Natural History in Yiddish

My late Grandfather on my father’s side spoke 7 languages, and his second wife spoke 8. They lived in Europe where countries that have different official languages border each other. I know 1 language because I live in the U.S. and never needed to learn a different one, though I long wish I was fluent in more than just English. I took a year of Spanish and a year of French in high school, but I’ve forgotten most of what I learned and never did master either enough to speak or understand them fluently. I suffer from a neurological condition that puts me at high risk for developing dementia. To delay the onset, I decided to keep my mind active by learning a new language. I chose Yiddish. My dad used to pepper his language with Yiddish words, and I think this experience gives me a head start. Moreover, my last name is Yiddish. Gelbart is Yiddish for yellow beard. Centuries ago, one of my ancestors must have been a blonde.

Yiddish is older than modern English and modern German. Modern English originated between 1400 AD-1500 AD, and modern German began between 1500AD-1600 AD, but Yiddish originated about 1000 AD. Yiddish literally means Jewish, and it was the language most often spoken by Jews of Central Europe until World War II. When Judea (now Israel) was a colony of the Roman Empire, Jews periodically rebelled. To suppress rebellion and dissent, Romans took a majority of the Jewish population into slavery and removed them from Judea, spreading them throughout the Roman Empire where they could no longer muster an organized resistance. Eventually, Jews in what today are Italy and France became free merchants and artisans. Germanic kings invited them to live in the Rhine River valley to improve their economies. Jews were likely speaking a combination of archaic Italian and French along with Hebrew and the related language of Aramaic. Soon, they picked up the medieval German languages spoken in the Rhine River valley. Whenever economic times deteriorated, Jews became the scapegoats, and the nobility would put the blame on them, and they would often be expelled. But Slavic kings located in what today are Poland and Russia would invite them to their kingdoms to help improve their economies. The Yiddish language picked up Slavic words as well. Yiddish is a mix of all these languages but is primarily medieval German with about 15% Hebrew. Jews still spoke Hebrew in synagogues and schools, but Yiddish was a street language used in their daily lives. Hebrew was considered a holy language. Before World War II there were 11 million Yiddish speakers in the world, but today there are just 600,000, mostly Hasidic Jews living in New York City and Israel. Israel chose Hebrew over Yiddish as its official language.

When the Romans conquered Judea and later suppressed rebellions, they enslaved much of the population and transported the Jewish slaves throughout the Roman Empire. Many Jews that were settled in Italy and France eventually migrated to kingdoms where Germanic languages were spoken. Yiddish–a complex mix of Hebrew, Romance languages, Slavic languages, and medieval German–originated there.

I’ve encountered difficulties learning Yiddish. Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. I took some Hebrew classes 50 years ago, but to be honest most of the Hebrew alphabet letters look alike to me. I decided learning the Hebrew alphabet was too challenging for me, so I am learning Yiddish transliterated into the English alphabet. I think Yiddish is probably no harder to learn than English for people who didn’t grow up speaking it. However, there are some quirks. For example the article “the” has 4 different versions in Yiddish depending upon the gender of the noun it precedes, and there is no rhyme or reason for whether a noun is masculine, feminine, or neutral. Masculine nouns are preceded by der, feminine nouns by di, and neutral nouns by dos. To know which is which requires rote memorization of every single noun and its preceding “the.” Masculine nouns that are the objects of a sentence or in a prepositional phrase are preceded by a 4th version of “the”–dem. Feminine nouns in prepositional phrases become masculine and are preceded by der instead of di. Neutral nouns in prepositional phrases are preceded by dem. Prepositions and “the” articles commonly become contractions–an additional challenge. Another complexity are plural words. In English plural words are simply followed by an s, though some words require the middle vowels to be changed, as in geese instead of gooses. In Yiddish plural words can end in en, s, er (with a middle vowel change), im, and es. Money and time have no plural versions but remain singular.

Today, I combined my natural history studies with my Yiddish studies and learned about 50 natural history words in Yiddish. Some words are remarkably similar or exactly the same in both languages, but others are quite different. I got these from google translate, so if they are wrong blame that.

natural history-natural geshikhte

tiger-tiger

lion-leyb

cat-kats

wolf-vulf

dog-hunt (Interesting. Dogs were used for hunting, so hunt?)

bear-bir

cow-ku

buffalo-buflox (Ox?)

horse-ferd

sheep-shep

elephant-helfin

camel-kemi

hare-hoz (My father called rabbits, “hazels.”)

rabbit-kinigi (Similar to the archaic word for rabbit in English–coney)

squirrel-veverke

wild boar-vilde khazer (Khazer is a big insult in Yiddish because pigs are not kosher.)

deer-hirgch or dir

animal-khaye or behamye (Similar to beast?)

mouse–moyte

rat-shtshur

bird-foygi

dove-tayb

eagle-odler

hawk-fulk

owl-sove

snake-shlang (Similar to shlong, slang for a penis)

frog-zobe

dinosaur-daynasar

ground sloth-erd slotsch (Earth similar to erd)

catfish-som

carbon dating-tshod dayting

sedimentary rock-sedementari shteyn

spider-shpin (As in spin a web)

ant-muraske

cockroach-taraken

open pine savannah-efenen sosne savannah

oak woodland-demb vudland

beech and birch forest-bitsch aun berne veld

prairie-preri

dry scrubland-trukn skrublem

sea shore-im brig

grassy hill-granike berg

ecology-ekologi

copulation-kapayaleyshen

sperm-zeyre

erection-ireksten

remove your bra and panties-aropnemen dayn biusthalter aun heyzelke (Another word for bra is stanik.)

Reference:

Blech, Benjamin

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Yiddish

Alpha Books 2000

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2 Responses to “Natural History in Yiddish”

  1. Ron Miksha Says:

    I made great progress with Yiddish by using the free website (and phone app) Duolingo. It has a nice section for learning the alphabet, too. Good luck and enjoy your journey!

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