How Much Polish Is There in Yiddish (and How Much Yiddish Is There in Polish)?
#language & literature
default, A shelf with books in Hebrew, photo: Creative Commons licence, ksiazki_hebrajski.jpg
For centuries, Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Nowadays, it is rarely spoken, but it lives on in the texts of Yiddish literature – and the minds of Yiddish scholars who have strived to analyse its complex composition.
Join Culture.pl as we explore Yiddish’s complicated linguistic relationship with Slavic languages in general – and with Polish in particular.
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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 several other languages impacting its structure and vocabulary – the most important components being Hebrew and Slavic languages. Amongst 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 to 75% of the overall lexicon. The remaining 15 to 20% of words come from Hebrew, while the Slavic element is estimated at 10 to 15% (an additional few percentage points come from early Romance origin).
While the German and Hebrew could have been there right from the start (note that 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.
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‘The Groom’ amongst Hasidic Jews, 1931, photo: National Digital Archive (NAC)
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 – sometimes referred to as ‘Yiddishland’ – regardless of the dialect spoken of the area. (In Eastern Europe, Yiddish is generally divided into three 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 and so forth 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, the contact between Yiddish and Polish was the earliest and lasted for the longest time.
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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. The German component covers the most basic vocabulary, while the Hebrew loanwords are reserved primarily for the areas of ritual, morality, religious and mental aspects of life as well as the social conditions of Jewish life.
The Slavic loanwords, however, are present in an altogether different context. These usually appear 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) or kopite (a horse's hoof) to khlipen (to sob), makhn zich (to pretend, feign or play the part) and nebekh (equivalent to ‘what a shame!’).
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:
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- blondzen, blonken (Polish: błądzić, błąkać się) – to stray
- gombe/gembe (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, plural: kurczęta) [dialect] – 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 the letters Ą and Ę in Polish. This often serves as the ultimate proof that a word was introduced into Yiddish through Polish, as it's the only Slavic language which has retained the ancient Slavic nasal vowels.
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But which Yiddish?
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Still from ‘Fill The Void’, directed by Rama Burshtein, photo: press release
The question of how much Polish is in Yiddish begs yet another question, namely: which Yiddish? The Yiddish language in Eastern Europe differed not only geographically, as it also 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 with the highest number of Slavic loanwords was the spoken colloquial Yiddish. The Slavic element also came to the fore in the language of the press, poetry and folk songs.
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 who were unfamiliar with the Polish language have always had a hard time understanding some of the linguistic peculiarities in his work.
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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 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:
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- sosnewald (pine forest) – Slavic sosne (pine tree) + German wald (forest)
- golmeser – razor; Polish golić (shave) + German Messer (knife)
- tempkeyt – dumbness (but much more expressive); Slavic root temp- (< Polish: tępy = dumb) + German suffix -keyt
The same as with the word:
- tupenish – scurry (of footsteps); Slavic root tup- (Polish: tupać – patter, scurry) + 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; German allmählich or gemächlich (both mean gradually) + Polish pomału (slowly)
- pomeshaf – dishwater; Polish pomyje + German suffix -schaft
- baych – whip; Polish bicz + German Peitsche (this is an even more complicated example, forming a perfect synthesis)
Of course, a contamination can pertain to other languages too, like Hebrew and Slavic:
- tamewate – dumb; Hebrew tame (stupid) + Slavic adjectival 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 example:
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- tate-mame – 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 – to imitate; this looks like the German nachahmen or nachmachen + 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. Consider, for example, the Yiddish verb:
- unterganvenen – to sneak or steal; this verb is built with the German prefix unter- (under) + the Yiddish verb ganvenen (to steal), which is itself a contamination made up of the Hebrew root gnv and the German -en infinitive suffix
While on a 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 to the Polish podkraść).
- araynganvenen zich – to sneak or slip into; while all morphemes of this word should suggest German and Hebrew as the original tongues, the overall sense of the word points to Polish as the source for its semantic development (compare to the Polish wkraść się)
Another case of words identified as Slavisms in Yiddish are verbs: rateven (to save), rabeven (to loot) or 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 to see when one compares it with the Polish words: ratować, rabować, mordować.
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The same kind of -ow / -ew infix can be found in pure Slavisms (or Polonisms), like:
- pratseven – to work; Polish: pracować
- shaneven – to respect; Polish: szanować
...and even Hebraisms, like:
- balabetewen – to run a household; Hebrew balebos + Slavic -ew- + German 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, in 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.
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But while in a language class this would be considered a mistake, in Yiddish constructions which resulted from such interferences, these have gained the full right of existence. More than this, they have even come to epitomise the unique character of the language.
- shpiln zikh – to play; German, spielen is not a transitive verb, and it doesn’t come with sich.
