Saturday, April 19, 2008

Yinglish as a Second Language

Language is like a living thing. As long as there are speakers who use it, it will continue to evolve and change over time, creating new words and/or meanings, and discarding ones that have become no longer relevant. A perfect example of this evolution, ( or de-volution, as some may say ), is the language called Yiddish.

Yiddish is a language that arose about 1,000 years ago from Middle High German. It was spoken by the Jews, and as they lived and travelled throughout Eastern and central Europe, the language picked up many different words along the way. Therefore, many words in Yiddish are also of Polish, Russian and Slavic origin.

Before WWII, Yiddish was spoken by more than 11 million people. Today, it is estimated that it is spoken by less than a tenth of that, if that many. This is mainly due to the fact that as post-war Jews assimilated in America and elsewhere, Yiddish, ( the language of the 'old country' ), fell more and more into disuse. Their children spoke English, and while these second generation Jews heard occasional Yiddish in the home, they were very rarely fluent themselves. This ultimately resulted in their subsequent children, the third generation, knowing little, if any, Yiddish at all.

Which is a shame. Yiddish is a highly onomatopoetic language, which gives it a distinctly humorous-sounding quality. It also tends to be rather comically descriptive and often rich in metaphor. Most interestingly, and perhaps because of what is often described as the Jewish sense of humor, there are also a great number of words that describe various levels of ineptitude and stupidity. In fact, there's probably more words in Yiddish for 'moron', or for 'penis', than the Eskimos are said to have for different types of snow.

Of course, living in New York, where a great many Jews settled after the war, it's almost impossible not to hear occasional bits of Yiddish. Quite a few words have now become part of everyday speech here, whether one is Jewish or not. Perhaps the most common ones that have crept into the American lexicon are 'schlep' ,( to drag ), 'schmuck', and 'putz' ,( both of which actually mean 'penis', but are used as a general insult, as in calling someone a jerk... or worse ).

But an interesting phenomena has occurred. Much in the way that Spanglish, ( a mix of Spanish and English ), has evolved amongst American-born Latinos, a new form of Yiddish, sometimes called Yinglish, has developed, as well. These are words or phrases, used by modern day English-speaking Jews, that 'sound' like Yiddish, or have some element of Yiddish in them, but aren't Yiddish at all. Or, it can even be an entirely English phrase, but of Yiddish origin, as in this expression that I heard several years ago:

A friend of mine was recounting a story about a particularly aggressive salesman, when she suddenly uttered the peculiar phrase, "He was totally hocking me to China!". I thought it was funny, and since I had never heard this phrase before, I asked her about it. She then informed me that it was Yiddish, and you say it when someone is really handing you a load of, well, you know what. And, as it turns out, she was right. 'Hock me to China ' was Yiddish. The original phrase being, 'hock mier en chinik', or literally, 'bang on my tea kettle', ( an expression used when someone is making a lot of noise, or giving you a headache with their constant jabbering. ) . Therefore, it was indeed Yiddish, once, but it had been morphed into a kind of strange, non-sensical English, by a generation that, like young children often do, hear an unfamiliar phrase or word, and turn it incorrectly into something that makes more sense to them.

But I will end this with my favorite example of Yinglish, because it always gives me a bit of a laugh. My friend Roni and I were outside the local pet store, watching our husbands take our dogs through obedience class, when this very odd girl of about 17, came up to us and started rambling on and on and on about how much she loves puppies. This is not an exaggeration. It was just plain strange.

"Ooh!" she squealed, "Don't you just love puppies? I love puppies! I want a puppy. I want a puppy, but my mom said, no. But I'm sooooo going to get a puppy one day. I am so going to get one. I just looooooooove puppies. Don't you love puppies? How can anyone not love puppies... "

And this moronic diatribe went on for at least ten minutes or more. Meanwhile, Roni and I, not wanting to encourage her further, just politely nodded and smiled, but never said a word.

Finally, mercifully, she walked away. It was then that Roni turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and with pity in her voice, offered this Yinglish explanation for the girl's odd behavior.

"Nisht ge-finisht".

Which, as a favorite blogger of mine, Francis Strand* would say, is my Yinglish 'word of the day'.

It means, undercooked.

-Marlene ;^)

*Francis Strand is the author of the popular blog, 'How to Learn Swedish in 1000 Difficult Lessons'.

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