Week 22: Living in a Post-Vernacular World

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 155 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 80 hours
I have reviewed 2,146 individual flashcards

As you can tell by the photo above, I have finally received my boy scout-style sash and begun affixing merit badges to it. (For those of you who have just started reading, this is the way I am rewarding myself for completing certain tasks in Yiddish.) The 1,000 pin at the top of the sash represents my completion of a list of 1,000 common Yiddish words I found online, and each star after it represents total words learned -- so 2,000 words total. The extended middle finger represents my having learned 200 Yiddish curses and insults, and the martini glass represents my having learned at least 50 words related to drugs and alcohol. I am currently working on 100 words om the topic of sex, and have completed 72 of them, so next week I shall have another merit badge, this one somewhat R-rated.

At the beginning of this project, I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the proper term for a phenomenon in which people who know very little are convinced they are pretty competent, while people who are fairly competent are convinced they are rank amateurs. I fretted about being at the amateur end of things, and I was -- I was hopeful that I would have a good basic grasp of conversational Yiddish after learning just a thousand words. I have twice that many, and could not have a conversation to save my life -- although, in fairness, this is partly my fault, as I haven't really bothered with conversational learning and instead have just focused on things that interest me. Swear words, as an example.

I'm now at the other end of Dunning Kruger. At 2,000 words, I undeniably know more Yiddish than 90 percent of the Jews alive. Learning the first thousand really has given me the fundamentals, the essential building blocks of Yiddish; I just haven't bothered to figure out how they all fit together yet. I'm certainly nowhere near expertise, but I have a really solid base to build on.

And yet I feel like a barely know anything. When I watch Yiddish films, I feel like I don't understand a word of what I hear, and when I listen to Yiddish music, I still feel like I barely understand the theme of the song, much less individual lyrics. Reading Yiddish newspapers is an exercise in hitting endless stumbling blocks, where I sort of understand what I am reading for six or seven words and then hit a stretch that is completely incomprehensible to me. Thank goodness for my sash and badges, or I would have little to remind me how much I actually have accomplished.

I expect to go through the rest of my life on this end of Dunning-Kruger, with an ever-expanding base of knowledge that mostly serves as a reminder of how much I have not yet learned. And that's how it must be with Yiddish. I have no plans to move to Brooklyn or back to Los Angeles, where I could make myself part of a community that uses Yiddish all the time, and so the best I can hope for is occasional chances to carve out some time to engage in spoken Yiddish -- perhaps through Yiddish summer programs and the like. I will never be as fluent as a native speaker of the language, and will always be aware of the gulf between myself and them.

But Yiddish is not a language like other languages, and Jews don't have the same sort of relationship with languages that most people do. I am reading a terrific book just now called "Adventures in Yiddishland" by Jeffrey Shandler, which I shall write about in more detail when I finish. But I will mention that the book's big idea is that Yiddish has, for most Jews, become a post-vernacular language -- that is to say, it is no longer the language of everyday speech, but still exists, and serves other purposes.

Yiddish would not be Judaism's first post-vernacular language. Educated European Jews generally knew multiple languages. There was Yiddish, of course, and also, to some extent, the language of whatever country they inhabited. But there was also Hebrew, which ceased being a spoken language around the 6th century BCE, but was still studied because it was the language the Torah was written in, and so was a holy language. And Jews also studied the language that displaced Hebrew, Aramaic, which most Jews haven't spoken since about 1200 CE. But it's the language the Talmud was written in, and so Jews learned it, more or less.

I don't know how fluent most Jews were in these languages. I am given to understand the answer is "not very," but for the small number real scholars who devoted their lives to the study of these subjects. But the languages were maintained, in detail by very few, in general by a larger number of people. They were maintained because they served a function, and that function was something other than conversation.

I have, without intending to, been pursuing Yiddish in a post-vernacular way. If my primary interest was traditional fluency, then memorizing swear words would be considerably less important than memorizing sentences such as "I am gasping for tea" and "where is the bathroom." But I don't really need to ask for tea and then, as always happens after tea, ask for a bathroom.

I do have some use, however, for swear words. There is tremendous value in being able to cuss someone out without them knowing what you're saying. And I'm not alone in thinking so -- Amazon has a fistful of books with titles like "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It In Yiddish" and "Dirty Yiddish: Everyday Slang from 'What's Up?' to 'F*%# Off!'" that cater to this decidedly post-vernacular interest in the language.

It's really the opposite of vernacular. It's learning a language specifically so you won't be understood, and there is some of that in this history of Yiddish. It was often referred to as a jargon in Europe, even by Jews, but sometimes Yiddish served as a cant -- as the secret language of the underworld. It also winds up serving this sort of function among the Hasidim in America -- it may be a vernacular among fellow Hasids, but it also serves to separate them from the outside world, and keep their world private.

I will explore this more as the project continues, but I rather like the idea of Yiddish existing as a sort of anti-language for Jews, as speech that is meant to baffle and confuse. And for it to be this, you don't need to be fluent -- you just need to be more fluent than the guy you're cussing out.

1 comment:

  1. I have also been learning Yiddish, also began in an idiosyncratic way (by translating my grandfather's children's books with a dictionary, one word at a time), and have also been writing a blog about it.
    Check it out. It's called "Tongue's Memory" and is hosted by Wordpress.
    I suspect there are quite a few of us out here. There are also some great resources online, including podcasts to help get the sound of the language into our 'postvernacular' ears. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts, and possibly sharing some tips.
    David Forman