Commentary Magazine


College Yiddish, by Uriel Weinreich; Yiddish for Adults, by Nathaniel Buchwald

The Yiddish Language

College Yiddish.
by Uriel Weinreich.
Yiddish Scientific Institute—Yivo. 397 pp. $4.50.

Yiddish For Adults.
by Nathaniel Buchwald.
The Book League of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order. 232 pp. $2.50.

 

Jewish scholars have played a prominent role in the development of modern linguistic science and have written some of the best descriptive grammars as well as some of the best studies in the psychology and sociology of language. Very few of these scholars have, however, turned their attention to Yiddish or Hebrew, although both languages offer important problems for linguistic research. For example, both contain a high degree of foreign borrowings: Yiddish has a Germanic base with a large number of borrowings from Hebrew and the Slavic languages; modern Hebrew has a Semitic base with extensive borrowings from the Indo-European languages. In fact, Hebrew offers a rather rare example of a language of one family (Semitic) which has taken over in large measure the syntax of another family (Indo-European). Yiddish and Hebrew therefore afford an excellent opportunity to study the process by which foreign elements are borrowed by a language and are adapted to the native structure.

Yiddish and Hebrew are also extremely interesting from the standpoint of linguistic sociology and psychology. In the case of Yiddish we can study the process by which a standard language emerges; since standard or literary Yiddish developed in the latter part of the last century we are still in a good position to investigate the factors which determined the particular form it assumed. In the case of Hebrew we are able to study the transformation of a written language into an everyday spoken language and to observe the emergence under our eyes of various norms of usage (“correct” and “incorrect,” colloquial and literary, etc.) and of specialized forms of language (technical terminologies, professional jargons, slang, children’s language, etc.).

Since few linguistic specialists have worked in the field of Yiddish or Hebrew we have had no grammars in these languages comparable to those which exist for the other modern languages. Those desiring to take up the study of Yiddish or Hebrew have had to content themselves with grammars and textbooks which represent the stage reached by French, Spanish, or German grammars a decade or more ago. We are therefore very fortunate in now having an introduction to Yiddish by a scholar thoroughly trained in modern linguistic analysis. College Yiddish by Uriel Weinreich is the first textbook in Yiddish or Hebrew which can compare favorably both in content and organization with the best textbooks in the other modern languages.

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Each lesson in College Yiddish consists of a short reading selection with an accompanying vocabulary divided into an “active” list (important words which should become part of the student’s active vocabulary) and a “passive” list (less important words which it is sufficient for him to be able to recognize). Then follows a section which treats the important grammatical features occurring in the reading selection. (All the grammatical points are also arranged systematically in an appendix called “Synopsis of Grammar.”) After each grammatical discussion there are exercises on the vocabulary and grammar of the particular lesson. Finally there is a short section in English dealing with some aspect of the Yiddish language or of Jewish life. Every fifth lesson consists of a series of review exercises on the content of the preceding chapters.

College Yiddish thus combines what is known as the “grammatical approach” and the “cultural approach.” The grammatical explanations reflect the author’s training in linguistic analysis; they give a very concise description of. Yiddish structure as compared with English. However, some of these sections, though excellent in themselves, appear a little out of place in a text intended for beginners. The space might have been more profitably devoted, for example, to additional exercises on the reading of Yiddish. There is only one short exercise on reading the alphabet, despite the fact that the beginner has to learn not only a new alphabet (with different printed and cursive forms) but two different spelling systems—one used for Yiddish words and one used for Hebrew ones.

The current practice in beginners’ texts is to work with a small controlled vocabulary and a small number of the most important grammatical items and to keep repeating them at frequent intervals; new words and grammatical features are introduced only after the preceding ones have been thoroughly learned. The number of words and grammatical details introduced in College Yiddish is much higher than one finds in first-year texts in the other modern languages. It might of course be argued that many of the students studying Yiddish are likely to know some Yiddish to start with and that the higher vocabulary load and the more extensive grammatical coverage are consequently justified. Such students, however, really need a special review grammar. Those beginning the study of Yiddish would probably profit more from a text which contained fewer lexical and grammatical items and provided for more repetition of the most important ones.

Emphasis has been placed in recent years on using language texts as an introduction to a nation’s history and culture as well as to its language. College Yiddish employs the cultural approach so successfully that it bears comparison with the very best that has been achieved in this field. The reading selections are all on an adult level and are written in a lively style; they make abundant use—as is only appropriate in a book dealing with Yiddish—of folk humor and folk sayings. Most of them cover some aspect of Yiddish or of Jewish history and literature; additional aspects are treated in the form of brief essays in English at the end of each lesson. College Yiddish thus serves as a well-rounded introduction to Jewish culture. It deals with aspects of Yiddish (the origin, history, and geographical spread of Yiddish; the dialects and the standard language; Yiddish compared with English and German; the Hebrew element in Yiddish; Yiddish in America), of Jewish life and culture (Jewish humor, proverbs, and folksongs; Jewish holidays; Jewish family names; the Jewish calendar; Jewish education), of Jewish literature (history of the older literature; the Jewish classical writers; current Jewish literature), and of Jewish history in general (Jewish immigrations; fate of European Jews in World War II), etc. A glossary contains a number of supplementary reading selections from Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and others.

College Yiddish is thus of interest not only to those beginning the study of Yiddish but also to those who wish to systematize their knowledge of the language or to learn more about the history and development of Yiddish literature. The book is carefully edited and a good deal of attention has been paid to its typographical appearance—not unimportant considerations in a language textbook. The author and the Yiddish Scientific Institute, which published College Yiddish, have performed a valuable service in providing us at last with an introduction to Yiddish which is completely modern in its approach and presentation.

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Yiddish for Adults by Nathaniel Buchwald falls into the category of “practical grammars.” Its purpose is to provide a brief introduction to the rudiments of Yiddish. It does not attempt, as does College Yiddish, to give a full and organized presentation of the grammatical structure of Yiddish or to provide an introduction to Yiddish culture of the past and present. The grammatical treatment in College Yiddish is so excellent that Yiddish for Adults suffers by comparison, but the latter is a much easier book for beginners. The author works with a small but well-selected vocabulary and with a limited number of the most important grammatical elements.

The best feature of Yiddish for Adults is that the author constantly has his student in mind. His teaching experience has made him aware of the chief difficulties that beginning students have with Yiddish and he has done his best to help them over the stumbling blocks. The reading of Yiddish is treated at considerable length and a great many reading exercises are provided. Throughout the book Hebrew words are given not only in the Hebrew spelling but are transcribed into the Yiddish spelling system as well, so that the student is never in doubt as to the pronunciation of the Hebrew words which occur in the text. The first lessons consist of simple phrases and sentences and only after the student has mastered these are connected reading selections introduced. Towards the end of the book there are excerpts from Yiddish literature, but these too have been carefully selected for the simplicity of their style.

All in all, Yiddish for Adults admirably serves its special purpose of teaching adults the basic elements of Yiddish. It is, however, limited in scope and the reader will certainly want to go on to College Yiddish for a fuller and more systematic treatment of the grammar and for material on the development of Jewish culture.

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