The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language

A Companion to MENDELE


Contents of Vol. 09.013 [Sequential No. 165]
29 December 2005

1)   This issue (ed.)
2)   The Israeli Language (Ghil'ad Zuckermann)
3)   More on  kvetsh (ed.)
4)   Yehoyesh's khumesh with Ulrich Greve's Jewish Calendar: Instructions

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Date: 29 December 2005
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: This issue of  TMR

Ghil'ad Zuckermann's new book,  Hebrew As Myth [Am Oved] will be    published shortly and he here gives a refined restatement of the argument he presented polemically in his reply to the Forward's Philologus in TMR 8.013 (December 2004). [See]. Zuckermann commands a position midway between the traditionalists -- semiticists largely who cling to the view of continuous development of a Hebrew language from biblical times to today -- and the "revisionists" for whom Hebrew is relexified Indo-European. Zuckermann states squarely: "Israeli is a hybrid language based on both Hebrew and Yiddish" as well as on many other languages. Since his copious review of the Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (in the International Journal of Lexicography, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1999): 325-346) -- and probably before -- Zuckermann has wrangled with the glottonomy issue and it has unnecessarily won him sharp critics. Zuckermann by no means denies the productive powers and expressive capacity of the language of the State of Israel commonly called Hebrew. He insists on both its Indo-European and Semitic origins, its immense debt to Yiddish, its essential newness -- and his name for it: "Israeli." He concludes: "Whatever we choose to call it, we should acknowledge, and celebrate, its complexity."  The appearance of Zuckermann's new book will doubtless stimulate much discussion.

In the last issue of TMR I boldly asserted that the verb kvetshn in Yiddish does not mean 'to complain', though to kvetch has clearly come to mean that in English. What bothered me was the notion that Yiddish itself in toto was being assigned the quality of griping. Now that the lexical question has been raised we are constrained to pursue it further.

Instructions for downloading a marvelous Jewish Calendar with integrated weekly Khumesh portion in Yehoyesh's classic Yiddish translation.


Date: 29 December 2005
From: Ghil'ad Zuckermann <>
Subject: The Israeli Language


Ghil‘ad Zuckermann

Fascinating and multifaceted, Israeli (Zuckermann 1999, a.k.a. ‘Modern Hebrew’) is a ‘non-genetic’ language from the point of view of Hebrew; there was no continuous chain of native speakers from spoken Hebrew to Israeli. Hebrew was spoken by the Jewish people after the so-called conquest of Canaan (c. fourteenth century BC). It belonged to the Canaanite division of the north-western branch of Semitic languages. Following a gradual decline, it ceased to be spoken by the second century AD. The failed Bar-Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in Judaea in AD 132-5, in which thousands of Jews were exterminated, marks the symbolic end of the period of spoken Hebrew. But the actual end of spoken Hebrew might have been earlier. Jesus, for example, was a native speaker of Aramaic rather than Hebrew. For more than 1700 years thereafter, Hebrew was not spoken. A most important liturgical and literary language, it occasionally served as a lingua franca for Jews of the Diaspora, but not as a mother tongue.

Unlike Maskilic Hebrew (i.e. the Hebrew of the Haskalah, the 1770-1880 Enlightenment Movement led by Moses Mendelssohn and Naphtali Herz Wessely), a literary language, Israeli is a living mother tongue. Its formation was facilitated in Eretz Yisrael (‘Land of Israel’) only at the end of the nineteenth century by revival ideologue Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), schoolteachers and enthusiastic supporters.

Itamar Ben-Avi (1882-1943, born as Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, is symbolically considered to have been the first native Israeli-speaker. He was born one year after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a native Yiddish-speaker, conversant in Russian and French, arrived in Eretz Yisrael. Eliezer and his wife, Dvora, spoke to Itamar only in Hebrew despite their not being native speakers. Itamar, who only started to speak at the age of four, confessed that he uttered his first word after his father, who was obsessive about Hebrew, found Dvora singing a Russian lullaby to Itamar. Eliezer became furious and smashed a wooden table to pieces. ‘Seeing my father furious and my mother […] crying, I started to speak’, Itamar wrote in his autobiography (Ben-Avi 1961: 18).

But it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that Israeli was first spoken by a community, which makes it approximately 100 years old. The first children born to two Israeli-speaking parents were those of couples who were graduates of the first Israeli schools in Eretz Yisrael, and who had married in the first decade of the twentieth century (see Rabin 1981: 54).

