Oy!fruf

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.