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For centuries, Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Nowadays it is rarely spoken, but lives on in the texts of Yiddish literature and the minds of Yiddish scholars who have strived to analyze its complex composition.
This article is an introduction to Yiddish’s complicated linguistic relation with Slavic languages in general and with Polish in particular.
With its German grammatical structure and the bulk of its vocabulary coming from German, Yiddish is usually classified as a Germanic tongue. But being a ‘mixed’ language, Yiddish has also had a couple of other languages impacting its structure and vocabulary – the most important components being Hebrew and the Slavic languages. Among the latter Polish may have played a key role. Here’s how and why.
How much Polish is there in Yiddish?
While the idea of a mixed language may be itself a bit controversial (every language is a mixed language in a way – those versed in the history of the English language know it best) Yiddish was to a much greater extent subject to influences from other languages. Additionally the very character of it being a mixed language goes further than in the case of many other languages (as you'll see below).
In regard to Yiddish vocabulary it is estimated that the Germanic element makes up some 70-75 percent of the overall lexicon. The remaining 15-20 percent words come from Hebrew, while the Slavic element is estimated at 10-15 percent (an additional couple of percent is of early Romance origin).
While the German and Hebrew could have been there right from the start (note: early Yiddish developed from Middle High German dialects) the impact of the so-called Slavic component comes later and obviously couldn't have started before Jews began migrating to the east. This migration took most of the Jewish nation to Poland. It is precisely there, around the 14th century, that the Yiddish language as we know it took shape.
During the time of the massive influx of Jewish people from Germany in the late Middle Ages, Poland served as a departure point for further Jewish migrations to the east. This helps to explain the huge range of Polonisms across the whole area of Eastern Yiddish (the so-called Yiddishland) regardless of the dialect spoken of the area. (In Eastern Europe, Yiddish is generally divided into 3 major dialects: Polish, Litvish, and Ukrainian – each of them reflecting the characteristic features of the local substrate language). That’s why many of the Slavic words, constructions, etc in Yiddish can be identified ultimately as Polish, in contrast to other possible Slavic sources: that is Czech, Belarusian and Ukrainian (the influence of Russian on Yiddish comes much later, only in the 19th century). In fact, the influence of those languages on Yiddish was usually limited to the local variant of the language. To put it simply, Yiddish’s contact with Polish was the earliest and lasted for the longest time.
Where to look for Polish in Yiddish?
Linguists have identified certain cultural areas where Polish (and Slavic in general) is to be found in Yiddish. While the German component covers the most basic vocabulary and the Hebrew loanwords are reserved primarily for the areas of ritual, morality, religious and mental aspects of life as well as social conditions of Jewish life, Slavic loanwords are present in an altogether different context.
They come usually in connection with household items and activities, immediate surroundings of the dwelling, family and professional life, as well as emotional states. Compare words like: bulke (bun), smetene (sour-cream), shpilke (pin), kopite (horse's hoof), khlipen (to sob), muchen zich, and nebekh.
Polish words in Yiddish
While the above selection represents words that came to Yiddish from Slavic languages in general, linguists have also attempted to pinpoint words that came to Yiddish directly from Polish. Here's a sample list of words identified as of Polish origin by the famous Yiddishist Max Weinreich:
blondzen, blonken (Pol. błądzić, błąkać się) – stray
gombe/gembe (Pol. Gęba) – chin
glomb (głąb) – stalk
demb (dąb) – oak
drong (drąg) – pole
vontse (wąsy) – moustache
vend(k)e (wędka) – fishing rod
temp (tępy) – dull
khromske (< chrząstka) – cartilage
lonke (łąka) – meadow
parondkes (porządki) – cleaning
parentsh (poręcz) – railing
plonte(r)n (plątać) – to confuse
penten (pętać) – to fetter
penkher (pęcherz) – bladder
prent (pręt) – rod
kurtshente (kurczę / pl. kurczęta) – [dial.] hen
rond (rząd) – row
You've probably noticed that many of these Yiddish words feature some combination of -en-, -on-, -em-, or -om- which all reflect the nasal sounds of -ą, and ę in the Polish original. This often serves as the ultimate proof that a word was introduced into Yiddish through Polish, as it's the only Slavic language which retained the ancient Slavic nasal vowels.
According to Professor Ewa Geller some of the most frequent Polonisms in Yiddish include: tate, mame, bobe (grandma, Pol. babcia), zeyde (grandpa – Pol. dziadek), khapn (grab), kachke (duck), drimlen (snooze, Pol. drzemać), as well as particles: ci (czy), take (indeed), chocz (choć).
But which Yiddish?