In April 2000, the oldest native Israeli-speaker was Dola Wittmann (in her late 90s), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s daughter, who also happens to be one of the first native Israeli-speakers. When Orthodox Jews desecrated her father’s grave with obscene graffiti (because, in their view, vernacularizing the ‘holy language’ was a sin), Dola simply asked, ‘What language did they write in?’ When the answer came back, ‘Hebrew’, she took it as an admission of defeat by his critics.

Israeli is one of the official languages – with Arabic and English – of the State of Israel, spoken to varying degrees of fluency by its 6.8 million citizens – as a mother tongue by most Israeli Jews (whose total number is 5,235,000), and as a second language by Israeli Muslims (Arabic-speakers), Israeli Christians (e.g. Russian- and Arabic-speakers), Israeli Druze (Arabic-speakers) and others. It is also spoken by some non-Israeli Palestinians, as well as by a small number of Diaspora Jews.

During the past century, Israeli has become the primary mode of communication in all domains of public and private life. With the growing diversification of Israeli society, it has come also to highlight the absence of a unitary civic culture among citizens who seem increasingly to share only their language.

Issues of language are so sensitive in Israel that politicians are often involved. In a session at the Israeli Parliament on 4 January 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rebuked Israelis for using the etymologically Arabo-English hybrid expression yàla báy, lit. ‘let’s bye’, i.e. ‘goodbye’, instead of ‘the most beautiful word’ shalóm ‘peace, hello, goodbye’. In an article in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz (21 June 2004), the left-wing (and thus often regarded by some as ‘enlightened’) politician Yossi Sarid attacked the common language of éser shékel (‘ten shekels’, rather than asar-á shkal-ím ‘ten-female shekel-masculine.plural’, the latter having a polarity-of-gender agreement – with a feminine numeral and a masculine plural noun) as inarticulate and monstrous, and urged civilians to fight it and protect ‘Hebrew’.

One could see in these rebukes the common nostalgia of a conservative older generation unhappy with ‘reckless’ changes to the language – cf. Aitchison (2001), Hill (1998), Milroy and Milroy (1999) and Cameron (1995). But normativism in Israeli contradicts the usual ‘do not split your infinitives’ model, where there is an attempt to enforce the grammar and pronunciation of an elite social group. Using a ‘do as I say, don’t do as I do’ approach, Ashkenazic Jews (most of them originally native Yiddish-speakers), who have usually controlled key positions in Israeli society, urged Israelis to adopt the pronunciation of Sephardic Jews (many of them originally native Arabic-speakers), who happen to have been socio-economically disadvantaged. In fact, politicians, educators and many laymen are attempting to impose Hebrew grammar on Israeli speech, ignoring the fact that Israeli has its own grammar, which is very different from that of Hebrew.

The late linguist Haim Blanc once took his young daughter to see an Israeli production of My Fair Lady. In this version, Professor Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle how to pronounce /r/ ‘properly’, i.e. as the Hebrew alveolar trill, characteristic of Sephardim (cf. Judaeo-Spanish, Italian, Spanish), rather than as the Israeli lax uvular approximant (cf. many Yiddish and German dialects). The line ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ was adapted as barád yarád bidróm sfarád haérev, lit. ‘Hail fell in southern Spain this evening’. At the end of the performance, Blanc’s daughter tellingly asked, ‘Daddy, why was Professor Higgins trying to teach Eliza to speak like our cleaning lady?’

A language is an abstract ensemble of idiolects – as well as sociolects, dialects etc. – rather than an entity per se. It is more like a species than an organism (cf. Mufwene 2001: 11). Still, linguists attempt to generalize about communal languages, and, in fact, the genetic classification of Israeli Hebrew has preoccupied scholars since the beginning of the twentieth century. The traditional view suggests that it is Semitic: (Biblical/Mishnaic) Hebrew revived (e.g. Rabin 1974). Educators, scholars and politicians have propagated this view. The revisionist position defines Israeli as Indo-European: Yiddish relexified, i.e. Yiddish, most revivalists’ máme lóshn (mother tongue), is the ‘substratum’, whilst Hebrew is only a ‘superstratum’ providing lexicon and frozen morphology (cf. Horvath and Wexler 1997).

