Some pointers on reading Yiddish texts

I thought it might be helpful to load up a few tips re reading Yiddish texts, based on some of the pitfalls I’ve noticed you falling foul of (to mix my metaphors :-))

One common problem relates to orthography: have a look again at lecture 5 from semester 2. This runs through the key orthographic issues. Also look at the chapter we talked about from:

Zucker, Sheva, Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture Volume 2 (The Workmen’s Circle/arbeter ring, 2002).

The key issues relating to orthography and other common errors are as follows:

  1. sometimes where, in YIVO orthography, you would always encounter a pasekh (אַ pasekh alef, ײַ pasekh tsvey yudn, for example) you may find the ‘bare’ letter in other orthographies: א or ײ
  2. in fact, it is not at all uncommon to encounter alef without its pasekh or komets: א instead of אַ or אָ. Try not to get thrown by this: just try thinking about which letter might actually be meant. Hence דאס clearly refers to דאָס, for example
  3. where you will always find a dagesh in YIVO orthography for kof (in loshn-koydesh words), you may not in other systems: כמעט instead of YIVO כּמעט, for example
  4. sometimes, in loshn-koydesh words not in the YIVO system, you may not see the line across the top of the veys: טוב instead of YIVO טובֿ, for example
  5. try not to confuse samkh and shlos-mem. They look very similar, especially in early hand-typed scripts, but a shlos-mem will usually have the very square bottom right corner: ם [shlos-mem] as opposed to ס [samekh] where the corner seems to have been ‘worn away’ or smothed over
  6. in hand-typed texts, sometimes a final langer tsadik ץ can look like two letters (yud, langer-nun, ין, for example). Make sure you have read it right and look up both possibilities
  7. in some texts, it’s easy to confuse nun and giml: נ and ג. In very clear fonts they are easy to distinguish, but in hand-tyoed texts, they can look very similar. Again, try different possibilities until you get something that makes sense
  8. proper names can be tricky, especially given names, which are almost always loshn-koydesh in their spelling, usually being traditional names from the Bible. Hence משה , רבֿקה  and other loshn-koydesh names re very common. If you’re stuck, just drop me a line and I’ll do my best to decipher them for you. It’s worth  noting that many surnames are spelt according to the phonetic system, hence for Emanuel Ringlblum, רינגלבלום is a phonetically spelt surname  whereas the given name עמנואל is spelt according to the traditional system. If you’re really interested, look at this presentation by Warren Blatt given at the 18th Seminar on Jewish Genealogy, Los Angeles, July 1998
  9. in many hand-typed texts, or texts produced on manual roll presses, a beys [ב] can look like a khof [כ] (and vice versa); make sure you have it the right way around
  10. many of you are struggling to recognise past tenses. Try to work out what the stem of the verb is by reverse engineering it: remember to check against the following files (also available on blackboard):

I’ll add other issues here as I come across them.


Filed under Yiddish materials 1: alphabet, Yiddish materials 2: language and grammar, Yiddish materials 4: primary sources

8 responses to “Some pointers on reading Yiddish texts

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