Defining Legitimacy

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.
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Edward J. Klein of Jamaica Estates, N.Y., writes:

“I have heard two words claiming to be Yiddish which I understand are Polish. One is nigde, meaning never, as in ‘The Messiah will come on Shabbes nigde.’ The other is povatinye, meaning spiderweb. Are these legitimate Yiddish words?”

Passing over the fact that povatinye is Ukrainian, not Polish (in which a spiderweb is a pajeczyna), this seemingly simple question raises some complex issues. Just what is a legitimate Yiddish word? And just what, for that matter, is a legitimate word in any language? For example, Mr. Klein has written an English sentence with the word “Shabbes” in it. Is “Shabbes” a legitimate English word?

Define “legitimate” for me, and I’ll tell you if it is or isn’t.

Is a word legitimate if it’s in the dictionaries? In that case, “Shabbes,” which is the Ashkenazic version of the Hebrew word for the Sabbath, Shabbat, is not legitimate, since English dictionaries do not list it.

But while it may be proof that a word is legitimate, being in a dictionary cannot be considered a prerequisite for legitimacy. There are words not in dictionaries with whose legitimacy no one quarrels. Nobody would challenge the use in English of the verb “to skype” just because it’s so new that recent dictionaries do not yet include it.

Is a word legitimate when most native speakers of a language would recognize and use it? “Shabbes” is not such a word in American English — but neither are huge numbers of other words that are in the dictionaries, such as (flipping a few dictionary pages at random) “leukoplakia,” “pampero” and “scammony.”

Is a word legitimate because some native speakers of a language recognize and use it? If that’s the criterion, “Shabbes” is a perfectly legitimate English word, because hundreds of thousands of American Jews use it all the time. But these same Jews, especially if they are Orthodox, also commonly use words like “shokel””(to saw back and forth in prayer), “bentsh” (to say a blessing, particularly the Grace After Meals), “pasken” (to decide on a matter of Jewish law) and so forth. Are these, then, legitimate English words, too?

In short, the whole notion of “legitimacy” in language is a dubious one. And if this is true of most languages, it is even truer of Yiddish, which has been the language of a highly mobile people that has taken it to many lands, in each of which it has borrowed words from local languages that were not used by Yiddish speakers elsewhere. A stove or oven, for instance, was called an oyvn in some parts of the Yiddish-speaking world, a harube or rube in others, and a petshke in others, depending on whether the word for it came from German, Ukrainian or Russian. And who doesn’t know the old joke about the Jew in New York who is terrified when, he asks who is knocking on the door of his apartment and is told, “The viper.” “The who?” the Jews asks, trembling. “Ikh bin der vinde viper,” the answer comes.

Is vinde a legitimate Yiddish word for “window”? You won’t find it in any dictionaries, but many Yiddish speakers in America used it all the time.

And so to get back to Mr. Klein’s question: What about Polish nigdy and Ukrainian povatinye? These do not seem to me to be quite parallel cases. Povatinye I would assume to be a regional usage, a word that replaced the more common Yiddish terms for spiderweb, shpinveb or shpingeveb, among Jews living in the midst of Ukrainians; as such, it can be found listed alongside these two Germanic words in Nahum Stutchkoff’s Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language. Polish nigdy, on the other hand, never replaced the standard Yiddish keynmol as the word for “never,” not even in Poland. Although I am not familiar with the use of it in Yiddish, I would imagine that it was sometimes thrown into a sentence for emphasis or irony by native Yiddish speakers who also spoke Polish, as is done with foreign words in many languages. Think, for instance, of the occasional use in English of the Spanish word nada, “nothing,” as in an utterance like: “Do you know what I was paid for that job? Nada!”

Is “nada” a legitimate English word?

In the final analysis, the question of legitimacy in language is perhaps better analyzed as a question of level of style. The same person who might use “nada” in informal conversation never would write a paper for a college economics course that said, “America buys cheap goods from workers in Third World countries who earn nada.” Similarly, the Jew from a Ukrainian-speaking region of Eastern Europe who used povatinye with his Yiddish-speaking neighbor might have used the word shpinveb when speaking to a Jew from somewhere else, knowing that povatinye was not part of the latter’s vocabulary. Instead of thinking of words as legitimate or illegitimate, it makes more sense to think of them as appropriate or inappropriate. And there’s almost no word that can be said is never appropriate under any circumstance, nigde.

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