Week 32: Yiddish vs Yinglish
Published on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 By Max Sparber
I have studied Yiddish for 220 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 124 hours
I have reviewed 2,759 individual flashcards
Let me start out by defining something. There is a word that floats around in Yiddish circles to describe something that isn't Yiddish, but instead is mostly English, but is influence by Yiddish: Yinglish. The word is generally credited to Leo Rosten, who used it in his 1968 book "The Joys of Yiddish," but I think it might have predated him by a few years in a mongraph entitled "Yiddish in America: socio-linguistic description and analysis" by Professor Joshua A. Fishman. I may be wrong; I have not read the analysis, although Fishman later authored a piece called "Yinglish: A Language of the USA," and his academic specialty seems to be bilingualism, so even is he didn't invent the term, he's made a lot of use of it.
But Rosten was the first to offer a popular definition, calling it "Yiddish words that are used in colloquial English." English professor and folklorist Gene Bluestein would later add another definition for English words used by Yiddish speakers, calling it Anglish, so you end up with something like "schmuck," which is a Yiddish word that has been absorbed by English, as an example of Yinglish, and "Allrightnik," a word used in the immigrant community for Jews who were doing all right, as an example of Anglish. (Rosten also sometimes made the distinction, calling the latter "Ameridish.")
This is a useful way to distinguish the usage of specific words, but the idea of Yinglish seems to have expanded to describe another phenomenon: The blending of two different tongues, which creates something called a marconic language. These are common in immigrant communities, and two of the most famous are Spanglish, which is a blend of Spanish and English, and Engrish, which describes English used by speakers of East Asian languages.
There are a variety of ways that languages can blend: Two groups without a common language can create a simplified mixture of the two that is called a pidgin language. If pidgin is used long enough, it can become the first language of a new generation, and at this time it becomes a creole. Or a language can absorb words from a foreign language, making it decidedly different than the standard version of the language, in which case it is a patois, which is the term used for any nonstandard or regional dialect.
A marconic language isn't quite one of these. Think of it instead as a language heavily spiced with another language, like, say, a Ritz cracker with a lot of paprika and dill on it, which, now that I have written it, sort of sounds delicious. Yinglish is definitely English, but with a lot of dill, if you don't mind me referring to Yiddish as an annual herb.
I've been thinking about Yinglish a lot, because, at this moment, I am far more of a Yinglish speaker than a Yiddish speaker, and haven't much choice about this. I have been teaching myself Yiddish as a language, and make use of that language when listening to music or reading Yiddish texts. But, when it comes to spoken Yiddish, I just don't have the opportunity to make use of Yiddish as a language, and probably never will except on infrequent occasions. Even if I were to move to, say, Brooklyn and immerse myself in a community of Yiddishists, I would still only use Yiddish as a vernacular on the occasions when I met with other Yiddishists, which, given how rarely I leave home and how much time I need to spend playing with my dog, would still be infrequent. I suppose I could do what early modern Hebrew speakers did and just insist on speaking Yiddish all the time, but I'm not going to do that.
So that leaves me with Yinglish. Lately I am feeling that all I am doing is teaching myself an increasingly sophisticated form of Yinglish, and it mostly consists of my girlfriend saying something to me and me reacting with a Yiddish word as a sort of joke. "You've got grey hairs in your eyebrow," she'll say, and I'll say "my bremen?" and she'll say "no, your eyebrows," and then she'll say, "Oh, that was Yiddish, wasn't it?" This is really a variation of an older joke I would do, where I would sing a Jewish song, like Avinu Malkeinu, and then shout at her to join in. She does not know how to sing Avinu Malkeinu. She manages to put up with me somehow.
I have titled this post "Yiddish vs Yinglish," but I suppose I should have called it "Yiddish & Yinglish." Educationally, I am pursuing Yiddish as a language, and am genuinely seeking ways to pursue whatever competence I can in Yiddish as a vernacular. But the way it actually plays out in my life is as a postvernacular language, a way to express my Jewishness through Yiddish, generally as a seasoning for English. And I am okay with both -- I think that Yinglish is an authentic expression of Jewish culture, and am thrilled to find new ways to use it, even if it just to irritate my girlfriend.
But there is a push and a pull between the urge to be fluent in Yiddish and the urge to express myself in Yinglish, and the more I learn, the more pointed this push and pull becomes. I suspect I am not the only Yiddish student to experience this, although I wonder if it affects me differently, in that Yinglish is my only day-to-day outlet for Yiddish here in Omaha.
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