Author: Lily Parsey
As a language not confined or associated to a particular state or territorial division, Yiddish carries a great diversity of influences from different regional and national languages in which it is spoken. It has been described as “the language without a land, without frontiers” (Isaac Basheva Singer). The main influences can especially be found in the Germanic, Slavic, Hebrew and Aramaic language areas. However, languages are constantly in interaction and this goes both ways. While the focus of many scholars is to identify linguistic influences in Yiddish from other languages, it is often overlooked how Yiddish, as the Jewish vernacular across most of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as parts of North America has also greatly transformed and impacted on a variety of national languages across the world. As such, looking at the English language alone, one can identify an abundance of words derived from Yiddish, such as „schlep“, „bagel“, „schmooze“, “chutzpah” or „spiel“ to name a few.
The fact that the mutual influence that Yiddish and other more standardised national languages have had on one another is falsely depicted as a one-way relationship in popular discourse highlights a very important facet of Yiddish.
Despite its standardisation and recognition as an independent language in 1926, it has by no means reached the status of a more prestigious language such as its very close, yet distinct sister language German. On the contrary, when telling friends and family I was learning Yiddish throughout this course, I constantly received responses along the lines of „Isn’t Yiddish a Jewish dialect of German?“. Yiddish has thus despite the language planning efforts of the Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO), an organisation working towards the standardisation and acceptance of Yiddish, not managed to reach the same status as other national languages.
Now some people have argued that this is due to the fact that there are simply too many traces of Germanic, Hebrew and Slavic languages to be found in the Yiddish language for it to be considered distinct and a language in its own right. However, this argument is clearly flawed. Take for example two languages such as French and Italian, which would without a doubt be considered distinct, “proper” languages. Yet if one looks a little closer, there are two problems. For one, it is immensely difficult to define either of these languages as there are so many different variations of each. Indeed, most Italian dialects are mutually unintelligible. On the other hand, certain dialects of French and Italian are a lot more alike. The difference between what is considered a national or standard language and a dialect is thus merely one of politics and power. As the American linguist Max Weinreich once so famously put it: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. And this is precisely where Yiddish seems to fail. For some reason, we hold a strong belief that a “proper” language should clearly map on to a certain territory or region. In the case of Yiddish however, the richness and complexity of the language stems precisely from the fact that it is so territorially spread out.
Distribution of Yiddish Speakers Across the World
Another important consideration is that attitudes to language and attitudes to what constitutes a “proper” language are always linked to attitudes towards the speakers of a given language. Why do we think for instance that Oxford English is a better form of language than Cockney for instance? From a linguistic perspective, neither is intrinsically better or more complicated. The value of Oxford English is indeed a social construction. We judge linguistic varieties by the speakers we associate with them. As such, mostly spoken by the social elite, Oxford English is often considered the gateway into certain desirable social circles or career pathways. This is also due to the fact that it is the language used in education, thus naturally associated with success and progress.
If we then ask ourselves why Yiddish is often not respected as a prestigious language and is on the verge of linguistic extinction, this is clearly a social question. In order to showcase this, I will briefly present the case of Yiddish loanwords in Dutch. This will show not only the above-mentioned overlooked influence of Yiddish on other languages but moreover shed light on some of the sociolinguistic aspects of Yiddish and its meaning in society today.
Jews have always been a very important part of Dutch society and culture, with an extensive Jewish population historically living especially in the Netherlands’ bigger cities such as Amsterdam. It is thus natural that Yiddish words found their way into Amsterdam’s slang, referred to as Bargoens, as well as into standard Dutch. However, this adoption was not a mere transposal of Yiddish words into Dutch. On the contrary, one can detect significant differences in meaning between the Yiddish loanwords in Dutch and the original Yiddish meaning.
In order to understand this discrepancy, it is important to note that the majority of Dutch speakers coming into contact with Yiddish speakers belonged to the lower social classes. Yiddish words were as a consequence regarded as the language of the less educated. Moreover, the Netherlands experienced a significant rise in Yiddish speakers in the early 1930s when many Jews began fleeing Nazi Germany. Many of these semantic changes thus need to be considered within the historical context of a subsequent rise of Nazi rule and propaganda in the Netherlands in the years that followed. Therefore, Yiddish language, associated with the Nazis’ postulated “Jewishness” also gained an additional dimension.
“The Eternal Jew”
Below is a brief list of some examples of words that have been adopted from Yiddish in Dutch. This list of examples should put in relief the differences in meaning that took place very shortly after integration into the Dutch language:
|Yiddish word||Meaning||Dutch word||Meaning|
|Shtike||Silent||Stiekem||Sneaky, nasty, mean|
As can be seen in the table above, I would claim that there are three main themes that surface in the shift of meaning from the Yiddish to the Dutch. For one, all the terms have taken on a pejorative connotation which could be due to the bad standing Jews had in society in the early 20th century. Moreover, one can clearly identify an important theme from Goebbels-induced Nazi propaganda, creating the essentialised caricature of the “sly, sneaky Jew” that is working against the common interest of the nation. And finally, derived from the association of Yiddish words with the lower class as it was the Dutch lower class that mainly adopted Yiddish terms, as well as increased Nazi discourse, there seems to be a sense of criminality and of not wanting well for the community. For instance, someone who is using their hands is stealing, a girl is a prostitute, a house is a jail and a walk transmutes to street prostitution.
“The Jew’s God is money. And to earn money, Jews will commit the worst of crimes…”
The study of the adoption of Yiddish in other languages thus teaches us a lot more about the language itself and how it was received due to sociopolitical context. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.” This illustrates the extent to which language, society and culture are intrinsically interrelated. Studying the usage of these words and how they change over time can thus give us an impression of the social, cultural and political meaning of Yiddish in Holland and analogously in many other places in which it was and is in part still spoken. And I believe this is fundamental in understanding Yiddish identity and culture.