Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The four great vowel systems of Yiddish

    Readers who have encountered other treatments of the Yiddish vowels and their historical pattern of spatial variation will notice some unusual features in this essay. In particular, i have chosen a rather unconventional way of referring to the Yiddish vowels. The more familiar approaches to this are based on the observation that there are regular correspondences between Yiddish vowels and German vowels and also between Yiddish vowels in different dialects. The correspondences, in question, hold between vowels that occur in the stressed syllables of words. These make it possible, in many cases to predict, from what vowel is found in a German word, the vowel that will be found in a Yiddish word or to predict from the vowel in a word in a particular Yiddish dialect what vowel the same word would have in another dialect. Thus the from the fact that the German word 'Nadel' has a long a as its stressed vowel is possible to predict that the vowel in Standard Yiddish would be o as in 'nodl' or from the fact the vowel in the northeastern dialect of Yiddish pronunciation of 'gut' is an u that the same vowel will be i as in 'git' in the Polish and Galician dialect.

    The first scholars to note these regular correspondences thought they could be explained by assuming that vowels whose pronunciation varied regularly shared a common ancestor from which they diverged. The earlier scholars were especially struck by the regular correspondences between German, especially Middle High German, vowels and Yiddish vowels. They regarded the Middle High German vowels as ancestral to the Yiddish vowels so they used the values of vowels in Middle High German to designate their, supposed, descendants. Thus the vowel in 'nodel' was thought of as a descendant of Middle High German long a.

    A later set of scholars, most notably, Max Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum were more struck by the regular correspondences among the vowels of the Yiddish dialects. They also assumed that such a correspondence was the result of a descent from a common vowel but they identified this set of ancestral vowels not with the vowels of Middle High German but with later set of vowels that emerged from a mixture of medieval German dialects at a time in history when Yiddish had already branched off from German but before Yiddish had diverged into different dialects.

    This difference can be illustrated by way the earlier and later scholars would have treated the vowel in Yiddish 'gut'. The first group would have assumed that Yiddish 'gut' was descended from Middle High German 'gut'. Since Middle High German 'gut' had a long u: the vowel in Yiddish 'gut' would be classed with descendants of Middle High German u:. The later scholar would observe that based on the variations of the vowel 'gut' in various Yiddish dialects it was possible to trace it back to a particular vowel in early Yiddish. This vowel most like had an u quality but unlike the Middle High German vowel it most likely was not long since no modern Yiddish dialect has a long vowel in this word. To designate these ancestral vowels Max Weinreich invented a numbered system of proto-vowels. Within it the vowel of 'gut' would be designated 51 with the 5 indicating that the vowel originally had an u quality and the 1 indicating that it was originally short.

    I have broken with this approach because my observations of vowel variation in the data of the Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry and other sources has led me to have a different idea about the mechanism by which the variation among vowels in the Yiddish dialects and, ultimately, the variation between Yidddish and German vowels emerged. The two groups of  scholars mentioned above started from the idea that a set of vowels that are in regular correspondence diverged from a common ancestral vowel. The mechanism by which this occurred was believed to be a gradual process of change in pronunciation called 'sound shift'.

    But sound shift is not the only way that vowels can change. Sometimes they change by a process called sound substitution where one sound in a word is replaced by another. People typically do this when they wish to communicate with speakers of another language or dialect which is historically related to their own and whose sounds, while they may differ from the sounds in their own language, tend to differ in predictable ways. Thus Swedish and Danish are historically related; an ei sound in Swedish tends to correspond to an ai sound in Danish. A Swede who wished to communicate with a Dane but who has not really mastered Danish will approximate Danish by substituting ai for ei in Swedish words.

    Sets of closely related languages or dialects with regular sound correspondences in which people communicate to speakers of other languages or dialects in the set by sound substitution are called diasystems. Uriel Weinreich observed that the Yiddish dialects constitute a diasystem. Speakers of one Yiddish dialect can be observed trying to communicate with speakers of another dialect by substituting sounds from the other dialect in words of their own dialect. This is particularly noticeable in cases where the sound correspondances between two dialects are not perfectly regular and the sound substitutions result in mistakes. For example, a speaker of the dialect of Yiddish spoken historically in Poland  will observe tha when he says 'git' a speaker of the northeastern dialect says 'gut'. This and many other examples may cause our speaker to generalize that any time his own dialect has i sound the northeastern dialect will have an u sound. But this generalization will occassionally break down. For example, our speaker from Poland speaker  the word 'litvak' for a speaker of the northeastern dialect. In trying to speak the northeastern dialect he may substitute an u yielding 'lutvak'. But, in fact, the form used by the northeastern dialect is actually 'litvak'. The use of the incorrect form shows that the speaker from Poland is practicing sound subsitution.

    I think that at an early stage in the history of Yiddish, sound substitution played a role in the formation of the Yiddish dialects. This process began at a time when Yiddish had a sound system that was based on a Germanic language which was NOT German. The language, call it X, from which Yiddish derived its sound system was, however, closely related to German and it was possible for speakers with the X sound system to communicate with German speakers by sound substitution. In other words, German and languages with the X souind system formed a diasystem.

