Farms, Cattle, Linguistics, and Me
I was born on
Sometimes I would work weeding onions, on my hands and knees, but it was a job I didn’t like, especially in the hot sun. At harvest time, however, I helped with screening the onions (scraping off the outer skin and dividing them according to size). Then when they were being weighed, I would put in or take out a few onions from the bags in order to make sure each bag weighed exactly 50 pounds. And then in the fall, the fields were disked with a disk harrow before they were plowed. I learned to drive a tractor when I was about nine years old, and I actually could disk a field by myself. A bit later, I learned to drive a car on the dirt roads that ran from field to field. Of course, I couldn’t drive on a public road. But I did learn to drive, and I took the
Most of the onion farmers in the area were from
In addition to the onion farmers, there were dairy farmers in the area. Some were descended from people who had lived there for generations. Others were recent arrivals from
I was passionately interested in dialects, even though I didn’t know the word. It was quite obvious to me that the people we knew in
My parents would have liked me to study engineering and take over their metal-products factory. They would have wanted me to be able to do real farm work. I did neither. I became a professor of linguistics instead. But it turned out that the farm was a good place to study linguistics. We had some bungalows on the farm, and after I had my degree in linguistics, we rented them to a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim. I noticed that the girls spoke English like Americans but some of the boys had Yiddish accents. I noticed that the Yiddish of the parents wasn’t uniform, but the children all spoke Yiddish the same way. In 1967 I questioned every parent and child about how they said different words and wrote an article, “Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children,” which was later published in American Speech.
The following year, after discovering that Italian Jews had their own dialects of Italian, I went to
Most people don’t know about West Yiddish. We associate Yiddish with
But before there was East Yiddish, there was West Yiddish. The earliest text dates from 1272, but the language may be rather older. West Yiddish, like Judeo-Italian, was a language very close to its surrounding language but included words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin and was typically written in the Hebrew alphabet. After the Enlightenment, German Jews became increasingly assimilated, started speaking German, and generally lost their knowledge of Yiddish. The only people who continued to use Yiddish were cattle dealers, although they too spoke German most of the time. Many of them managed to get out of
I had read articles about West Yiddish, and I knew that it existed. Then one day, I heard a friend use a word or expressionI forget the detailsand I realized it was West Yiddish. I started asking him questions. I started asking whether there were other people in the area who knew the language. I was told there were three. I decided to interview them all. One died before I ever got to meet him. The other two provided me with a great deal of information.
I learned that three letters of the Hebrew alphabetdaled, yud, and lamedcould be pronounced dales, yus, and lames. I learned that numbers were sometimes expressed by the names of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, following the ancient tradition of writing numbers in the years before Arabic numbers became almost universal. I learned that there was a word for “cow” pronounced bore, from the Hebrew para, all different from East Yiddish, where either ku, ki, or beheyme is used. I learned that instead of the word sider for “prayerbook” (from Hebrew siddur), the word tfile or pfile, from Hebrew tefila (prayer) was used. The word tefilà is also found in Judeo-Italian.
I have heard people speak of the Law of Unexpected Consequences. When my parents bought our farm, they thought it might enable me to combine the professions of agriculture and engineering, or to have the opportunity to choose one of the two. Instead, they furthered my career as a linguist by putting me in touch with Lubavitcher Hasidim and letting me hear West Yiddish while it was still spoken.
This memoir appeared in And Then, Volume 15, 2010.