However the question of how much Polish is in Yiddish begs another question, namely: which Yiddish? The Yiddish language in Eastern Europe differed not only geographically. The language varied heavily depending on the register of the language and its immediate context. These to a great extent defined the amount of Slavisms (Polonisms) included in a given text. As Professor Ewa Geller suggests, the register of Yiddish where the number of Slavic loanwords was the highest was the spoken colloquial Yiddish. The Slavic element also came to the fore in the language of the press, poetry and folk songs.
However, in other discourses and registers the number of Slavisms could have been very low, concludes Geller. As a result, there are registers of Yiddish that would have very little Slavic elements – for example poetry, especially in its high, religious, or elevated manifestations, would have been very likely devoid of any Slavic elements.
At the same time, there were writers, like Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, whose work was much dependent on the Polish idiom. Based in Warsaw and considered the father of modern Yiddish literature, Peretz very much relied on Polonisms in his style. As Natalia Krynicka suggests, Peretz's readers not familiar with the Polish language have always had a hard time understanding some of the linguistic peculiarities in his work.
Yiddish morphology, or the ultimate mixed language
Though words may be the most conspicuous element of a language, they are by far not the most important element of language system. Apart from vocabulary, the Slavic element has also influenced Yiddish grammar and morphology. And ways in which it did so really justify the term ‘mixed’ language – and have made linguists scratch their heads talking of interlingual interferences, transferences, loanshifts, borrowings, and contaminations. But one could also say here’s where Yiddish is at its most creative – or, for that sake, at its most Polish.
One of the characteristic features of Yiddish morphology is the so-called morpheme contamination, which means that Yiddish words are often made of different elements coming from different languages (heterogenic is the proper scientific term). Compare such word formations as:
sosnewald (pine forest) – which combines the Slavic word sosne (pine tree) + Ger. wald (forest)
golmeser (razor) – Pol. golić (shave) + Ger. Messer (knife)
tempkeyt – which means 'dumbness' (but is much more expressive), combines Slavic root temp- (< Pol. tępy = dumb) and the German sufix -keyt.
The same as with the word:
tupenish – which means ‘scurry (of footsteps)'; the word combines of Slavic root 'tup'- (Pol. tupać - patter, scurry) and German suffix -'nisch'
The mixed character of Yiddish makes it at times extremely hard to define the derivation of the original elements of a Yiddish word. One good example is the word:
pameylekh – slowly; This word is usually explained as combining German allmählich or gemächlich (both mean gradually) and Polish word pomału (slowly)
pomeshaf – dishwater; this word combines the Polish word pomyje and the German suffix -schaft
baych – whip; is an even more complicated case as it combines Polish bicz and German Peitsche, forming a perfect synthesis.
Of course a contamination can pertain to other languages too, like Hebrew and Slavic:
tamewate – dumb; Hebr. tame (stupid) + Slavic adj. suffix -waty.
Yiddish even has what Yiddishists call artificial loanwords. This means that the word which you borrow and which enters the language doesn't actually exist in the original language. Take for exaple:
tate-mame - this is the Yiddish word for 'parents'. While these two words, taken separately, are Slavic words for mum and dad (tata, mama), there's no such phrase as tate-mame (tata-mama) in Polish or any Slavic language.
And now for verbs. A more complicated case of contamination may be:
nochshladeven – this verb (meaning to imitate) looks like a contamination of German nachahmen or nachmachen and Polish naśladować (all of them basically sharing the same meaning of imitating). [The linguistic term for the latter example would be a hybrid construction (loanblend)]
As you can see Yiddish is quite liberal in mixing roots coming from different languages. Take for example the Yiddish verb:
unterganvenen – (pod-kraść) this verb is built with German praefix unter (under) and Yid. verb ganvenen (to steal) which itself is a contamination made up of Hebrew root gnv and German -en infinitive suffix. While on the morphological level this word mixes two languages (Hebrew and German), the sense of unter- is likely influenced by the semantic field of the Polish prefix pod- (compare - podkraść)
The same goes for:
araynganvenen zich – while all morphemes of this word should suggest German and Hebrew as original tongues, the overall sense of the word meaning sneak/slip into points to Polish as the source for its semantic development (Comp. Pol. wkraść się)
Another case of words identified as Slavisms in Yiddish are verbs: rateven – to save, rabeven – to loot, mordeven – to kill. Although the word roots may suggest German at first (retten, robben, morden), they all came into Yiddish from Slavic languages (possibly Polish). This is plain when one compares Polish words: ratować, rabować, mordować.
