Friday, March 24, 2006

You Want I Should Grow A Beard?

One of my favorite Yiddishisms in English is the "I want you should" construction, a direct calque from Yiddish. I like it because it in part because it is so well-known, yet few know it's from Yiddish. My students always get a kick out of it (and yesterday they got a kick out of learning that "I don't have what to wear" is also a calque from Yiddish), and I get a kick out of hearing people use it, never suspecting it's a Yiddishism.

Through a roundabout series of events, I found myself reading the letter that inspired Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard -- you know the one, that an 11 year old girl (Grace Bedell from Westfield NY, not far from Erie PA) wrote -- and was struck by two things in the first two sentences:
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin's. I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much. (Italics mine)
What is going on here? Are these archaisms? Mistakes? Most of the ghits for "has just home" refer to this letter, which leads me to suspect she accidentally left out the word "come" or "returned." Oddly enough, though, this too could be explained as a calque from Yiddish, if it weren't an absurd possibility.

On the other hand...

Googling "I want you should" reveals that this construction existed in English long before contact with Yiddish. Weird, no? Still, though, I'm convinced its current widespread use is due to Yiddish.

6 comments:

V Smoothe said...

How widespread is its use? Is it localized? I've only ever heard "you want I should" in movies and TV shows.

Ben said...

Hmm, good question. I can't really say offhand; I guess I've heard it in two contexts: either by people from very Jewish backgrounds (i.e. from a mostly Jewish community, educated in Jewish day schools) or as what's called "marked speech."

the chocolate lady said...

I heard "I want you should" mostly in the context of jokes, but understood what it meant. My current undergrads report never having heard it at all.

Ben said...

My undergrads know it, but half of them claim their parents speak Yiddish - whether that's true or not I don't know.

Anschel said...

In New York it's fairly widespread. Just to point out though, I think the "should" thing is just rooted in proto-Germanic and has dropped out of English. Can someone tell me if German also has this?

Ben said...

The 'should' thing may be rooted in proto-Germanic, but if it is, it has dropped out of modern German as well -- in modern German you say something like "I want that you this do." My suspicion, actually, is that though the Yiddish verb zoln is etymologically Germanic, Yiddish uses it in a particularly Yiddish way as a sort of semi-subjunctive, since Yiddish has lost the subjunctive. A related subjunctive-like use of zoln in Yiddish is as a sort of jussive/hortatory imperative: zol zayn mit mazl, etc.