    At this stage Yiddish speakers normally used the X sound system when communicating among themselves while using substitute sounds when communicating with German speakers. There were actually several, perhaps three or four different systems of substitution that were used by speakers with the X system to approximate German pronunciations. Each of these sound substitution systems was popular in a different area of Yiddish-speaking territory.

    At a later time, the language X ceased to be spoken. At the same time, interactions between Yiddish and German speakers were quite important. Yiddsh speakers stopped using the original sounds of the X system and began using the substitued sounds all the time. Because different areas had different substitution sytems, the speakers in these areas ended up with different pronunciation systems of Yiddish which evolved into the modern Yiddish dialects.

    If it is assumed, as it is here, that all Yiddish dialects are descended from a common ancestor, it would be expected that the similarities and differences between the dialects looked at in conjunction with the relative positions of the dialects in space should provide evidence as to how the dialects developed and came to occupy their geographical territories. The best way to do this is to look at the maps of the Language and culture atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry which represent the pattern of spatial variation in Yiddish as it was in 1939.

    Of particular interest are the set of maps presented in Volume I of the Atlas which show variation in the Yiddish sound system. The Yiddish dialects show roughly four vowel systems. These systems are called within the Atlas project Alsatian, West Transcarpathian, Central and Southern and Northeastern. The names are not alwats descriptive and can in fact be somewhat misleading. Alternatives will be suggested below.

    Geographically the vowel systems can be characterized as ranging from the southwest to the northeast of 1939 Yiddish-speaking territory. The most southwestern dialect is that spoken by informants from Alsace-Lorraine. Based on historical data it is typical of the Yiddish once spoken also in southern Germany west of the Elbe and as far north as Hesse as well as in adjacent corner of Switzerland. Since it is spoken near the Rhine we will call it Raynish. 

    To the northeast of this Alsatian dialect is one spoken in western Slovakia, western Hungary and Burgenland. Within the Atlas it is characterized as West Trancarpathian. The traditional Yiddish term for this territory is the Oyberland and we will call this vowel system Oyberlandish.

    Further to the northeast are two variants of Yiddish , one spoken in most of Poland as well as in Galicia and the other in adjacent parts of the weatern Ukraine. The former dialect is called Central Yiddish within the Atlas and the latter Southeastern Yiddish. Popularly, speakers of both dialects are called Galitsyaners and we will group these two similar dialects and speak of  the Galitsyanish system.

    Still further to the northeast is the dialect spoken in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarussia as well as adjacent sections of Poland and Ukraine. The speakers are popularly called Litvakes and the system can be called Litvish.

    These systems are distinguished by different patterns of splits and mergers among their stressed vowels. Many other features; lexical, morphological, grammatical and cultural are distributed in patterns that closely match the distribution of the vowel systems.

    It is interesting to review some of the features of each of these four vowel system. For Raynish, data can be found in Richard Zuckerman's article "Alsace: an outpost of Western Yiddish" printed in The field of Yiddish III edited by Marvin I. Herzog, Wita Ravid and Uriel Weinreich (Mouton, the Hague, 1969). The most striking features of this system have to do with classes of words that have a stressed vowel which is spelled with a kamets alef in Standard Yiddish and with an o the YIVO transcription system.

    One such class of words includes words such as 'grobn', 'gor', 'tog', etc. In Raynish, these words have a long vowel a:. This results in a merger with two other classes of words that also have a:. These are a class of the words spelled with tsvey-yudn in Standard Yiddish and 'ey' in YIVO transcription including 'zeyf', 'heym' and 'veykh'. as well as a class of the words spelled with vov-yud and transcribed as 'oy' including 'roykh', 'oyg' and 'loyfn'.
    Another class of words spelled with kamets alef in Standard Yiddish and 'o' in YIVO transcription includes 'nodl', 'shlofn', 'blozn', etc. These words have ou in the Raynish system, As result they are merged with another class of words written with vov-yud and transcribed as 'oy' including 'voynen', 'groys', 'royt', etc

    Moving northeastward, Oyberlandish is like Raynish in that the vowels in the class of words spelled with tsvey-yudn in Standard Yiddish and with ey in YIVO transcription exemplified by 'zeyf', 'heym', and 'veykh' have a: as does the class words that includes 'roykh', 'oyg' and 'loyfn.'

    Oyberlandish, however, differs in that the class that includes 'grobn', 'gor' and 'tog' has the vowel o: as do many of the vowels in the class that includes 'nodl', 'shlofn' and 'blozn'. Further to the northeast we will find this pattern of merger strengthened with virtually all of the words in both classes having the same vowel.
     Moving still further east we find Galitsyanish which merges the stressed vowel in the class of words that include 'roykh', 'oyg' and 'loyfn' with the vowel in the class of words including 'voynen', 'groys' and 'royt'. In Galitsyanish all these words have oi. Another merger brings the vowel in the class of words that includes 'zeyf', 'heym', and 'veykh' with a class of words that are also spelled with pasekh tsvey yudn and with ey; 'shney', 'tseyn', 'breyt', etc. In the variant of Galitsyanish spoken in Poland and Galicia all these words have ai. In the Ukrainian variant they all have ei.

