Friday, August 26, 2011

Bukhori Echad Mi Yodea

I thought it was cool to find a video in Bukhori (Judeo-Tajik) with Bukhori subtitles using the Hebrew alphabet:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

yeshivish orthography

Despite the lack of seriousness with which it is treated, it seems to me that the Yeshivish sociolect of English bears great similarity to other Jewish languages in their formative states. It is interesting to speculate how it would be written if the Hebrew alphabet were adapted to it, as happened to many other Jewish languages. Although I doubt this will ever happen given the contemporary sociolinguistic situation, here is an experimental proposal (which probably requires some tweaking):

1) Hebrew and Yiddish loanwords are written in their original orthography. Thus nezek = נזק, Yiddish = אידיש, etc.

2) English words which contain sounds that also exist in Yiddish are written phonetically according to Yiddish conventions:
soon = סון
eat = איט
table = טייבל

This allows acceptable variation where Yiddish orthography would also vary:
do = דו or דוא
nod = נאַד or נאד

Silent consonants may be included if desired:
debt = דעט or דעבט

3) The English consonants /θ ð ŋ w/ (written ) have the following representations:

/θ/ : ת
thimble = תימבל
(other options: ת', תה)

/ð/ : ד
this = דיס
(other options: ד', ת, תה, דה)

/ŋ/ : נג
thing = תינג

/w/ : ו; if needed to distinguish from vocalic ו or consonantal וו, use וא;
week = ואיק
well = ועל
womb = ואומב

4) Each word below shows how its first vowel is written. Note the influence of Daytshmerish-style doubled consonants on vowel quality:

cat = קאַטט
cot = קאַט
caught = קאָט
about = עבאַוט
[spott]ed = ספ?טעד
sit = סיטט
seat = סיט
date = דייט
bed = בעד
bird = בערד
bared = ביירד
but = באָט
put = פוטט
you = יו
my = מײַ
boy = בוי
no = נאָו
now = נאַו

Note that there is some ambiguity (the quality of אָ), but this is probably an acceptable amount. Also, the Daytshmerish doubling is optional and lengthening ה's may be used instead or in addition, e.g. סיהט = seat.

Now to illustrate this orthography, here is an excerpt from the Yeshivish Gettysburg address:
בערך א יובל אַנד א האַלף עגאָו, דע מייסדים שטעלד אַוועק אָן דיס מקום א נײַע מלכות ואית דע כוונה דאטט נאָואָן שולד האוו בעלות אָואווער דייר חבר, אנד אָן דיס יסוד דאטט עווריואָן האזז דע זעלבע זכותים.
Be'erech a yoivel and a half ago, the meyasdim shtelled avek on this makom a naiya malchus with the kavana that no one should have bailus over their chaver, and on this yesoid that everyone has the zelba zchusim.

Monday, July 18, 2011

doof duif

I've been doing some reading lately on my heritage language, Litvish Yiddish. The "Standard Yiddish" variety which is found in literature and academia is pretty close to Litvish, but I found to my frustration that Litvish forms aren't totally derivable from Standard. The main difference is that Standard has /oi/ in many words where Litvish has /ei/, e.g. Standard oivn, Litvish eivn 'oven'. The catch is that sometimes both have /oi/, e.g. Standard=Litvish hoiz 'house'. The question for me was: how can I learn Litvish from a book that teaches Standard?

Now, it turns out that Litvish /oi/ is the reflex of one particular vowel (something like */uw/) in Proto-Yiddish, denoted by the number 45 in Yiddish linguistics. Cognate words in Middle High German (MHG) have /u:/, and in Modern German /au/, e.g. German haus 'house'. Unfortunately Modern German /au/ also results from MHG /ou/, cognate to Litvish /ei/ e.g. MHG ouge, Modern German Auge, Litvish eig (Standard oig). This does, at least, mean that if a word doesn't have /au/ in Modern German, it won't have /oi/ in Litvish, so for example Modern German Brot 'bread' is breit in Litvish (cf. Standard broit).

Eventually I discovered that that the key lies with Dutch. Dutch also originally had */u:/ at an early stage in words with Yiddish 45, which eventually developed into /œy/, spelled ui. This is the only source of the vowel ui in Dutch. Thus to determine the form of a Standard word in Litvish, replace any "oi" with "ei" unless its Dutch cognate has ui. For example, Standard toib may mean either 'deaf' or 'dove'. Its cognates in Dutch are doof 'deaf' and duif 'dove'. Thus in Litvish, the words are teib 'deaf' and toib 'dove'.

