Week 50: The Dictionary

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 333 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 203 hours
I have reviewed 3,900 individual flashcards

Perhaps it is time I started to summarize my first year. As you can see from the stats above, I have studied Yiddish for 333 days, which is 32 days less than a full year -- which is about right, when you consider that my first year doesn't actually end for a couple of weeks and there were a handful of days when I wasn't able to study.

I have studied for a total of 203 hours, which is more than eight days straight, and that;s just work I have done reviewing my flashcards. If you also count the time spent creating the flashcards and time spent on a Yiddish audio tape I listen to, the total is probably closer to 300 hours, or 12 days straight.

This feels like a lot. It's probably the most concerted effort I have ever put into any one project in my entire life. And yet it is the amount of language a child passively receives hearing native speakers speak in less than two weeks. That's just how it is, and it will always be the greatest barrier for me to true fluency.

So it is. I realized early on in this project that there were going to be limitations to what I could learn and how effective I could be at applying it. One of the things I have been thinking about in the coming year is ways I can make real, practical use of the Yiddish I am learning, and I will discuss that later.

For now, I want to talk about the dictionary. When I started this project, I simply used Google Translate and a word list I culled from a couple of sources. I cannot recommend that. Google Translate does not always provide the correct translation, almost never provides the correct gender of a word, and never provides a decent translation of a full sentence.

I quickly moved on to a dictionary. It's titled "The Yiddish Dictionary Sourcebook: A Transliterated Guide to the Yiddish Language" by Herman Galvin and Stan Tamarkin. I got it at random -- it was the only dictionary in a used book store in Omaha. But I like it.

I don't know that it's especially good. Galvin was a Yiddish speaker, as was Tamarkin, his son-in-law, but neither were linguists, as far as I can tell. The primary intention of the project was to create a transliterated dictionary, but they argued constantly over which pronunciation should be preferred and sometimes picked them at random, according to an interview with the New York Times.

The book gives the gender of a word, which I needed, but does not give the plural, which I also needed. And although it claims 8,500 entries, you can see a sample page I have marked up at the top of this page. I have learned almost every word on the page, and this is true for every page in the book. But I have only studied about 4,000 flashcards, and only about 3,000 of those are vocabulary words (the remainder are complete phrases.) So how can this be?

The answer is that, as with English, one Yiddish word can often have multiple meanings. And so a single Yiddish word, say, onkhapn, will appear under entries for seize, grasp, grap, and get hold. So while the book does have 8,500 entries, it only has about 4,000 distinct words.

That turned out to be perfect for me. It turned out to be just a little more than what I can learn in a year, and I think the selection of words in the book are good, if not always the most scintillating. I will locate about another 100 words from the dictionary, just to round my total number of flashcards off to 4,000 exactly, but then I will move on to a new dictionary.

This new book will be the massive "Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary," and I think if I had started with that, I would have been overwhelmed. There are 50,000 entries in the book. Were I to just go through it, a page a day, as I did with Galvin and Tamarkin's book, it would take me three years to get through the whole thing.

Thanks to "The Yiddish Dictionary Sourcebook," I have a good sense of my own page, and how much I can reasonably expect to learn in a year, and so I can approach this new dictionary with a plan.

The truth is that I am not sure that continued vocabulary acquisition like this is necessarily the most useful thing for me. But, then, this is a hobby for me, and it's my hobby, and I like learning vocabulary words. If I am to continue into the new year, I must make sure to include the stuff that I enjoy, because that's literally the only reason I am doing this project: for the pleasure of it.