    Galitsyanish also has a important pair of mergers affecting the vowels spelled with vov and yud in Standard Yiddish and 'u' and 'i' respectively in YIVO transcription. The vov vowels can actually be divided into two classes which are pronounced differently in the dialects spoken southwest of Galitsyanish. One class includes words like 'un', 'nus' and 'zumer' while the other has words like 'du', 'shul' and 'shtub'. The vowels in words of the first class are short and  those in the second class are long in Raynish and Oyberlandish. The yud words are also divided into two classes: 'ikh, iz, kind' etc. with a short vowel in Raynish and Oyberlandish and 'dinen', 'brider', 'tif', etc. with a long vowel. In Galitsyanish the short classes of the yud and vov vowels are merged into one vowel and the long classes into another. The nature of the difference between these vowels differs in the two divisions of Galitsyanish. In Poland and Galicia, the long vowels merged into a long i; while the short vowels merged into a short version of the same vowel. In Ukraine the long vowels merge in an i of indeterminate length while the short one merge into a more central vowel I.

    In addition to processes that affect the whole Galitsyanish territory there are two features that characterize subparts of the Ukrainian sector. One process, in southern Ukraine, effects the vowels spelled with pasakh alef in Standard Yiddish and 'a' in the YIVO transcription: 'mame', 'hant'. 'zalts',etc. and a class of the vowels spelled with kamets alef in Standard Yiddish and 'o' in YIVO transcription: 'ofn', 'lokh', 'tokhter', etc. These merge in an o vowel. The other, in northeastern Ukraine, effects a class of the words spelled with 'ayin' in Standard Yiddish and 'e' in YIVO transcription: 'mel', 'lebn', 'shver', etc these merge with the  class of short vowels spelled with yud (see above) and are pronounced with the centralized I vowel.
    In one way, the Polish and Galician variant of Galitsyanish groups with Raynish and Oyberlandish. All these dialects group vowels into long and short classes. The Ukrainian variant does not have this distinction.

    Furthest to the northeast is the Litvish system which is very distinct. It merges all three classes of vowels spelled with kamets alef in one mid-tense O vowel, both classes of  vowels spelled with ayin in one mid-tense e vowel, both classes vowels spelled with yud in one mid-tense i vowel and both classes of vowels spelled with a mid-tense u vowel.

    Litvish shares with Galitsyanish the merger of the two class of words spelled with tsvey-yudn as well as the merger of two classes of the words with vov-yud: the class that includes 'voynen', 'groys', 'royt', etc. and the one that includes 'roykh', 'oyg' and 'loyfn'. In addition, the vowel in the two latter classes is realized as ei. This results in a merger of all four classes. The merger is not found in the northwestern corner of Litvish territory where the vowel in the latter two classes is a front rounded diphthong umlaut-o umlaut-u.

    A striking series of mergers in Litvish effects all vowels that are distinguished by length in Raynish, Oyberlandish and western Galitsyanish. All the word classes with vowels spelled with kamets alef and transcribed as 'o' are merged together. Similar mergers affect all the word classes  with ayin, transcribed as 'e'. all those with yud, transcribed as 'i' and all those with vov, transcribed a 'u;.

    Higher level groupings are often used. Galitsyanish and Litvish are commonly grouped as East Yiddish. Raynish and Oyberlandish are traditionally grouped as West Yiddish but this grouping has been justifiably challenged because in comparison to Raynish, which is very distinct, all three of the other systems can be grouped together. (see the essay on Manastar-Ramer).

1 comment:

Greg S said...


I was wondering if you could explain the invisible divide line that Jewishgen.org has established for separating Poylisher-Galician Yiddish and Ukrainisher Yiddish in East Galicia: "In West Ukraine, the portion of today's Ukraine that was in East Galicia may be defined approximately by a "trapezoid" which extends from the West Ukraine border to an eastern line running from Brody (25 20 E, 50 10 N) in the north, to Darabani (26 40 E, 48 20 N) in the south. This trapezoid is divided by a vertical line running from Brody in the north, to Borsa (24 50 E, 47 50 N) in the south. The "triangle" east of this vertical line was in the Ukraine Yiddish dialect area and Galician searches in this region should also be made in the Ukraine GNDB. West of this vertical line (in the Polish/Galician Yiddish dialect area), searches should be made using the Galicia GNDB"

Basicly if you drew a straight line from Brody to Darabani, that would serve as a boundry between the two dialects. But such a boundry had not served as a political border between Austria-Hungary and Russia, and consecutively between the USSR and Poland. My ancestors came from a village near Borschev, on the so-called boundary between the two dialects. While this area was also considered part of Western Podolia, they would often frequent Czortkov and Lashkevitz, just a couple of miles west, and according to Jewishgen.org, those Jews spoke a different dialect of Yiddish than from my ancestors. Is this correct? Can you explain? Thanks and keep up the good work(all of which is very interesting), Greg S.