The same kind of -ow-/-ew- infix can be found in pure Slavisms (or Polonisms), like:
pratseven – to work (pracować)
shaneven – to respect (szanować)
...and even Hebraisms, like:
balabetewen - to run a household, which mixes Heb. balebos + Slavic -ew- + Germ. verb infinitive suffix -en
Slavic Interferences, or German Mistakes
Interference is another linguistic term that could help to explain what’s happening within Yiddish words – in fact, what’s happening between languages. The process of interference may seem at first similar to that of a mistake which one makes while trying to speak a new language. Usually, learning a new language one would simply bring along the characteristic linguistic features of one’s own native tongue and incorporate them into the new language. But while in a language class this would be considered a mistake, in Yiddish constructions which resulted from such interferences have gained the full right of existence. More than this, they even came to epitomize the unique character of the language.
- shpiln zikh – a verb which in Yiddish means to play. In German spielen is not a transitive verb, and it doesn’t come with sich. Yid. shpiln zich arose as an interference with Polish bawić się. The same goes for:
- ich dershrek zich – I'm scared (the interfering Polish phrase is: boję się).
- In lakhn fun (laugh about something) or greser fun (bigger than) the usage of fun results from interference with Polish phrases which use different particles than German: śmiać się z czegoś (lachen ueber etw) and większy od (Ger. groesser als).
Professor Geller suggests that such constructions may be reminiscent of mistakes made by Poles - and Slavs in general - learning German.
Also the traditional popular way to say “What's up?” in Yiddish – Vos hert zikh? - appears to be an interference drawing on Polish Co słychać?
In other verbs you can observe how the German prefix takes on the sense of the Slavic prefix to form a new word. These are called calques by linguists, which means that they are word-for-word (or root-for-root) translations from one language into another. One good example is:
iberbetn – this Yiddish word means 'to apologize', the German equivalent would be "sich entschuldigen" which makes clear that iberbetn has nothing to do with the German substrate; but it has a lot to do with Polish przeprosić which it imitates (or nachshladevet, to use the Yiddish word). Linguists would call it a loanshift.
Yiddish Slavic Syntax
If you thought transference is reserved for morphology only, here's a look at how it can shape also the very syntax of a language (this is called syntactical transference):
Unlike German, Yiddish has participle constructions which closely follow the model of the Polish/Slavic participle:
Jakub hot geredt nisht gloybendik di eigene verter (Jacob spoke not believing in his won words)
In the above example the participle has the power of adverb – this mimics the way participle can be used in Slavic languages.
You might have heard of Slavic double and multiple negation. Here's how it looks in Yiddish:
Ich vil nit keyn epl – I don't want an apple (Germ. Ich will kein Apfel)
The following is a more complicated case:
Ober Gershn hot zich far keynem nisht ibershrokn – (Eng. Gershn wasn't scared of anyone; Ger. Gerschon hat sich von niemandem erschrocken; Pol. Gerszon nie bał się nikogo)
The same goes for negation in imperative sentences. For example one could say in Yiddish:
Nit zuch mich! (Don’t look for me!) – which looks like a perfect literal translation from Polish (or other Slavic Language) [The same regular German imperative sentence should look something like this: Such mich nicht!]
By now you won’t be surprised to learn that Yiddish uses Slavic constructions for ‘playing piano’ or “inviting someone to the wedding’: shpilen oyf fortepian or farbetn oyf khasene.
In both cases oyf is taken straight from Slavic rection. But note also farbetn: As you sure know by now it’s an obvious calque – comp. Pol. za-prosić (far-betn) – invite.
Yiddish also translated whole Slavic phrases which would have been otherwise extremely difficult to understand, like:
vi keyn mol gornisht – which is a way to say in Yiddish "As if nothing had happened" – if you wondered about the sense of the words in Yiddish phrase compare Polish “jakby nigdy nic”.
Particles – those little Slavic words
Those little unaccented words that you attach to words and phrases in Slavic languages are called particles – and Yiddish likes them a lot, especially Slavic to and zhe which it uses for expressive effect. In fact even the harshest commands in Yiddish can be softened by appropriate insertion of the unstressed Slavic-derived particles to and zhe, for example:
To kúm-zhe – which can be translated as “Then come, won’t you please now?’
Another little Slavic word Yiddish likes a lot is abi (Polish aby). When used in a popular phrase like "Abi gezunt" it is usually translated as "As long as you're healthy [you can be happy]."
Small, smaller, the smallest (and cutest)
What would be Yiddish without diminutives? Yiddish has its own – and very productive – system of producing diminutives. The most popular way to do this is by addding an -el suffix to the root, than you can always add another -e which makes the object even smaller (and cuter), like: Hersh-Hersh(e)l - Hershele.
But the popularity of diminutives in Yiddish may itself reflect the penchant for diminutives typical for Slavic languages. In fact Yiddish incorporated Slavic diminutive suffixes: like -czyk or -czka (for masculine and feminine): compare: altichke or Jingermanchik or bublichki (this is Plural).
