Saturday, April 29, 2006

Been A While

I know, I know. Was I too busy or too lazy? (Hint: both)

Meanwhile, I made a final exam for my students, changed my dissertation topic somewhat, and spent as much time as possible out in the spring weather. Also, there was a fire in my building yesterday, which was exciting, except for the people whose apartments were destroyed. Our apartment is fine; it just smells like smoke. I feel bad feeling grateful or lucky when other people weren't so lucky, but I can't help it.

In the interim -- hold that thought -- I just made up a new fake prescriptivist rule:

*It is wrong to say 'in the interim' since 'interim' means 'inside' in Latin [it doesn't]. It is redundant to say 'in the inside.'

Not bad, eh? It's based on a flawed etymology and bad logic, and it sounds plausibly intimidating. Even better, Shakespeare uses the forbidden phrase twice (Othello V, ii and Much Ado II, i). Man, if this rule finds itself in the wrong hands it might one day be used to make natuve English speakers feel like they don't really know their own language.

Where was I? Right - "in the interim."

In the interim I have thought about several topics, none of which seemed to merit a full post. So instead I will make this a kitchen sink post of sorts (what's a sink post?) with brief thoughts on each topic.

1. In a radio piece I heard about the recent death of the Satmarer Rebbe, an interviewee commented on what one of the speakers at the funeral was, as he put it, "giving over." This is a calque of the Yiddish verb ibergebn, 'to communicate'. I've heard this Jewish English verb a number of times, and I was delighted that it found its way onto NPR. The use of English is widespread among contemporary Yiddish-speaking communities (i.e. Hasidim), suggesting to some that English may come to replace Yiddish. This may prove to be true, but the English that replaces Yiddish will not be the English spoken by non-Hasidim. I think that there will be countless instances of calquing, especially of complemented verbs, since English and Yiddish complemented verbs are so deceptively similar. This will replicate the phenomenon by which Yiddish used Germanic verbs and adverbial prefixes to produce calques of Slavic prefixed verbs.

2. Amidst all the flap about Katie Holmes and Tome Cruise's new baby's name, Suri, there were various hints and allegations of a Yiddish connection, which in fact does exist, though it is coincidental. Languagehat basically gets it right, amplifying on Ben Zimmer's discussion of the name, saying
I can only add that Suri looks to me like a dialect variant of the name Sarah, which I believe is Sore in standard Yiddish.
But what dialect? There is an isogloss that runs roughly along the Ukraine/Belarus border, north of which the name is Sore and south of which it is Sure, but who says 'Suri'? The answer? Americans and Israelis, who have adopted the English and Israeli Hebrew custom of making diminutive forms of names ending in /i/. Among Hasidim, in fact (most of whom speak a southern dialect of Yiddish, this new diminutive ending has almost entirely replaced the older Yiddish diminutive suffix /-l/ with names. Thus Suri joins a large group of Suris in Brooklyn and Bnei Brak. I find this funny.

3. What I don't find funny is all the Scientology bashing that this birth has generated. I grew up hostile to religion, but, though I myself remain staunchly irreligious, I have grown hostile to hostility towards religion. Why? Well, for one, certain religions, chiefly Scientology and Mormonism, are often condemned for being secretive and eerily ritualistic, and there are intimations of conspiracy fueled by lists of the prominent individuals and companies associated with these religions. These are the same charges that, when leveled at Judaism, are rightly considered offensive. So why should Mormonism and Scientology, and Catholicism for that matter, be any different? I'm just sayin'.


Anonymous said...

Scientology gets a bad rap not so much for being ritualistic and secretive, but more for being a deceptive, dangerous power structure that was explicitly set up to generate as much income as possible for its leaders. The main problem with scientology is that it seriously hurts the 'rank-and-file', and actively makes their lives worse. Scientology, like many religions, does not permit its members to associate with the outside world beyond a certain extent (that is, the kids all go to Scientology 'schools', etc). The dangerous part is what children are taught, and not taught, in these schools, and how they function in society afterwards. Further, scientology has a policy of threatening people who try to quit, blackmailing those it doesn't like, and launching smear campaigns against people the leaders perceive as 'foes'. Basically, the main argument against scientology can be phrased as follows: a religion does not become a 'cult' by virtue of having a weird ideology. It becomes a cult by sharing certain chracteristics with other cults, most of them having to do with behaviours that exert strongly negative and dangerous effects upon its members' psychology and physical well-being. A cursory web search will show you some heavily documented evidence of these behaviours on the part of Scientology's organization and leaders, a far cry from the rants you will find against Mormons. So there.

Ben said...

Good points, and I'm sure there is much truth to them. Consider, though, the following very valid complaints you make:

1. Hidden deceptive power structure
2. Limited contact with outside world
3. Educational system that leaves children unprepared
4. Hostility towards those who leave

Aren't all of these things antisemites say about Judaism, the last three not without some justification? I agree that there is some point beyond which worldview-based organizations cease being religions and become cults (the Manson family and the Jonesians come to mind), but I think that line is very hard to draw. Scientology may in fact cross this line (part of me certainly strongly suspects this), but I think that the charge of being a cult is so damning that it should be reserved for only the most extreme examples. You do make a persuasive case, though, that is in no way rant-like.

