Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lewis Dembitz's 1892 article on Yiddish-Zhargon

Here is an interesting article about Yiddish from the American Hebrew (May 6, 1892). It's got everything you could want; condescension toward "Jargon," historical and contemporary social information. The author - more about him in a moment - endorses the proposal that the eastern Yiddish word for prayer, to daven, comes from the Aramaic daf (folio). He also gives an etymology for nebbich. Finally, despite Yiddish's "degrading ugliness," he sees the bright side that it has done for the Jews. Even though being bred on Yiddish makes it extremely difficult to learn a correct, unaccented German, when a Polish or Russian Jew emigrates, he finds himself well off with his "poor German" where he can better succeed in either western Europe or America; if he spoke only Russian or Polish, not so much. However, because his German is so poor, it induces him to learn English and speak it at home right away.

The author is Lewish Nathan Dembitz (1833-1907) of Louisville. Among other things, like a distinguished legal career, the Posen-born Dembitz is also known for his German translation Onkel Tom's Hutte.





28 comments:

  1. Funny, a meshumad is an Epicurus?

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  2. Sure, an "Apikores," to pronounce it differently.

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    Replies
    1. Of course, but Epicurus was a person.

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  3. I coulԁn't refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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  4. Related to Brandeis?

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  5. I dο consiԁer all оf thе іdeas you've introduced on your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for beginners. May just you please lengthen them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

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  6. nachum:

    he was brandeis's uncle and role model. (btw, dembitz was a frankist family.)

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  7. One historian claims that the Dembitzes are the only known example of Frankists who returned to Orthodox Judaism. Dembitzcontributed a number of articles to the Funk & Wagnalls Jewish Encyclopedia and had a fair knowledge of Rabbinic literature.

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  8. typo: Lewish Nathan Dembitz.

    I just realized today to the date ten years ago you wrote the first post on otml, WOW TEN YEARS is a long time!

    thanks s. for this great blog.

    and I think it's time to write about some things you wrote you will, for example:

    "I think it might be a good idea to occasionally do some remedial Jewish history type posts, where I get into the background behind some persons, events or movements, and then I can link to the posts I've already done about these subjects. For example, instead of simply assuming knowledge about Christian Hebraism, I could do a general post about it. Then, a reader can reread the earlier posts, and hopefully get into it more, with newly acquired background."

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    1. Yitzchok, actually it's "only" 8 years (almost). There were one or two posts that I backdated for archival purposes, but I began in May 2005. !!!

      Thanks for reminding me. There are many things I should do, and this is one of them.

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    2. Im just now reading this post:
      Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber, Part I
      and waiting for part 2.

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    3. Wow, are you my conscience? ;-)

      Delete
  9. A fair amount of discussion can be raised on many points Dembitz touches upon. For one, what seems more probable is that "davenin" comes from the Arabic "da'wa(h)" which means [to the effect of] 'calling to pray(er)', as opposed to Demnitz's proposal which doesn't follow with German linguistics. There's no tradition, correct me if I'm wrong, of a "פ" being interchanged with a "ו" (vav) particularly in this consonant form; a two letter noun with this verb. Even not phonologically speaking, the meaning are too far fetched.

    (I imagine if there was a way to filter/screen the spam-comments posted on this blog you'd have done so already, so just as another individual voicing their concern here; man, it's annoying.)

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  10. Ovadya, "daven" is an Eastern Yiddish word. So German probably has little to do with it. I once did a post about the word, and my pet etymology, the one I think the most plausible, is that it comes from Latvian or Lithuanian "dāvana" which means "offering" or "gift," and is a direct translation of mincha. The word is late, and I can think of no reason why or how it could have come from Arabic. But everyone is free to think for themselves.

    See http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2011/02/dawning-of-davening-do-we-know-where.html

    As for the peh/vav interchange, it happens all the time. The word "Frankfurt" is spelled with both peh and vav on many title pages of seforim. Do not forget that Yiddish was and is primarily a spoken, not a written language.

    As for the spam, my apologies. I am going to switch to Disqus comments soon, and hopefully that will resolve the problem once and for all.