From time to time it is alleged that Hebrew never died (e.g. Haramati 1992, 2000, Chomsky 1957: 218). It is true that throughout its literary history Hebrew was used as an occasional lingua franca. However, between the second and nineteenth centuries it was no one’s mother tongue. The development of a literary language is very different from that of a native language. But there are many linguists who, though rejecting the ‘eternal spoken Hebrew mythology’, still explain every linguistic feature in Israeli as if Hebrew never died. For example, Goldenberg (1996: 151-8) suggests that Israeli pronunciation originates from internal convergence and divergence within Hebrew.

I wonder, however, how a literary language can be subject to the same phonetic and phonological processes as a mother tongue. I argue, rather, that the Israeli sound system continues the (strikingly similar) phonetics and phonology of Yiddish, the native language of almost all the revivalists. These revivalists very much wished to speak Hebrew, with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, like Arabs. However, they could not avoid the Ashkenazic mindset – and consonants – arising from their European background.

Unlike the traditionalist and revisionist, my own hybridizational theory acknowledges the historical and linguistic continuity of both Semitic and Indo-European languages within Israeli. ‘Genetically modified’, semi-engineered Israeli is based simultaneously on Hebrew and Yiddish (both being primary contributors – rather than ‘substrata’), accompanied by a plethora of other contributors such as Russian, Polish, German, Judaeo-Spanish (‘Ladino’) Arabic and English. Therefore, the term Israeli is far more appropriate than Israeli Hebrew, let alone Modern Hebrew or Hebrew (tout court).

What makes the ‘genetics’ of Israeli grammar so complex is the fact that the combination of Semitic and Indo-European influences is a phenomenon occurring already within the primary (and secondary) contributors to Israeli. Yiddish, a Germanic language with a Romance substratum (and with most dialects having undergone Slavonicization), was shaped by Hebrew and Aramaic. On the other hand, Indo-European languages, such as Greek, played a role in (Semitic) Hebrew. Moreover, before the emergence of Israeli, Yiddish and other European languages influenced Medieval and Maskilic variants of Hebrew (see Glinert 1991), which, in turn, influenced Israeli (in tandem with the European contribution). This adds to the importance of the Congruence Principle (Zuckermann 2003):

If a linguistic feature exists in more than one contributor, it is more likely to persist in the Target Language.

The distinction between forms and patterns (Zuckermann 2006) is crucial too. In the 1920s and 1930s, gdud meginéy hasafá, ‘the language defendants regiment’ (see Shur 2000), whose motto was ivrí, dabér ivrít ‘Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!’, used to tear down signs written in ‘foreign’ languages and disturb Yiddish theatre gatherings. However, the members of this group did not look for Yiddish and ‘Standard Average European’ patterns in the speech of the Israelis who did choose to speak ‘Hebrew’. [The term ‘Standard Average European’ was first introduced by Whorf (1941: 25) and recently received more attention by Haspelmath (1998, 2001) and Bernini and Ramat (1996) – cf. ‘European Sprachbund’ in Kuteva (1998).]

This is, obviously, not to say that the revivalists, had they paid attention to patterns, would have managed to neutralize the impact of their mother tongues, which was often subconscious (hence the term ‘semi-engineered’). As Mufwene observes, ‘linguistic change is inadvertent, a consequence of “imperfect replication” in the interactions of individual speakers as they adapt their communicative strategies to one another or to new needs’ (2001: 11). Although they have engaged in a campaign for linguistic purity, the language the revivalists ‘created’ often mirrors the very cultural differences they sought to erase (cf. mutatis mutandis Frankenstein’s monster, or the golem). The alleged victory of Hebrew over Yiddish was, in fact, a Pyrrhic one. Victorious ‘asthmatic’ Hebrew is, after all, partly European at heart. Yiddish and Standard Average European survive beneath ‘osmotic’ Israeli grammar.

Had the revivalists been Arabic-speaking Jews (e.g. from Morocco), Israeli would have been a totally different language – both genetically and typologically, much more Semitic. The impact of the founder population on Israeli is incomparable with that of later immigrants. The following is how Zelinsky (1973: 13-14) describes the influence of first settlements, from the point of view of cultural geography:

Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance to the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been [...] in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants generations later.

Harrison et al. (1988) discuss the ‘Founder Effect’ in biology and human evolution, and Mufwene (2001) applies it as a creolistic tool to explain why the structural features of so-called creoles (which he regards as ‘normal languages’ just like English) are largely predetermined by the characteristics of the languages spoken by the founder population, i.e. by the first colonists. I propose the following Founder Principle in the context of Israeli:

Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the crucial period of the beginning of Israeli.