The Yiddish 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
- lakhn fun – to 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 (German: lachen über etwas) and większy od (German: 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:
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- iberbetn – 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 this 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 own words’
In the above example, the participle, gloybendik, has the power of an adverb – this mimics the way participle can be used in Slavic languages.
You may also 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’ (German: Ich will kein Apfel)
The following is a more complicated case:
- Ober Gershn hot zich far keynem nisht ibershrokn
- English: ‘Gershen wasn't scared of anyone’
- German: ‘Gerschon hat sich von niemandem erschrocken’
- Polish: ‘Gerszon nie bał się nikogo’
The same goes for negation in imperative sentences. For example, one could say in Yiddish:
- Nit zuch mich!
- English: ‘Don’t look for me!’
- German: ‘Such mich nicht!’
This looks like a perfect literal translation from Polish (or other Slavic language).
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 diction. But note also ‘farbetn’: as you surely know by now, it’s an obvious calque – compare to the Polish za-prosić (far-betn), or ‘to invite’.
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Yiddish has also translated whole Slavic phrases which would have been otherwise extremely difficult to understand, like:
- vi keyn mol gornisht
- English: ‘as if nothing had happened’
- 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 the 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 – then come now, won’t you please?
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, smallest (& cutest)
What would Yiddish be without diminutives? Yiddish has its own – and very productive – system of producing them. The most popular way to do this is by adding an -el suffix to the root, and then, you can always add another -e, which makes the object even smaller (and cuter). One example is the name Hersh, which becomes Hersh(e)l or Hershele.
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But the popularity of diminutives in Yiddish may itself reflect the penchant for diminutives typical for Slavic languages. In fact, Yiddish has incorporated Slavic diminutive suffixes: like -czyk or -czka (for masculine and feminine). Consider: altichke, Jingermanchik or bublichki (plural).
This diminutive craze can be also observed in such popular Yiddish forms as ‘kalenyu’ (from: kale), ‘tatenyu’ or ‘gottenyu’. In fact, the -nyu suffix comprises not only a Slavic diminutive morpheme but also the vocative morpheme. (Compare to the Polish: ‘mamuniu!’, ‘tatuniu!’)
In Yiddish, just like in Polish, adjectives can also be made diminuitive:
- dininker (from: din) – Polish: cieniutki, from: cienki
- heysinke – very hot (and little at the same time?)
The song Bublichki is a real diminutive frenzy: ‘Nu, koyft-zhe bublichki, / heysinke beygelakh’.
Under its Slavic influences, 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:
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- drimlen vs. gebn/ton a driml
- English: to sleep/snooze
- Polish: zdrzemnąć się
- kukn vs. ton a kuk – to look
- shlogn vs. gebn a shlog – to beat
This goes nicely with sudden sounds:
- skripn vs. gebn/ton a skrip – to squeak
- burtchen vs. gebn/ton a burtche – to grumble, rumble (stomach)
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 versus a smaller one (and one which has also been considered, however unjustly, inferior – as Yiddish was for a long time called jargon). It may also simply be about the specificity of Yiddish, with its all-absorbing powers. Centuries of co-existence with Yiddish did, however, mark Polish, probably more so than any other language, though this was generally limited to the domain of vocabulary.
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Some of these Yiddish loanwords in Polish make up interesting semantic fields. The are mostly colloquial words, like:
- rejwach – rumour, medley, commotion (< Yiddish: revekh רווח, gain, profit < Hebrew: rɛwaḥ רֶוַח)
- kapcan – klutz, muff (< Yiddish: kaptsn קבצן, poor person, miser < Hebrew: qabṣān קַבְּצָן, beggar)
- mecyje – something very important, special (< Yiddish: metsie מציאה, bargain, < Hebrew: məṣī’ā םְצִיאָה, a find)
- ślamazara – sluggard (< Yiddish: 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 include: gwar, belfer, git, picować, kojfnąć and possibly fajny.
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A separate group of Yiddish words that entered Polish come from the sociolect of criminals. Examples are:
- sitwa – a gang, clique (< Yiddish: shutfes שותּפֿות, partnership < Hebrew:. šuttāṕūṯ שֻׁתׇּפוּת)
- ferajna – gang < Yiddish: farayn
- git – cool, great [slang]
- machlojka – shady busines', Yiddish/Hebrew: a quarrel, a dispute
Is Yiddish still influencing Polish?
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The Doge meme character is called Pieseł in Polish
This would be rather difficult, considering that there are hardly any Yiddish speakers in Poland today with the last of the Yiddish native speakers having left the country close to half a century earlier in 1968. This 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 few years afterwards, 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).
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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 Interwar literary culture were the so-called szmonces – a cabaret genre which made fun of the language of Polish Jews attempting to speak Polish, with 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 might not be altogether surprised that his name goes back to a language that was once ridiculed for similar features.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 8 Dec 2015
Sources: ‘Jidysz: Język Żydów Polskich’ by Ewa Geller (Warsaw 1994).