Incidentally, some Litvish Yiddish varieties have /eu/ in words where the Standard has oi and (conventional) Litvish has ei, for instance having breut for broit/breit 'bread'.

Here is a nice map of the distribution of the Yiddish words for 'deaf' and 'dove' in Litvish Yiddish.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lateral stability

The letter 'sin' שֹ is known to have originally been pronounced distinctly from both 'shin' שׁ and 'samekh' ס. The letter 'sin' occurs precisely in words where Arabic has a /ʃ/ sound (like in ship), e.g. עשרה = Ar. /ʕaʃra/, showing that the common ancestor of Hebrew and Arabic had a distinct sound wherever this letter occurs. In fact, some obscure Semitic languages (the Modern South Arabian languages) have preserved this sound.

It's thought that sin was originally pronounced as a voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/, like Welsh llwyd 'gray'. This sound is pronounced similarly to /l/ (as in land), but without vibration of the vocal cords, as if whispering, and often with a 'hushing' articulation. It's also often found in disordered speech. (I personally know someone who pronounces /ʃ/ as [ɬ] in English.) Some English loanwords show that sin had an l-like sound, like Balsam for Hebrew בשם and Chaldean for כשדי.

/ɬ/ (sin) and /s/ (samekh) must have begun merging quite early, since samekh is often used for sin in later books of the Tanakh. However Samaritans pronounce sin as /ʃ/, merging it with shin rather than samekh.

Why did the letter ש serve to indicate two consonants? The Hebrew alphabet was borrowed from the Phoenicians, for whom the sound /ɬ/ had already been lost, so the letter ש was adopted for this purpose. Actually other letters in the Hebrew alphabet also indicated multiple sounds, but that can wait for a different post...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"ruach ra'ah" = "malaria"

According to DovBear, the familiar רוח רעה ruach ra'ah, literally 'bad air', is identified with miasma, a fictitious substance which was believed up to the 19th century to spread disease. It's interesting to note that the English word 'malaria' is derived from Italian mala aria, also literally 'bad air' (source).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


As a guilty user of the Israeli mivta, I naturally am not naturally disposed to know the correct way to niqqudize any particular word in Hebrew. I've found that historical Hebrew phonology has been very useful to understanding how the whole system works. Anyway, I felt like it might be interesting to talk about a particular aspect of niqqud that I've recently been thinking about. If this is boring, I apologize.

To simplify a complicated discussion, Hebrew went through a phase where vowels could be short or long*. At some point this length was lost, but by then long /a:/ was pronounced further back, as the vowel /ɔ/**. The Masoretes wrote /a/ with patah (אַ) and /ɔ/, reflecting older long /a:/, with qamatz (אָ).

A general rule in older Hebrew was that in open syllables*** /a:/ replaced /a/. Thus in open syllables patah is rarely found. However there are some interesting exceptions:

1) Words with hataf vowels, e.g. רַחֲמִים = ra-ha-mim, where the first syllable ra has a patah. It's thought that the hataf patah added in forms like this was a late addition: at a late stage shva nah under gutturals (like ה ע ח א) became a hataf vowel. This is also found in words with other vowels like צהֳרים, צהֳלה, יחֱרד

2) Segolates like נער, בעל, נחל (= na-hal where the first vowel is patah). The dating on these is, I believe, tricky. However it's known that originally segolates only had one vowel, e.g. *malk > melekh מלך, or similarly *nahl > nahal. Thus the first vowel was originally in a closed syllable, so this makes some sense.

3) Words like ירַחֵם = ye-ra-hem where the second vowel is a patah. In cases like this the guttural was originally doubled (ye-rah-hem), but gutturals lost gemination (= doubling) at a late stage. Thus we see in other piel verbs like ידבּר there is a dagesh in the second root letter because it was geminate (ye-dab-ber)

Are there any other cases that I have missed? Please let me know if you're aware of any. Also, I apologize for the ad-hoc transcription; I figure that it does not distract from my point, but if it's distracting I can use something more precise.

* This is roughly comparable to the difference between the vowel in British lot versus start, where the second is more drawn-out.
**This is the vowel in the word caught, for speakers who pronounce it differently than the word cot.
***An open syllable ends in a consonant, while a closed syllable ends in a vowel. Thus הברה Ha-va-ra has three open syllables while יד yad has one closed syllable.

Main source: Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew by Joshua Blau (2010)