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Happy Birthday, Dear Dictionary

A student of Yiddish in Tokyo, a Yiddish songwriter in Greenwich Village and a chasidic newspaper writer in Boro Park all have one book in common — Uriel Weinreich’s “Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary,” which celebrates its 35th birthday this month. Its story starts with a question: What makes a minority language — a language that’s not a national vernacular — different from other languages?

Yiddish lacks a central authority to achieve things that most English speakers take for granted — standardized spelling, technological vocabularies and modern dictionaries. Whatever Yiddish has managed to scrape together for itself over the years is thanks to tragic-heroic characters who, Atlas-like, take the language on their shoulders.

One such hero was Weinreich, a world-renowned linguist, the son of the great Yiddishist Max Weinreich, and author of a book he did not live to see completed. At 40, Weinreich died of cancer, still laboring over what would become “surely among the greatest dictionaries ever produced by one person for any language,” said Jeffrey Shandler, assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

No other dictionary systematically presented the grammatical and usage particulars of each word, and none were as consciously modern as Weinreich’s, which set out to answer the second most common question in Yiddish newsrooms (after “Is it good for the Jews?”): “How do you say that in Yiddish?”

Weinreich did not just define everyday words like tish or kugl; he filled the lacunae encountered by the Yiddish speaker or writer when “confronting,” as the author put it in his preface, “another highly developed language of culture.” “Space research, medicine, military terminology,” said Mordkhe Schaechter, executive director of the League for Yiddish, listing the areas in which it was innovative. “But the chief virtues? It was modern, and it was there.”

“Modern” meant something particular to Weinreich, who championed Yiddish as a language of refined, subtle expression. His dictionary is part of an ongoing dispute between descriptivists, who advocate recording the widest possible range of language use regardless of register or correctitude, and normativists, including Weinreich, who desire felicity of expression according to a particular theoretical approach. Certain Yiddishists have qualified their admiration for Weinreich by alleging that he went too far in the normative direction, refusing to distinguish between words that Yiddish speakers actually use and neologisms that he or others suggested.

Weinreich would have rectified this error were it not for his untimely death, suggested Yitskhok Niborski, senior lecturer in Yiddish language and literature at the Institut National de Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris and co-author of a new Yiddish-French dictionary. But in the meantime, Yiddish professors regularly bemoan the student who plucks just the wrong word from Weinreich — “like a blind horse finding the hole,” said Niborski, using a Yiddish expression.

Why hasn’t there been a second edition of the Weinreich dictionary? Niborski suggested that this is due to “an awe of Weinreich’s accomplishments.” But Weinreich’s widow has another possible explanation. “There aren’t as many qualified linguists today as there were,” said Bina Weinreich, an assistant in the creation of the dictionary and a Yiddishist herself, “and there hasn’t really been anyone who’s asked me.”

In the interim, new dictionaries have bloomed. Besides the new Yiddish-French dictionary, rumor has it that the “Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language” — started when Weinreich was a boy and long beset by mismanagement, internecine squabbling and Yiddish bad luck — is about to publish the long-awaited “Beys” volume. (The fourth and last volume of “Alef” appeared 20 years ago.)

It now seems that the Weinreich dictionary will be an everlasting monument to its author, used for generations and never updated, while the next Yiddish-English dictionary awaits its titan.

Zackary Sholem Berger is a contributor to the Yiddish Forward. In August he and his wife, Celeste Sollod, will publish “Di Kats der Payats,” a Yiddish version of Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” (www.yiddishcat.com).

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