Gene Bluestein (1998), Anglish/Yiddish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Second paperback edition 1998. 204 pages.
Received May 2010, published August 2010 (HSL/SHL 10)
Gene Bluestein’s Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature was first published in 1989. The second edition (1998) has been updated and expanded. As the title suggests, the aim of the book is to investigate the influence of Yiddish on (American) English. The results of this investigation are presented in the form of a lexicon, where entries are arranged alphabetically. The ‘Anglish/Yinglish Dictionary’ comprises the main part of the book (pp. 1-127). By Anglish, Bluestein means “Anglicized Yiddish”, the result of a process which turns Yiddish words into colloquial English and often adapts them to English grammar in the procees (as in shmo and shmoozing), while Yinglish is “Yiddishized English”, in which an English word is integrated into Yiddish usage (as in allrightnik, or the expression a Heifitz he isn’t). Both terms are explained in the ‘Preface’ (1998:x).1 Besides the ‘Preface’ (1998:ix-x) and the ‘Anglish/Yinglish Dictionary’, the book contains ‘A Note on Pronunciation’ (1998:xiii-xv), an ‘Introduction’ (1998:xvii-xxxii), as well as three appendices. The book concludes with a (rather brief) ‘Bibliography and Discography’ (1998:161-164).
The book is written for the general public (with limited knowledge of the subject), namely, for all those interested in American Jewish culture (or, more specifically, in the influence of Yiddish on English). For such readers, the book will be their window onto a new and exciting world. The author presents a vast subject in an interesting and clear style. Specialists with sufficient background in Yiddish, however, will possibly not find much new information in Anglish/Yinglish. Still, for them as well, the book can be a valuable acquisition, since its introduction neatly summarizes previous studies, and its main part, the dictionary, is rife with examples.
2. Summary and evaluation
‘A Note on Pronunciation’
One of the major drawbacks of the book is the author’s rather confusing system of transliteration. On page x, Bluestein states that there is no standard transliteration system for Yiddish. One might wonder why the author did not consider the YIVO transliteration rules as a standard.2 It is quite surprising that the YIVO institute is not mentioned in the book, since its role in preserving and promoting the Yiddish language is immense.
To illustrate how the transliteration systems (the one chosen by the author and the one developed by YIVO) differ, let us consider an example. The word that appears as חוצפה in Yiddish, is transliterated as khutspe according to the YIVO standard, and as KHOOTSpe3 by Bluestein. This word also often appears as chutzpah in English sources.4 The differences are quite remarkable and pertain to both vowels and consonants, but are most visible in the spelling of the vowels and diphthongs. These spelling differences might in fact reflect pronunciation (dialect) differences, since the YIVO standard is based on Northeastern Yiddish (Litvish), while Bluestein’s family background is Bessarabian Romanian (that is, Southeastern Yiddish, or Ukrainish). Also, YIVO spelling is more scholarly, while Bluestein’s system reflects English spelling conventions. Therefore readers who are familiar with the IPA or with YIVO publications will find Bluestein’s spelling at best, awkward (at worst, misleading). On the other hand, it is uniform (consistent throughout the book) and makes the dictionary accessible to a broader audience. (In fact, similar transcriptions are found in other dictionaries printed in the USA.) The issue of spelling is further complicated by the fact that some Yiddish words (namely, those that are assimilated into English, which are actually the ones that the book aims to discuss) have already acquired conventional spelling in English. Bluestein applies his transliteration rules to such words as well, which makes it difficult for the uninitiated reader to find the necessary word.5 I find the transliteration system used unfortunate, since it is confusing both for scholars and for laymen. This orthographic aspect is perhaps the biggest flaw of the book, but apart from that, the dictionary is rather worthwhile.
The ‘Introduction to the First Edition’ (1998:xvii-xxx) is concise and well-written. It presents some background information on Yiddish and its place in American culture. According to the author, “The presence of Yiddish is being felt more pervasively in American culture than ever before, not only in literature but also in the mass media” (1998:xx).6 This justifies the need for the present book.7 Bluestein explains how his lexicon should be used and what makes it useful. One of his goals of the book is to explain the particular vocabulary used by some authors. He cites examples from Philip Roth (1933), Saul Bellow (1915-2005), Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), and other writers who employ Yiddishisms frequently.
A brief history of Yiddish is presented on the pages following. Bluestein compares the history and linguistic features of Yiddish with American English. Both can be called fusion languages since they have always been adopting words from other languages.8 Yiddish, like American English, has many international connections. This comparison is interesting – and legitimate – but there are other passages in the introduction that may be alternately either commonplace or debatable. Thus, on page xxii, the author states: “Linguists maintain that Yiddish and Modern High German are both dialects of the same language – German”. One might say, to the contrary, that those who consider Yiddish as “German spelled in Hebrew characters”, are not trained in linguistics.9 Furthermore, Bluestein considers it necessary to make explicit that Hebrew and Yiddish are not the same. There are several contradictions in the introduction. On the one hand, we read that young Israelis do not speak Yiddish (to be realistic), but, on the other hand, Yiddish is an international lingua franca among Jews (to be optimistic).10
Bluestein gives the periodization of Yiddish adapted from Max Weinrech (1980).11 For readers familiar with Weinreich’s and Fishman’s studies, Bluestein’s ‘Introduction’ will not add anything new. For example, most of the quotations are already familiar from other sources. Bluestein omits (perhaps minor) details, such as exactly when and by whom something was said originally, but he gives the source of the quotes, so the reader can find additional information there.12 In short, Bluestein’s introduction can be considered an apt summary of Weinrech’s work (and perhaps a few more studies on the subject), one that is easy and entertaining to read. Also, comparisons with American English make the subject more interesting for the English-speaking audience.
