Friday 3 October 2014

Lox lag brings bagel boom

I remembered this [source Alistair Cooke's Letter from America] as a headline in the newspapers 50 or more years ago, when there was a supply crisis in the salmon trade of Eastern North America. Google Books [above] says it was a Not-Headline. It was, in any case, similar in its implications of cultural disaster to the cold winter last year which threatened the supply of gefilte fish. Lax/laks/lox is pickled salmon which is traditionally served with cream-cheese and bagels. If there is no lox you have to bulk out with the bagels, already. Lax and bagels are both quintessentially Yiddish words, which have worked their way into the vocabulary of gentiles wherever they can be used appropriately. Wordaday is doing Yiddish words this week, probably because of an article the proprietor Anu Garg was encouraging us to read last week.  In Ireland we do other stuff with our salmon, so Lox is more likely to mean Liquid Oxygen here especially among scientists.  But I think everyone knows what is a bagel.  When I lived in Metro-Boston in the 1980s, Yiddisher words were common parlance and I used some of them like a native: chutzpah, glitch, kvetch, klutz, mensh, maven, spiel, schlep, schmooze. Some even appear in The Blob. So these words come from Yiddish, but where does Yiddish come from? . . . and where is it going?

The answer to the second question is that it is going out with a whisper after engendering a rich culture that valued a certain type of education [picking through the holy book with microscopic tweezers for example] for about 1000 years. Yiddish long ago lost the battle with Hebrew to become the secular language of Israel. There, cultural imperialism was as strong against Yiddish as Madrid's against Catalan, Gallego and Asturiano, or Paris in its attempt to grind out the southern French dialects of Langue d'Oc to establish a truly monoglot francophone nation all singing the Marseillaise in tune. And of course, it didn't help that 6 million Yiddish speakers had a one-way ticket to the station at Auschwitz.

The first question was settled more than 100 years ago by concluding that Yiddish was developed from the German spoken in the Rhineland provinces of Western Germany. Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language argues that Yiddish came from the West and is fundamentally German, perhaps built on a foundation of medieval French, which has acquired a lot of Slavic words from contacts in the cities of Eastern Europe.  Paul Wexler, contrariwise, argues in The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity that Yiddish is a Slavic language with some words assimilated from German and Hebrew.  Speakers of English will appreciate the dilemma; English is a German language where whole sections of vocabulary (cooking and law for starters) have been borrowed and absorbed from French. Linguistic archaeology is not what you'd call an exact science. Geneticist David Goldstein famously carried out a study of Y chromosomes from Ashkenazi Jews about 4 years ago and concluded that they were most likely to have arrived in Eastern Europe from Asia rather than from the Rhine Valley.  Intriguingly, there is a lot of evidence supporting the from-the-East hypothesis in the 750 close-typed pages of notes to Max "Westie" Weinreich's book. There is a suggestion that he left on the cutting room floor anything that didn't agree with his originally held views. He wouldn't be the first or the last scholar to do that.  If the last linked long-form article on the Origins of the Jews and their language isn't enough, there's more here, with maps!

I think perhaps that the controversy might reflect the parable which I heard long long ago from dreamy philosopher Alan Watts:
"Is a zebra a black horse with white stripes or a white horse with blacks stripes?"
"Neither, it is an invisible horse colored black and white so people don't bump into it by accident"

1 comment:

  1. Dear Bob, your mention of the langue d'oc is timely.....only yesterday I was researching lyrics for Canteloub's Songs of the Auvergne and finally saw the words that I've been hearing all these years. And strange they are!

    See this translation (sadly I was unable to copy the pronunciation marks so it's worth seeing the link source below) it gives auvergnat then french then english -
    Baïlèro (song title)
    Pastré, dè dèlaï l’aïo
    Berger, au delà de l’eau,
    Shepherd from across the water

    A gaïré dé boun tèn,
    Tu ne t’amuses guère,
    You are having hardly some good time

    Well Bob, hope you have more than some good time soon!