Yiddish Irrealis

איך האָב זיך ערשט אָנגעשטױסן אין אַ בלאָג פֿון אַ טאַלאַנטירטן חבֿר מײַנעם, בנימין סאַדאָק, װאָס איך האָב אים, בנימינען, הײסט עס, שױן לאַנג נישט געזען. אָבער אַ פֿאַרדראָס! ער האָט אױפֿגעהערט צו שרײַבן אינעם בלאָג העט אין 2006. ס’איז טאַקע אַ שאָד, װײַל זײַן בלאָג איז אַ סך בעסער געשריבן און אינטעראַסאַנטער װי מײַנער. דאָרטן גײט די רײד אױך אין שפּראַכן, און איר קענט לײענען די אַרכיװן אָט אָ דאָ: http://positiveanymore.blogspot.com/. אױף דער װײַלע קענט איר אים בעטן ער זאָל שױן װידער נעמען שרײַבן.

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk just a little bit about irrealis in Yiddish. I won’t pretend to know much about the subject (so anyone who knows better should correct me), but basically irrealis is a special form that language can take when something you’re talking about doesn’t or may not exist, or some event didn’t or may not have happened.

Some languages mark irrealis more than others (http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/9/9-241.html). For instance, English doesn’t seem to mark it all that much. There’s an old English subjunctive that people use less and less:

It’s important that you not be late.

Be here is the subjunctive form. But I think you could also say:

It’s important that you’re not late.

In this case, the subjunctive has been lost. In Spanish, however, you must use the subjunctive, at least as long as you’re talking about a future event (someone let me know if I get this wrong):

Es importante que no te atrases.

A common way of marking irrealis in Yiddish is with the modal verb זאָל (zol).So in Yiddish, as in Spanish, you must here mark irrealis:

ס’איז װיכטיק, דו זאָלסט זיך נישט פֿאַרשפּעטיקן.

Another example where Yiddish and Spanish mark irrealis but English doesn’t think anything special is going on:

I’ve never seen a man that kisses dogs.

Nunca he visto a un hombre que bese perros.

 איך האָב קײן מאָל נישט געזען אַ מאַן װאָס זאָל קושן הינט.

On the other hand, if you do know this man exists, you wouldn’t use irrealis:

Yesterday I saw the man that kisses dogs.

Vi ayer al hombre que besa perros.

נעכטן האָב איך געזען דעם מאַן װאָס קושט הינט.

But Yiddish doesn’t always use זאָל where Spanish uses the subjunctive. For instance, after the word maybe (Sp. quizá(s), Yi. אפֿשר):

אפֿשר קושט ער הינט.

Quizás bese perros.

Maybe he kisses dogs.

Here’s an interesting case of Yiddish use of זאָל. Can you tell the difference between the following two sentences?

A) כ’האָב מורא, זי זאָל נישט קומען.‏

B) כ’האָב מורא, זי װעט נישט קומען.‏

For those of you not in the know, a word-for-word translation gives:

A) I’m afraid she should not come.

B) I’m afraid she will not come.

Well, have you figured it out yet? According to Yiddish II, a textbook written by Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, these sentences translate to:

A) I’m afraid she’ll come.

B) I’m afraid she won’t come.

In other words, if you want to say that you’re afraid that something will happen you use the modal זאָל  together with the negation of the clause. Once I noticed this in Yiddish II, I realized I had long misunderstood a line in one of my favorite Yiddish songs!

כ’װאָלט איצט געלאָפֿן, אסתּרל קרױן, אָראָפּ צום טײַך זיך טרענקען
האָב איך מורא, אַז טױטערהײט זאָל איך נאָך דיר נישט בענקען

I would now run, my dear Esther, down to the river to drown myself.
But I’m afraid that in death I would long for you.

I always thought this meant “…I would not long for you”!

And in the next line, the construction is different, this time a more Englishy “I fear that you will” instead of “I have fear you should not”:

כ’װאָלט זיך געלאָזן, אסתּרל קרױן, װאָגלען אױף אַלע װעגן
האָב איך מורא אַז איבעראַל װעסטו מיר קומען אַנטקעגן

I would set off, my dear Esther, wandering about,
but I fear I would encounter you everywhere…

There might be a reason this hadn’t come to my attention earlier. A quick Google search suggests that this form (“I fear it should not”) is not used nowadays very often, at least in colloquial Hassidic Yiddish. Meanwhile, I’m almost sure none of my Yiddish-speaking friends uses this construction. But why? Is this a recent development, possibly influenced by English, or was that always the case? (In posing these questions I don’t mean to imply that these are unsolved mysteries of Yiddish linguistics. I’m sure someone knows, just not me.)

I’m also confused sometimes about whether or not to use Yiddish irrealis in certain situations. These are generally cases where I would use the subjunctive in Spanish or Portuguese, but using it in Yiddish might be overcompensating (from my subjunctive-poor English). For instance, yesterday I noticed my friend Arele (of Tmesis fame) typing a sentence of the form:

 איך גלײב נישט זי זאָל דאָס האָבן געזאָגט.

I don’t believe she said that. (Lit. I believe not she should that have said.)

I queried him on his use of the subjunctive here, and he noted that his family makes fun of him for this type of construction, then later admits he’s probably correct in using it. If his family doesn’t use this form, where’d he get it from? Other Yiddish speakers? Reading? Or has Arele, in learning to speak a fluent Spanish, also become a bit subjunctive-happy? I admit I tend to avoid such types of sentences entirely. Instead of saying

 איך מײן נישט אַז ער איז (זאָל זײַן?) אַ רײַכער.

I’ll say

איך מײן אַז ער איז נישט קײן רײַכער.

I may not be alone. A Google search for the phrase “איך מײן נישט אז” had only 3 results (!) as opposed to 690 results for “איך מײן אז”.

It’s hard to do better without a good old Yiddish corpus. Maybe someday…

Meanwhile, let me know of any thoughts, questions, or corrections you have on this topic!

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17 Responses to “Yiddish Irrealis”

  1. bekkster Says:

    You’re correct about the use of the subjunctive in Spanish. You even use to say something like, “When we go to the store…” when you’re about to go like two hours later! That weirded me out for a while.

    Also, you don’t always have to use the subjunctive with tal vez or quizas. It depends on how mysterious the situation is– if you think your friend is going to arrive late, and it’s pretty probable, you could say, “Tal vez llega tarde,” but if you’re not sure, and you don’t know what’s up with your friend, you might say, “tal vez llegue tarde.”

  2. bekkster Says:

    People always say that the subjunctive doesn’t exist in English…I hadn’t realized that your example “It’s important…” was the subjunctive! The only instance I’d thought of was “May God grant us peace” or “May it be…” etc. That’s the subjunctive, too, right?

  3. bekkster Says:

    PS Julie and I confirmed with Jonathan what your book said about that little English song/diddy being offensive. Talk to her about it if you haven’t already.

  4. jordan (yankl 3) Says:

    My general sense is that the zol form you talk about in detail has fallen out of Yiddish and was probably falling out (at least in this country) a while ago. Khasidim will say “ikh vil, du zolst” etc but the negative form I’ve never seen in speech and if I had seen it in writing I wouldn’t have figured it out until now. Languages change, that’s how it goes. The average Khosid today would say strawberry for truskovka in Yiddish and af di gore velt instead oyf der gorer. It’s not just them that are losing a lot of interesting things. I read recently that prior to the 1800s all of the numbers in Yiddish were Hebrew numbers (which was the case in western Yiddish). The next time I’m by Yungtruf I’ll bring along the books and magazines I got from Boro Park, you’d find them fascinating. Hope all is well

  5. jordan (yankl 3) Says:

    If it truly imitates Spanish, then you’re first example, ikh hob moyre as zi zol nisht kumen would be the subjunctive because it expressed the desire of the speaker (this actually makes perfect Yiddish sense in terms of requests, the only subjunctive in Yiddish being for requests with zoln as far as I could tell, I wish I were,the English subjunctive does not seem to exist in Yiddish. Despite the fact that you’re phrase makes perfect Yiddish sense, due to either the influence of English or plain language change I think that this has almost entirely fallen out.) The second sentence with the man being rich in Yiddish would not be the subjunctive (I’m not the expert you speak much better Yiddish than me but I’m sure about this, ask Arele), it would of course be subjunctive in Spanish, no creo que sea rico.

    It should also be noted that English simultaneously lost the subjunctive everywhere in the 20th century. I’m one of very few people who still says “if I were” and “if he were”. The verb change indicates that the action is not real. In a generation I think nobody will speak this way.

  6. boredstrakhirstatistiker Says:

    Jordan, I’d like to respond to what you’ve written but sometimes it’s hard for me to tell which example you’re talking about. You said, “but the negative form I’ve never seen in speech…” Which negative form? I think the subjunctive among the Hassidim is alive and well. Take a look:

    Recently overheard from a Hassidic woman talking to her children at the airport: “Ikh hob kaynmol nisht gezeyn a paylet (pilot) vus zol zaan niderik.”

    From a khasidic novel (copyright 1997) I’m reading: “….vayl dervayl iz beser du zolst nisht visn fun di gantse emes…”

    “zey hobn… gevart az es zol shoyn kumen di gliklekhe minut…”

    These are a few nice examples of zol subjunctive, none of them requests, in contemporary Hassidic usage. I know I saw better ones in the book but I don’t have time now to go back and look for them.

    Does that change your mind at all? Or were you only talking about my last two examples? (“ikh meyn nisht” and “ikh hob moyre”) These I admit don’t seem to be in wide usage nowadays. But I could be wrong. Let’s find a Hassidic informant and see what he or she says.

  7. Jordan Says:

    Well you seem to know a lot better than I do then, I was refering to the irregular double negatives for the most part in the first one (what I say has probably fallen out, ikh hob moyre az…) but I wasn’t aware that the use of the subjunctive was that extensive in Yiddish in general, let alone Frum Yiddish. I’m going to do a project of sorts on Hasidic Yiddish for a linguistic paper or two once I get my Yiddish better, mostly on vocabulary shifting to English but also a bit on grammar (mostly from written material, IE words like mushroom, sink, etc that are always English in Yiddish, guessing why floor is always floor and door is always tir). My main problem is that I’m getting most of my Yiddish input from newspapers and children’s books and radio shows, good for vocabulary, not good for grammar. I need to hit the textbooks and go back to basics a lot. Weinreich’s book will take me another two months, than I’m going to do the Yiddish book published by Oxford that looked very good. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll really have this down more, after a summer program and a week at Yiddishvokh I’ll be speaking like a real Yid. Agev, the notecard program you sent me is a huge help, with Spanish even more so than Yiddish.

    Hope all is well, keep posting this great blog.

  8. arele Says:

    Do you know if “kh’hob moyre, zi zol nisht kumen” exists in daytsh? Because I recall seeing an extremely similar construction a few parshiyos ago which Rashi actually commented on; if I remind myself (is that English?) what it is, I’ll let you know.

    “he,” as in the “yo” form of “haber”, has no accent mark. the reason why the “yo” form of “saber” and the subjunctive first- and third-person constructions of “dar” has an accent mark is to distinguish them from the reflexive pronoun and from the word “de,” meaning “of, from.”

    A note on Spanish subjunctive: after any impersonal expressions (besides “it is true”), including “it’s interesting” (es interesante) and “it’s funny” (es co’mico), you must use the subjunctive, regardless of the tense. So actually the sentence that you used (Es importante que no te atrases.) actually brings into effect two reasons to use the subjunctive: (1) it’s an impersonal expression and (2) it’s expressing a desire.

    I admit it. I am subjunctive happy. To use the subjunctive excessively in English is a bit queer, whether it’s correctly used or not. But to use it in Yiddish is more normal because it hasn’t been dropped; it’s just that certain circles don’t use it. But in the example you gave (ikh meyn nisht az er zol zayn/iz keyn raykher), I wouldn’t use the subjunctive either. In fact, I don’t think I would ever use the subjunctive in the present in this type of scenario. It seems natural in the past, and even then, only when using verbs such as “gleybn” az “gedenken,” in which cases you are asserting something as true, but perhaps with an inkling of doubt. I need to put some more thought into this.

    And speaking of speaking with hypercorrectness, my family also makes fun of me for inflecting adjectives in the neuter form (ikh hobn gefunen epes guts) ever since I went on a gender crusade, reinspecting every inflection I’ve ever used.

  9. boredstrakhirstatistiker Says:

    arele,

    Thanks for the Spanish spellcheck! (I fixed it.) Probably too used to Portuguese orthography, where all stressed monosyllabic words ending in -e have an acute accent. It happens, you know? (Though this doesn’t apply to the he cognate, which is hei.)

    It is interesting that what you said be the case in Spanish. (Though a quick Google search for “es chistoso que” suggests that informally Spanish speakers might not be totally consistent with this. What do you think?)

    Hmmm… I didn’t think about the past/present distinction you mentioned. “ikh gedenk nisht az er zol dos hobn gezogt” definitely sounds better to my ears than “ikh meyn nisht az er zol zayn a (keyn?) raykher.”

    As for that construction in German… I have no idea. I’ll have to get back to you on that. (Anyone else reading this know?) I’d definitely like to hear about that Rashi though!

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure “if I remind myself” isn’t, strictly speaking, English. (Go know!)

  10. arele Says:

    “Es chistoso que” in formal Spanish, whether Castilian or South American, requires that the subjunctive follow (no pun intended) it. As with any language which spreads to a wide population, and just as it happened with English, the subjunctive is being used less frequently than, say, 50 years ago. Which is unfortunate, but what can you do. Another example of deviation from standard “correct” Spanish is the verb “andar” which in the preterit is irregular and follows an “anduve-anduvo” pattern, but which is now being conjugated, especially in SA, as a regular -ar verb such as “amar.”

    I’m going to ask Dovid Braun about the past-present thingy.

    My classmates often find my English unintelligible due to the frequent and unconscious use of Yiddish and Tamil idioms paraphrased into English…

  11. boredstrakhirstatistiker Says:

    I checked in a book I have about German verbs, and I don’t see anything in the chapter about the subjunctive that looks at all like what we’ve been discussing here. The subjunctive mood in German, of which there are three forms, none of which involve the modal soll, seems to be used in a manner entirely divergent to that of the Yiddish. This has driven home the point to me that even if they sometimes seem pretty similiar on a superficial level, Yiddish and (Standard) German are structurally really very different.

  12. arele Says:

    Perhaps this construction is Slavic in nature? I don’t know Russian very well, but the net seems to suggest that the verbs themselves have separate conjugations, whereas Polish used the verb powinien (to be obligated) followed by the verb infinitive, which seems analogous to the Yiddish construction of “zol” + inf.

    (Afrikaans also uses the paricle “sou” to express the present conditional – perhaps this is a cognate with “zol”?)

  13. julie Says:

    A little golden peacock told me to tell you to update your blog when you have the chance!

  14. Debbie Says:

    In this day and age, unless you’re someplace like Williamsburg or Boro Park, almost ALL Yiddish is irrealis. That’s probably the beauty of it for many people, in some strange, horrible/beautiful way…

  15. arele Says:

    Yankev or me?

  16. arele Says:

    Cuz he’s doing a better job than I am.

  17. Sosye Says:

    א שיינעם דאנק יאנקל… איצט פארשטיי איך דיינע אנקי קארטלעך מיט ׳זאל נישט׳… ב׳ה!

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