H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
Yiddish, even more than American, is a lady of easy virtue among the languages. Basically, a medieval High German, it has become so overladen with Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and even Hungarian words that it is unintelligible to Germans.20 Transported to the United States, it has taken in so many English words and phrases, and particularly so many Americanisms, that it is now nearly unintelligible, as spoken in the big cities of the East, to recent arrivals from Russia and Poland. Such typical Americanisms as sky-scraper, loan-shark, graft, bluffer, faker, boodler, gangster, crook, guy, kike, piker, squealer, bum, cadet, boom, bunch, pants, vest, loafer, jumper, stoop, saleslady, ice-box, and raise are quite as good Yiddish as they are American. For all the objects and acts of everyday life the East Side Jews commonly use English terms, e. g., boy, chair, window, carpet, floor, dress, hat, watch, ceiling, consumption, property, trouble, bother, match, change, party, birthday, picture, paper (only in the sense of newspaper), gambler, show, hall, kitchen, store, bedroom, key, mantelpiece, closet, lounge, broom, table-cloth, paint, landlord, fellow, tenant, bargain, sale, haircut, razor, basket, school, scholar, teacher, baby, mustache, butcher, grocery, dinner, street and walk. In the factories there is the same universal use of shop, wages, foreman, boss, sleeve, collar, cuff, button, cotton, thimble, needle, machine, pocket, remnant, sample, etc., even by the most recent immigrants. Many of these words have quite crowded out the corresponding Yiddish terms, so that the latter are seldom heard. For example, ingle, meaning boy (=Ger. jüngling), has been wholly obliterated by the English word. A Jewish immigrant almost invariably refers to his son as his boy, though strangely enough he calls his daughter his meidel. Die boys mitdie meidlach haben a good time is excellent American Yiddish. In the same way fenster has been completely displaced by window, though tür (=door) has been left intact. Tisch (=table) also remains, but chair is always used, probably because few of the Jews had chairs in the old country. There the beinkel, a bench without a back, was in use; chairs were only for the well-to-do. Floor has apparently prevailed because no invariable corresponding word was employed at home: in various parts of Russia and Poland a floor is a dill, a podlogé, or a bricke. So with ceiling. There were six different words for it.
Yiddish inflections have been fastened upon most of these loanwords. Thus, er hat ihm abgefaked is he cheated him, zubumt is the American gone to the bad, fixn is to fix, usen is to use, and so on. The feminine and diminutive suffix -ké is often added to nouns. Thus bluffer gives rise to blufferké (=hypocrite), and one also notes dresské, hatké, watchké and bummerké. Oi! is sie a blufferké! is good American Yiddish for isnt she a hypocrite! The suffix -nick, signifying agency, is also freely applied. Allrightnick means an upstart, an offensive boaster, one of whom his fellows would say He is all right with a sneer. Similarly, consumptionick means a victim of tuberculosis. Other suffixes are -chick and -ige, the first exemplified in boychick, a diminutive of boy, and the second in next-doorige, meaning the woman next-door, an important person in ghetto social life. Some of the loan-words, of course, undergo changes on Yiddish-speaking lips. Thus landlord becomes lendler, certificate (a pretty case of Hobson-Jobson!) becomes stiff-ticket, lounge becomes lunch, tenant becomes tenner, and whiskers loses its final s. Wie gefällt dir sein whisker? (=how do you like his beard?) is good Yiddish, ironically intended. Fellow, of course, changes to the American fella or feller, as in Rosie hat schon a fella (=Rosie has got a fella, i. e., a sweetheart). Show, in the sense of chance, is used constantly, as in git imh a Show, (=give him a chance). Bod boy is adopted bodily, as in er is a bad boy. To shut up is inflected as one word, as in er hat nit gewolt shutupn (=he wouldnt shut up). To catch is used in the sense of to obtain, as in catchn a gmilath chesed (=to raise a loan). Here, by the way, gmilath chesed is excellent Biblical Hebrew. To bluff, unchanged in form, takes on the new meaning of to lie: a bluffer is a liar. Scores of American phrases are in constant use, among them, all right, never mind, I bet you, no sir and Ill fix you. It is curious to note that sure Mike, borrowed by the American vulgate from Irish English, has gone over into American Yiddish. Finally, to make an end, here are two complete American Yiddish sentences: Sie wet cleann die rooms, scrubn dem floor, washn die windows,dressn dem boy und gehn in butcher-store und in grocery. Dernoch vet sie machen dinner und gehn in street für a walk.21
For some time past there has been an active movement among the New York Jews for the purification of Yiddish. This movement is an offshoot of Zionism, and has resulted in the establishment of a number of Yiddish schools. Its adherents do not propose, of course, that English be abandoned, but simply that the two languages be kept separate, and that Jewish children be taught Yiddish as well as English. The Yiddishists insist that it is more dignified to say a gooten tog than good-bye, and billet instead of ticket. But the movement makes very poor progress. The Americanisms absorbed by the Yiddish of this country, says Abraham Cahan, have come to stay. To hear one say Ich hob a billet für heitige vorschtellung would be as jarring to the average East Side woman, no matter how illiterate and ignorant she might be, as the intrusion of a bit of Chinese in her daily speech.
Yiddish, as everyone knows, has produced a very extensive literature during the past two generations; it is, indeed, so large and so important that I can do no more than refer to it here.22 Much of it has come from Jewish authors living in New York. In their work, and particularly their work for the stage, there is extensive and brilliant evidence of the extent to which American English has influenced the language.
Note 20. During the war I visited Lithuania and Livonia while they were occupied by the Germans. The latter could not understand the Yiddish of the native Jews, but there were in almost every town a few Jews who had been to the United States and could speak English, and these were employed as interpreters. Among the Germans, of course, there were many English-speaking officers. [back]
Note 21. I am indebted throughout this section to Mr. Abraham Cahan, editor of the leading Yiddish daily in New York, and a distinguished writer in both Yiddish and English. [back]
Note 22.Cf. the article on Yiddish, by Nathaniel Buchwald, in the Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. iv, p. 598, and the bibliography following, p. 822 ff. [back]