AJD said...

Regarding Yiddish names ending in /i/: I think it's not just generalization of the diminutive /i/ suffix from English and/or Hebrew. The Yiddish loanwords that are used in my family's English have /i/ pretty regularly for standard Yiddish final schwa. For instance, my default pronunciations in English of challah, shmatte, and bubbe and zeyde all end in /i/. For at least the first two, there's no rationale for a diminutive there.

(Word verification: sxtopime. A feast day on the ancient Faliscan calendar.)

Ben said...

There's definitely something interesting going on here, stemming from the fact that the Yiddish words end in an unstressed /e/, which is, of course, impossible in English. Most people therefore approximate the vowel with some sort of schwa thing, but others opt for an /i/. I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that your family is from Chicago, because this feature is considered typical among Chicagoans. As a Chicagoan myself I can certainly attest to hearing "matsy" and "chally" plenty. I never heard "shmatty," but it seams plausible. Seams, get it?

Anonymous said...

Re: scientology. You caught me out on the rant :) It's probably better to make fewer points with a bit of clarity instead. Regardless, I know that there are some sects of Judaism that do draw quite close to the 'cult' line. If I learned that there was one that spent most of its resources on seeking out new converts and paying for luxuries for its leaders, while taking more than 50% of their members' earnings in order to do so, I would think general opinion would have a right to condemn them almost as much as it does Scientology. That Jewish sect would have to resort to some serious blackmail and threats of its enemies to earn as much ire as Scientology has, however.

Of course, many people follow the easiest route, which is to just condemn everyone who is different from themselves without seeking to understand them. However, it's also pretty easy to try to understand and justify the behaviour of almost everybody while calling a few of the outliers madmen. In reality, there are some pretty bad people out there doing very bad things. Shouldn't we grab a firm hold of our values, learn about those people, do our best to understand them, and still condemn and even try to stop them?

the chocolate lady said...

In Yiddish we also say "in droysn" (In the outside) to mean outside.

Gheuf said...

In my family we say /tʃɑtʃki/ for tshatshke (trinket), and I once heard my grandfather say /pɪʃki/for pushke. This might be a question of accent, and not a suffix. Also, my grandfather once told me that when his father was praying in Hebrew he would pronounce "einu" as /eɪni/. Perhaps this is another specific case of the same general phenomenon.

the chocolate lady said...

(Hebrew/Standard Yiddish)eynu->ayni noticed by gheuf is part of a different phenomenon. All central Yiddish speakers use this pronunciation.

Ben said...

Anonymous -

More good points, and for the record in my last comment to you I was trying to point out that it was clear you weren't ranting. Anyways, I think what you're talking about is the right of individuals in an age of pluralism and relativism to hold and articulate their own moral viewpoints. And I guess, ultimately, that I support this, so we're on the same page. I guess my beef isn't so much against criticizing Scientology itself, but rather the way people have been taking cheap shots at it lately, especially for its odd beliefs and practices. I think all religions are perfectly entitled to weird beliefs and practices (isn't that what they're all about, really?)

Chocolate Lady -

Yep, "in droysn" is pretty cute. And unlike "in the interim" it actually is slightly illogical, not that I would ever expect language to be logical.

Gheuf -

I think the /i/ ending on 'tshatshke' is part of the phenomenon I'm talking about, but Chocolate Lady is right /i/ for /u/ is, like /u/ for /o/, a feature of southern dialects of Yiddish, and it applies not just to the pronunciation of Ashkenazic Hebrew, but Yiddish as well (i.e. pishke for pushke). Much depends on the pronunciation of the /ei/ part of /eini/ though. If it's /aj/ then it is indeed "Central Yiddish" (roughly, Poland and parts of NW Romania and Eastern Hungary, plus the western edge of the Ukraine), but if it's /ej/, which judging from your transcription it is, then it's "Southeastern Yiddish, that is, roughly, Ukrainian or Eastern Romanian/Moldovan.

AJD said...

Not from Chicago—my entire family's from northeastern Massachusetts.

For what it's worth, my grandmother's family is Litvak (which is presumably why I have [ɔ] in bubbe, not [ʊ]), but I don't know about the regional background of the rest of my ancestors.

Tchatchke and pushke are also good examples; I definitely say both of those with /i/.

Word verification: tgsyy, which is probably another example of what we're talking about.

Ben said...

Northeastern Massachusetts, eh? Oh well, worth a shot. Could be the Litvak thing, though - Chicago's Jewish community is overwhelmingly Litvaks. I'm not sure how this would explain it, though, since Litvish Yiddish doesn't handle final /e/ and differently than other dialects, at least in my experience, and I've heard a fair amount of it.

Why do you get all the good word verification words? Mine is 'yqrybp," which leaves me totally uninspired. The Faliscan month "Sxtopime", though, is a town either in Malta or the Basque part of Spain.