On Whether to Mourn a Dying Language?

People often find  my educational background unusual. I went to a school from K to 11 that taught four languages a day—English, French, Hebrew and most pertinent for this post, Yiddish. I grew up in Montreal, one of what I am now told is 3 pockets of Yiddish speaking still left (New York City and Antwerp being the other two).

This post was prompted by having recently finished Michael Chabon’s wonderful The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and an interview with him about discovering a book called “Say it In Yiddish” from the 1950s which partially inspired the novel.  Chabon’s book is a hard-boiled detective novel set in a fictional Jewish homeland created in part of Alaska, a possibility it turns out in the real world until scuttled by then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.

Reading the book made me wonder if I should mourn the inevitable creeping death of the Yiddish language. I speak Yiddish quite imperfectly, and with the dying of my parents’ generation (my parents themselves only spoke it in drips and drabs), so will most other speakers left alive 30 years from now. There may be some like me who speak it on the side, but outside of some religious communities, it seems unlikely that there will continue to be many conversations in the language going forward.

Is something lost? The death of a language is sad, and the loss of the ability to enjoy Sholem-Aliechem, Peretz and other authors’ work as they were meant to be read is of course some kind of loss. But given how much there is to learn in the universe, and the utility of translation, how much of a loss is it, really? I will always fondly remember reading “Tevye der Milcheker” — Tevye the Milkman — the inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish in school, but are the millions who enjoyed the musical or even read the original text in translation missing out on so much to lead me to mourning?

Had you asked me a few months ago, I would have dismissed my misgivings about the slow death of Yiddish as somewhat bourgeois. But reading Chabon’s book, and its historical counterfactual where Yiddish and not Hebrew becomes the language of the resettled Jewish nation, laughing to myself at his witty Yiddish slang neologisms and use of phrases I remember from my childhood, I have started to feel much more truly mournful.  I wonder if others have similar attachments to Yiddish or other languages?  Does the state have a legitimate role to play in trying to help preserve languages as living?  I am curious what others think, but ultimately what keeps coming to mind is a yiddish aphorism I have always liked from my parents — Mentschn Tracht, Un Got Lacht (“Men think/plan, and G-d laughs.”)

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9 Responses

  1. dave hoffman says:

    Count me in the mournful camp. Fwiw, you might enjoy the yiddish radio cds that amazon sells…

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Me too. I regret not pushing my father (and my grandfather, when he was alive) when I was a kid to teach me more than the occasional word or phrase (which, while handy to drop into conversation, is not the same as really knowing the language).

  3. Apart perhaps from Sanskrit, I don’t feel a similar attachment to any particular language, no doubt owing to the idiosyncratic circumstances of birth and socialization. I do, however, regret the rate at which we are losing many languages around the world: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/world/18cnd-language.html

    Some readers might be interested in Paul Buhle’s* marvelous discussion, “The Significance of Yiddish Socialism,” in a book he edited: Popular Culture in America (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).** As Buhle begins his essay, “The Yiddish-speaking community [of the 1890s-1920s] was infused with socialist dedication and mass-cultural creativity as no other community on American shores has ever been.” I confess to mourning the loss of THAT dedication and creativity!

    *Among other things, Buhle has edited a marvelous 3 volume study of Jews and American culture.

    **Some of this material is also found in his Marxism in the USA: From 1870 to the Present Day (Verso, 1987).

  4. Jim Maloney says:

    Some semi-coherent ramblings, all somewhat optimistic:

    1. I’d rather lose a language than see a species go extinct. Of course, it’s possible that (as was portrayed in Jurassic Park) an extinct species could someday be miraculously revived from DNA preserved in amber. Come to think of it, something similar happened with Hebrew, which was “extinct” in the sense of not being a living “native-spoken” language for millennia, until Eliezer Ben-Yehuda worked his little miracle…

    2. There is a large body of literature in Yiddish that will likely preserve it even it ceases to be “living” language. Only a small percentage of the many works of Sholom Aleichem have been translated from Yiddish. Perhaps that fact alone will keep the world from forgetting the language entirely. So Sholom Aleichem’s work is kind of like a linguistic coelacanth.

    3. It must also be remembered that Yiddish is essentially a dialect of German with Hebrew, Russian and other Jewish cultural influences. I recently read Chaim Potok’s novel, Old Men at Midnight, wherein one character, an American WW2 soldier who grew up in New York learning Yiddish and Hebrew as well as English, is questioning a couple of German soldiers in something close to their native language. “What kind of German is that?” asks one of the Nazi soldiers, who understands what is being asked but recognizes that it is a dialect. “New York German,” replies the American.

    4. Nu?

  5. Jim Maloney says:

    And one more optimistic thought:

    5. In yeder umglick iz do a glick.

  6. Don says:

    My father in law was an old-school Jew from New York’s Lower east side. One day in 1979, we were discussing an article that had appeared in the New York Times mourning the slow death of Yiddish.
    “Oh,” he said. “It’s always been dying. It was dying when I was a kid in the 1930’s. It was dying after I got home from the war. It was dying in the 1960’s. They are always printing stories about the death of Yiddish, but somehow it never dies.”
    And here we are, 30 years later, and they are still announcing the slow death of Yiddish.
    Something tells me the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    I hope Don is right. Given that Chasidim are having more babies than most other Jews, there is a chance that Yiddish may survive a bit longer. Also, the Lubavitchers (and maybe others?) still use the Ashkenazic pronunciation in the liturgy, which by me, on the rare occasions when I’m in shul, has more emotional power (i.e., koyach, not koach) .

    Jim, depends on the species; also, while some older scholarship considered Yiddish a dialect of German, the more prevalent view these days is that it simply has a common ancestor (Mittelhochdeutsch). It parted company from what became modern German about a thousand years ago, before the vowel shift that characterizes modern German. Earliest attested evidence for Yiddish is about as old as that for Portuguese, and several centuries older than the earliest attestations for Romansh (both of which are accorded ‘language’ status, despite being mutually comprehensible with other languages). Patrick, it wasn’t just socialists among the Yiddish-speakers who were creative.

    On favorite aphorisms: when I was about 4 years old, my mother taught me one that her father (then still alive) had taught her: “af shpitzn tzinge ligt di gantze velt”: on the tip of your tongue lies the whole world. Its sense was: if you don’t know, ask. This made my life. Happily, it has a very easy update for the Internet age: af shpitzn finger ligt di gantze velt.

  8. A.J.,

    The quote from Buhle said “The Yiddish-speaking community [of the 1890s-1920s] was infused with socialist dedication AND mass-cultural creativity….” [emphasis added] This was not a claim that ONLY Yiddish-speaking socialists were creative! [one reason I also cited Buhle’s 3 volume edited work]

  9. Jim Maloney says:

    Thanks, A.J., for the clarification. As it happens, I read Potok’s “The Chosen” for the first time this past weekend. One of the main characters, Danny, who speaks Yiddish and is studying German in order to read Freud, gives a similar account, i.e., that Yiddish descended from Middle German.