by associating it with the high-prestige European language to which it was related, the spelling of sie` is found in pre-19th-century Yiddish works. If the authors of these manuscripts were not imitating German, why did they spell it this way? Perhaps “oyf” was once a more widespread pronunciation than it ended up being in modern times.

Even as “oyf” is gaining ground in America as both a preposition and a verbal complement, especially among those who have learned their Yiddish in the classroom, “oyfruf” is to be avoided: It simply doesn’t have the right traditional sound. “Ufruf” is definitely the most frequently encountered form of the word, and other regional pronunciations are perfectly acceptable too. The great “oyf” war, fortunately, does not apply here.

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

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