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    1. Thanks for the reference to your earlier post.
      “the one I think the most plausible, is that it comes from Latvian or Lithuanian "dāvana"… The word is late, and I can think of no reason why or how it could have come from Arabic”.
      Granted it’s somewhat of a stretch to say it originated from an Arabic word though, and it’s not either definitive, yet I think this is more probable than to say it came from an area which was not heavily populated with Jews, on top of that, to say that their language (Lithuanian) had influence and crept into the common vernacular, most notably the tongue spoken in Western Europe which was incomparably more widespread. On the other hand, words from Arabic, or particularly, Aramaic words, have crept into the Yiddish language, as was quite common. (Recently heard a nice one: familiar with “Oh, him? He’s a sheipei”. See Meg. 13b.) Besides, why would a word describing prayer come from “folio” if in that period prayer books containing “folios” were quite uncommon? Seems more unlikely.
      Re. peh/vav interchanges; I should have stressed my point: For nouns its indeed common, like you pointed out - “Frankfurt”, but with verbs, it doesn't phonetically follow, all the more so with two consonants.

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  11. I first heard of Dembitz from Urofsky's biography of Louis Brandeis. Fascinating figure, and a major influence on his illustrious nephew.
    Here's some background: http://www.rabbijablon.com/dembitz.htm

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  12. Great article. Ignore the minor condescension and it's quite informative.
    There are many more words that are Polish-based that came in over the centuries. Zeidi for grandfather is Polish-derived. As is "teler" for plate. And so on. I recommend the Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine, the first chapter or two in particular, for a wonderful exposition of how and why Jews developed their own dialect-language systems. And he does it in a respectful manner that demonstrates a method, and entirely avoids the derision present in so many of the old articles on the topic.

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  13. RE "epicurean" and "Apikorus" -

    Also see here (paragraph 6). It's hashlomos to a sefer, but it's not necessary to see the original sefer:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=39897&st=&pgnum=54&hilite=

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    1. How interesting! Thanks Ben (I hope I can call you Ben?)

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  14. "Do not forget that Yiddish was and is primarily a spoken, not a written language." Curious why you would say that about Yiddish more than any other European minority language. I'd attribute spelling inconsistencies to the fact that attempts to standardize Yiddish orthography came relatively late and were, and still are(!) difficult to impose top down.

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    1. Rokhl, I think you are saying the same thing I was. :-) He was treating Yiddish as if it were Hebrew, as if somehow a vav and a pheh cannot logically interchange in Yiddish. This is no different from seeing something like לייפציג and לייפציק, and myriad other examples. You see this in the other European languages too, including German, English, etc.

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  15. Hmm, I'm not sure I follow. There are still logical rules in the spelling of Yiddish, even if YIVO brand standardized orthography was late to the game. לייפציג and לייפציק come about because of daytshmerism, or ppl attempting to transliterate (or approximate) German spelling with Hebrew oysyes (the gimel being a daytshmerism.) Even that follows a 'rule' if you will. I still am not sure what you meant by Yiddish being primarily a spoken, not written language.

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    1. We were talking about 400 years ago, when "davenen" came into vogue. Then it was primarily spoken, not written. Yes, there was some amount of Yiddish literature, and yes, some people did use it to communicated (probably; I don't think there are tons of surviving correspondence). The Leipzig/k thing comes from the title pages of sforim 200 and 300 years ago, before daytshmerish, and you will also find g/k confusion in German itself, before it was prestigious enough to be standardized. Similarly, there are many variations in the spellings of Yiddish personal names, and also locations, which you can see in the rabbinic literature that deals with the correct orthography for names for divorce documents. These were also primarily spoken, and there was no need for standard spellings - except that the halacha requires precision in spelling names on a get, so they had to contemplate how to spell these places 'properly.' And you will see many variants and different systems which were all logical to people.

      You're right that it was never a complete free for all. Any written representation of a language will follow some logic, especially when it is phonetic.

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  16. i really enjoyed this article,because this was me many years ago,and to a certain degree,this is who i am today
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  17. i really enjoyed this article,because this was me many years ago,and to a certain degree,this is who i am today

    ReplyDelete
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  19. S., I take back what I said about the commonality of substituting a "פ" for a "ו" (vav), because indeed in lower Germanic dialects it is found.

    Nonetheless I still am not convinced of the origin of "daven" evolving from "folio" based on the other reason I suggested; siddurim (the new "folios") only surfaced later on and just because the earliest mention of the word is in the 1500's that doesn't mean that the word wasn't part of Yiddish/German jargon up until then.

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