The Founder Principle works because by the time later immigrations came to Israel, Israeli had already entrenched the fundamental parts of its grammar. Thus, Moroccan Jews arriving in Israel in the 1950s had to learn a fully-fledged language (even though it often did not appear so to the Hebrew-obsessed language planners). Obviously, they initially developed their own variety of Israeli but ultimately the influence of their mother tongue was relatively negligible. Wimsatt’s (1999a, 1999b) notion of ‘generative entrenchment’ is of relevance here. As Mufwene puts it, ‘the oldest features have a greater chance of prevailing over some newer alternatives simply because they have acquired more and more carriers, hence more transmitters, with each additional generation of speakers’ (2001: 29).

At the same time – and unlike anti-revivalist revisionists – I suggest that lethargic liturgical Hebrew too fulfills the criteria of a primary contributor for the following reasons: (i) Despite millennia without native speakers, it persisted as a most important cultural, literary and liturgical language throughout the generations; (ii) Revivalists made a huge effort to revive it and were, in fact, partly successful.

The impact of Yiddish and Standard Average European is apparent in all the components of the language but usually in patterns rather than in forms. That said, Israeli demonstrates a unique spectacular split between morphology and phonology. Whereas most Israeli Hebrew morphological forms, e.g. discontinuously conjugated verbs, are Hebrew, the phonetics and phonology of Israeli — including of these very forms — are European. One of the reasons for overlooking this split is the axiom that morphology — rather than phonology — is the most important component in genetic classification. In fact, such a morpho-phonological split is not apparent in most languages of the world and is definitely rare in ‘genetic’ languages.

The revivalists’ attempt to belie their European roots, negate diasporism and avoid hybridity (as, in fact, reflected in Yiddish itself) failed. Thus, the study of Israeli offers a unique insight into the dynamics between language and culture in general and in particular into the role of language as a source of collective self-perception. Linguists and community leaders seeking to apply the lessons of Israeli in the hope of reviving no-longer spoken languages (e.g. Amery 1994, 1995, 2000; cf. Clyne 2001; Fishman 1991, 2001; Thieberger 1988) should take warning. When one revives a language, even at best one should expect to end up with a hybrid. I maintain that Israeli is a ‘non-genetic’, layered, Semito-European language, only partially engineered. Whatever we choose to call it, we should acknowledge, and celebrate, its complexity.



* Stop Revive Survive is a sign intended to urge drivers to nap.

Zuckermann playfully reanalyses it to declare that the revival of Hebrew also includes the survival of Yiddish -- even though the revivalists did not intend this!


Date: 29 December 2005
From: ed.
: More on kvetsh

Dr. Meyer Wolf, a keen-eyed Yiddish linguist, has pointed to a Yiddish noun kvetsh meaning 'hypochondriac'. See Nokhem Stutshkov, Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh. Under the semantic category krankeyt, 'sickness' [#420], the nouns khekhlyak, khorkhlyak, zdekhlyak, khvetshke, KVETSH and kholyere are grouped together on p. 411. Of all these words the only one that is phonotactically a candidate for English borrowing is kvetsh (spelled kvetch). This Yiddish substantive could very well be the seed from which a Jewish-English verb meaning 'to complain' arose.


Date: 29 December 2005
From: ed.
Subject: Yehoyesh's khumesh with Ulrich Greve's Jewish Calendar: Instructions

Download the latest version of the Jewish Calendar Program for Windows 95/98/2000/ME/XP: (by clicking on here on left-hand side) and the files for the Khumesh in Yiddish. After downloading the calendar, close all running applications (since the computer is restarted after installation) and execute the downloaded file. Then go to the manual page where details of installation of the Khumesh in Yiddish are described and install the self-extracting archive. By clicking on a Shabbat or holiday in the calendar and then clicking on "View torah reading in Yiddish!", the torah sections are displayed in Yiddish. The Khumesh in Yiddish must be downloaded and installed separately. On the download page of the Jewish Calendar for Windows 95/98/2000/ME/XP, the short manual at contains these instructions. Download the self-extracting archive tpr.exe from Run the downloaded tpr.exe file in order to extract the .tpr files with the Khumesh in Yiddish. Copy the extracted .tpr files (bamidbar.tpr, breyshis.tpr, dvorim.tpr,  shmoys.tpr and vayikro.tpr) into the same directory where the Jewish Calendar Program is installed (by default, C:\CAL80).


End of The Mendele Review Vol. 09.013

Editor, Leonard Prager


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