This diminutive craze can be also observed in such popular Yid. forms as kalenyu (from: kale), tatenyu or gottenyu. In fact the -nyu suffixes comprises not only Slavic diminutive morpheme but also the vocative morpheme. (Compare Pol. mamuniu!, tatuniu!)
And in Yiddish, just like in Polish also adjectives could be subject to diminutization:
dininker (from: din – comp Polish cieniutki, from: cienki)
heysinke – very hot (and little at the same time?).
Remember the song Bublichki - this is a real diminutive frenzy: "Nu, koyft-zhe bublichki, / heysinke beygelakh".
Under Slavic influence Yiddish developed the category of aspect – a phenomenon generally unknown to Germanic languages. This helps to express an activity that starts suddenly, is abrupt or momentary. It uses for this the verb gebn (or ton) + indefinite article followed by noun formed from the verb. Here’s how it looks in practice:
drimlen (to sleep/snooze) -> gebn/ton a driml (Pol. 'zdrzemnąć się)
kukn (to look) vs. ton a kuk
shlogn (to beat) vs. gebn a shlog
This goes nicely with sudden sounds:
skripn ('to squeak') -> gebn/ton a skrip
burtchen (' to grumble, ramble' [of stomach]) -> gebn/ton a burtche
How much Yiddish Is There in Polish?
For many reasons, the influence of Yiddish on Polish wasn't quite as big as it was the other way around. This lack of symmetricity may reflect the situation of a bigger language vs smaller (and one considered inferior – as Yiddish was for a long time called jargon) or the specificity of Yiddish – its all-absorbing powers. Centuries of co-existence did however mark Polish, probably more than any other language, with some portion of Yiddish, though generally limited to the domain of vocabulary. Some of these Yiddish loanwords in Polish make up interesting semantic fields:
The are mostly colloquial words, like:
- rejwach - ‘rumour, medley, commotion (< yid. stand. revekh רווח ‘gain, profit < hebr. rɛwaḥ רֶוַח)
- kapcan - 'klutz, muff' (< Yid. kaptsn קבצן, poor person, miserer’ < Hebr. qabṣān קַבְּצָן beggar’)
- mecyje - ‘something very important, special (< Yid. metsie מציאה bargain, < Hebr. məṣī’ā םְצִיאָה ‘a find)
- ślamazara - 'sluggard' (< Yid. shlimazl שלימזל‘bad luck)
As you can see, many of these have an emotional tinge. Several other words which have made its way into Polish are the subject of controversy as it is not clear whether Yiddish played the role of intermediary in transporting them into Polish or not. These are: gwar, belfer, git, picować, kojfnąć, and possibly fajny.
A separate group of Yiddish words that entered Polish come from the socielect of criminals. Examples are:
- sitwa (pot.) ‘grupa a gang, clique’ (< Yid. stand. shutfes שותּפֿות partnership < hebr. šuttāṕūṯ שֻׁתׇּפוּת
- ferajna – 'gang', < Yid. Farayn
- git – 'cool, great' [slang]
- machlojka - 'shady business'; in Yiddish (and Hebrew) it means a quarrel, dispute.
Is Yiddish still influencing Polish?
This would be rather difficult, considering that there are hardly any Yiddish speakers in Poland today – the last of the Yiddish native speakers having left the country close to half a century earlier in 1968. Which means that if Yiddish were to have some influence over Polish today that would have to work on a rather subconscious level.
One surprising example of such potential impact may be the internet meme character called Doge. Born in America around 2012 and popular for a couple years after, Doge was itself an answer to the even more popular Cat meme. Of course, such memes being popular globally, Doge had its Polish version called Pieseł. The name is a coinage combining the Polish word for dog (pies) and the -eł suffix, which very likely is a variation on the Yiddish diminutive suffix (-el/-eł; compare Hersh → Hershl). While this last linguistic feature and its ultimate source in Yiddish is definitely not perceived by the average Polish speaker, being itself rather a topic for linguists, one would have to conclude that such borrowing from an altogether different and foreign language system is taking place on a rather subconscious level.
But this occurrence may not be altogether incidental, as such things, especially those gaining great popularity with the public, are usually not. A possible explanation would go back to the cultural contexts and position of Yiddish in Polish culture. One of the phenomena of Poland's inter-war literary culture was the so-called szmonces – a cabaret genre which made fun of the language of Polish Jews attempting to speak Polish, its vis comica lying much in their use of Yiddish calques, structures and pronunciation, as well as obvious mistakes. If we remember that Pieseł speaks a highly corrupted, simplified version of a language full of mistakes, we will not be altogether surprised that his name goes back to a language that was once ridiculed for similar features.
The bulk of the linguistic material and most of the examples quoted were taken from Professor Ewa Geller's book Jidysz. Język Żydów polskich, Warsaw 1994.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, December 8, 2015