The Joys of Yiddish Dictionaries


Arts & Culture

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 10.49.05 AMOne of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.

A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America.

When the first Eastern European Jews arrived in the United States, they had no Yiddish-English dictionaries of any kind. The oldest Yiddish lexicon, covering Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and Latin, was compiled in 1542, but the first English-Yiddish work wasn’t completed until 1891, a full decade after the start of Jewish mass immigration. Its author, Alexander Harkavy, was an iterant writer, teacher, and lexicographer, and one of the great self-taught geniuses of Yiddish letters. After arriving in America in 1882, he spent a decade drifting between Baltimore, Montreal, and Paris before returning to New York, where he worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, taught Yiddish literature, and authored a Yiddish translation of Don Quixote, among other books. His dictionary, which he continued to revise for almost four decades, was last issued in 1928 as a trilingual Yiddish-English-Hebrew work that is still in use today.

Harkavy’s dictionary was invaluable to masses of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, but it has flaws that subsequent generations of lexicographers were anxious to correct. It is short on grammatical information (noun genders are discontinued after the first few pages, for example), and has an excess of daytshmerish, or germanicized Yiddish, which scholars considered pretentious and incorrect. The growing body of Americanisms is also well represented, including such terms as datl du (“that’ll do”), hobn a gud taym (“have a good time”), kakerutsh bos (“small employer”), and sanovegon, which, as Dovid Katz points out in his introduction to the 1988 reprint, “is cross-referenced to sanovebitsh.” Calling it “descriptive” hardly describes it.

In the decades since Harkavy’s death, in 1939, Yiddish dictionaries of every kind have appeared. There are pocket dictionaries, picture dictionaries, student dictionaries and dictionaries for slang and idioms. There are dictionaries for the specialized vocabularies of medicine, law, politics, economics, technology, botany, manufacturing, and academia, as well as bilingual dictionaries for languages such as Dutch, Belorussian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Japanese. While all of these have their uses (some, admittedly, are more useful than others), the standard Yiddish-English reference work for the past four and a half decades has been the Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, published in 1968.

Weinreich was a Columbia University linguist and a pioneer of “contact linguistics,” focusing on the effects of multilingualism and language interaction. He was also the son of Max Weinreich, a founder of the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (today the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, located in Manhattan on West Sixteenth Street), which had issued controversial orthographic reforms for Yiddish in the 1930s. Unlike Harkavy, Weinreich was an exemplar of scholarly rectitude. His dictionary introduced up-to-date vocabulary and stripped the lexicon of Harkavky’s slang. The word tukhes, for example, meaning “ass,” cannot to be found in Weinreich’s volume; instead there are several synonyms for “buttock” (klube, gezes, grobe fleysh). In other cases Weinreich kept the questionable entries, but flagged them with a black dot or triangle to indicate their inadmissibility. Naturally, more than a few readers were insulted to find words they considered proper Yiddish marked with a dubious black dot.

While Weinreich’s reforms went against the comparatively liberal English lexicography of the decade (in his review of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Dwight MacDonald accused it of participating in “a trend toward permissiveness … that is debasing our language by rendering it less precise”), they reflected the state of Yiddish. With the loss of native speakers in the Holocaust standardization was especially urgent. Whereas Harkavy’s readers spoke the dialect of wherever they were from, and were unlikely to be swayed by top-down reforms, Weinreich’s audience was increasingly second- and third-generation Americans who needed a guide to what was, and was not, correct Yiddish. If today a good part of the Yiddish subculture resides in the ivory tower, it has Weinreich to thank.

Standardization also had its drawbacks, however. Readers of Yiddish texts, which include daytshmerish, slang, variant spellings and other bits of Yiddish flotsam, often can’t find the words they’re looking for in Weinreich’s dictionary. Admittedly, such limitations had as much to do with practical constraints as with prescriptivist zeal. A bidirectional, single-volume dictionary could only hold so many entries, and Weinreich capped the number at about twenty thousand. He also intended to fix such problems in later editions, but those were not to be. On March 30, 1967, months before the dictionary’s publication, Weinreich died of melanoma, at the age of forty-one.

Since then, students of Yiddish have typically resorted to both dictionaries. Weinreich is the authoritative guide to spelling, grammar, and usage, and Harkavy fills in the gaps. For more advanced readers there are works like Nahum Stutchkoff’s Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language, which appeared in 1950, and Yudl Mark’s Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language, whose four volumes never made it past the first letter of the alphabet, but which, thanks to the nature of Yiddish grammatical constructions, still managed to include about a fifth of the lexicon. Bilingual dictionaries in other languages have also appeared, most notably the Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français by Yitskhok Niborski, Bernard Vaisbrot, and Simon Neuberg, which was published in 2002 and was quickly recognized as the best Yiddish dictionary in any language.

The new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, edited by Solon Bienfeld and Harry Bochner (with Goldstein and Yankl Salant as associate editors), takes its Yiddish word base from the French work, while sourcing its own English glosses. With approximately thirty-seven thousand entries it reintroduces much of the vocabulary that Weinreich left out, while excluding Harkavy’s more outrageous inclusions. It is also more generous with its variant spellings, idioms, and examples of usage, and improves on Weinreich’s crowded layout. For Yiddish readers at all levels, it has been a long time coming.

It won’t be the only new dictionary, either. In the next few years, the League for Yiddish, an organization founded in 1979 by the late linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, plans to publish an English-Yiddish dictionary based on Schaechter’s work. According to Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, who is leading the effort, the dictionary will contain at least sixty-thousand entries. “There’s lots of slang that goes into this dictionary,” she told me recently. “Why not tell the audience, ‘this is how we say it’?” This dictionary will also have its audience. For every Yiddish reader piecing together a difficult nineteenth-century text, there’s a language enthusiast trying to translate Tolkien. Often, they are the same person.

Does it seem extravagant that a relatively small language is producing two authoritative dictionaries within a few years? Perhaps. But as participants in a subculture centered on a language, Yiddishists take an unusual interest in linguistic questions. Go to any gathering of Yiddishists and you’ll soon hear discussions about accents, dialects, and strange vocabulary. Many Yiddishists I meet are learning additional languages, and a surprising number are professional linguists. Now, I’m just waiting for someone to add Elvish to the mix. Tolkien, I think, would have gone for it. Harkavy might have, too.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG.