Posts Tagged ‘itsik manger’

Yiddish Irrealis

January 28, 2008

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: 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 ( 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!