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.”)