So we’ve all been watching “Unorthodox.” Whatever you might think about the show, it has brought a lot of attention to the cultural details of one branch of the Jewish experience. The one constant in all the critical commentary is a near universal praise and appreciation for the show’s use of Yiddish. So I thought it might be interesting to take a brief look at some of the features of that Yiddish.
The first thing to be aware of is the fact that Yiddish, like any language, has several dialects. Setting aside the West Yiddish dialects, the three major dialect groups of East Yiddish are: (1) Northeast or “Lithuanian” (“Litvish”) Yiddish, which stretches from the Baltic states through Belarus and eastern Ukraine; (2) Central or “Polish” (“Galitsyaner”) Yiddish, which encompasses much of Congress Poland, Galicia, and Hungary; and (3) Southeast or “Ukrainian” Yiddish, which includes western Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Romania.
One of the most pronounced differences between the dialects has to do with the stressed vowels, most distinctively between the Northeast and the other two dialects. Because the Yiddish of the Satmar Hasidim in “Unorthodox” is closer to the “Polish” dialects, for the present purpose I will compare those with the “Lithuanian” dialects. Here are some examples of the salient differences (where /oy/ sounds like the diphthong in “boy”; /ey/ like “day”; and /ay/ like “pie”): “red” is Lithuanian “reyt” and Polish “royt”; “kugel” is Lithuanian “kugl” and Polish “kigl”; “to say” is Lithuanian “zogn” and Polish “zugn”; “two” is Lithuanian “tsvey” and Polish “tsvay”; “wife” is Lithuanian “vayb” and Polish “vāb”; “house” is Lithuanian “hoyz” and Polish “hōz.” (Unlike Lithuanian Yiddish, Polish Yiddish has differences in vowel length, like the long “ā” and long “ō” of the preceding two examples.) So, for example, the sentence “My wife cooked two
kugels” would therefore be “Mayn vayb hot gekókht tsvey kúglen” in Lithuania but “Mān vāb hut gekúkht tsvay kíglen” in Poland. Another distinctive feature you will notice has to do with where you pronounce the “r”: in Lithuanian Yiddish it’s rolled in the back of the throat, more like German, while in Polish Yiddish it’s trilled in the front, more like Spanish.
So what about the Yiddish of “Unorthodox”? This Yiddish is meant to resemble the Yiddish spoken by the Satmar Hasidim in New York, one of the most populous Hasidic groups, noted for its insularity and its emphasis on Yiddish. This form of Yiddish is closest to the Central Yiddish dialects, with the characteristics mentioned above, though it has developed its own features. One of the most noticeable is the use of a single form of the definite article regardless of gender, number, and case. So while the rest of the Yiddish dialects have “der,” “di,” and “dos” in the singular and “di” in the plural, Satmar Yiddish has the single form “de” (where the vowel is pronounced as a schwa.)
Taking the sentence “I eat the kugel,” for example, where standard Yiddish would have “Ikh es dem kugl” in this form of Yiddish it would become “Ikh es de kigl.”
The language of any self-identified group will develop its own vocabulary, and this form of Yiddish is not different. First, you will notice quite a lot of English, not only through code switching, but also actually fused into the language. Language serves as proof of the hybridity of culture, no matter how open or insular its community of speakers. You will also notice some vocabulary that might be familiar from other contexts. For instance, you may be aware of “yasher-koakh” (or “yasher-koyekh”) as an expression of congratulations after someone has read from the Torah in synagogue (or, if you prefer, “shul” or “shil”). “Unorthodox” very often uses this term, in its compressed form “shkóekh,” for more mundane expressions of simple gratitude—a polite “thank you”—in situations where other Yiddish speakers would say “a dank.” But perhaps the show’s most surprising feature for American Jews of Yiddish descent is the pronunciation of the word for “grandmother.” Where Lithuanian Yiddish will have “bóbe” Polish Yiddish, the dialect of the majority of Ashkenazi immigrants to
America, will have “búbe,” whence we get the familiar Americanized “bubbie.” But in “Unorthodox” we encounter “bābi,” pronounced something like the name Bobby. Given the demographic strength of the Satmars, this dialectal variant has achieved a newfound prominence, one which has engendered a particular intimacy and affection. Who cannot feel the deep emotional tug as the protagonist, Esty, sobs “bābi!” into the telephone?
Ultimately, each of these features in its own small way reminds us to keep aware of the dynamism, and humanity, of living languages in living communities. And as always, “léyent gezínterhéyt”—read it in good health!
Dr. Finkin, the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, writes a monthly column for The American Israelite, on Yiddish, the area of his academic expertise. Please address questions for Dr. Finkin to email@example.com.