‘Anglish/Yinglish Dictionary ’
The 'Anglish/Yinglish dictionary' constitutes the main part of the book. Apart from a somewhat confusing spelling reflecting English orthographic conventions, the lexicon is remarkable in many respects. It is both educational and entertaining. Words are arranged alphabetically, and after each lemma the relevant part of speech is given. In some (though not many) entries, basic information on morphology is provided (such as plural or female form for nouns, participle form for verbs).
The main part of the lemma is the definition of the word. If a particular Yiddish word developed a new meaning in English (i.e., Anglish), this change is noted.13 Finally, usqage of the word is illustrated by well-chosen examples from American Jewish literature (see ‘Bibliography’), newspapers, magazines, or TV shows. The author explains the meaning of certain words by recounting familiar jokes or a personal story involving his family. Since many of the words are associated with Jewish religion, history, traditions, and cuisine, the reader, by consulting the dictionary, inevitably becomes acquainted not only with the Yiddish language, but also with Jewish culture. This certainly adds even more value to the lexicon.
Other shortcomings, however, can be identified. For example, nowhere is it made explicit which criteria the author used to select the words for the lexicon. Was his aim to be comprehensive, i.e. to include all the Yiddish words used in English? (This is hardly attainable, and therefore some criteria of selection are needed.) Or does he include only the most widely known words? If the latter is the case, how did the author determine which words are better acclimatized than others? Did he use statistics, or did he rely on his intuition? It goes without saying that different Yiddish words achieved a various degree of acclimatization in English. Unfortunately, the lexicon gives no information about it, and some very common words are discussed next to hardly known ones.14 While this in itself need not be a problem for an English-speaking person using the dictionary to clarify the meaning of an unknown word, it might pose a problem for a non-native speaker who wishes to investigate the influence of Yiddish on English.
A concept related to acclimatization (how widely a loanword is known) is integration (how well it is integrated into the morphology of the recipient language). Apart from the distinction between Anglish and Yinglish, Bluestein does not go into depth about the theory of borrowing.15 If the book were intended for a linguistics-oriented audience, it might have been useful to include more information on morphology, and to list derivations.
A further point is that nothing is said about the history of Yiddish loanwords. It is not mentioned when the words in question entered the English language. Regarding etymology, only a few words in the lexicon are treated to such a discussion. When etymological information is provided, it is usually reliable.16 However, in several instances this information is not precise, and is described in the form “probably from...”, “perhaps related to...”. However, the definitions are good, and the examples are appropriately illustrative.
'Appendices and 'Bibliography/Discography’
Three appendices (short essays, in fact) follow the lexicon: 1) 'Portnoy's Complaint: The Jew as American', 2) 'The Revival of Klezner Music', and 3) 'A Note on Leo Rosten'. In Appendix 1 (pp. 129-147), the author explains the central theme of Portnoy's Complaint (Philip Roth's 1969 novel). Appendix 2 (pp. 149-156) discusses the recent (at the moment of the publication) resurgence of Klezner music (referring to the Ashkenazic Jewish musical tradition). The last appendix (pp. 157-159) is a short note on Leo Rosten (who died in 1997), the author of The Joys of Yiddish (1968), an informal guide to the Yiddish language,17 and Hooray for Yiddish (1982), a lexicon of the American language influenced by Jewish culture.
As Bluestein rightfully notes (1998:158), “Many words have shifted in meaning since Rosten began his work”. In fact, it is inevitable with a lexicon that treats slang (many Yiddish loanwords in English belong to this category), that it soon becomes outdated.18 The same can be said about the present book. Words continue to change in meaning and connotation. This calls for new editions, or new studies of the field.
A ‘Bibliography and Discography’ concludes the book. The ‘Bibliography’ principally contains titles of the literary sources of the lexicon’s examples.19 One finds very few resources regarding the Yiddish language as such, the exceptions being Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language and Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. In the reviewer’s opinion, the bibliography could certainly be expanded to include some more studies about Yiddish in general and its influence on English in particular.20 Finally, the ‘Discography’ lists some Klezmer recordings. This, too, could be expanded and updated.
Bluestein’s book presents serious information intertwined with jokes, quotes, and aphorisms. The book is not entirely based on independent research but rather on bibliographical and literary research. However, it is valuable as a short introduction to Yiddish for a general audience and as a lexicon of Yiddishisms in English, with clear definitions and well-chosen examples. The major drawback is the chosen orthographical system, but it might prove to be useful for readers unfamiliar with the IPA or YIVO transliteration standards. Thus, the author has adequately adapted the style and presentation for the public he aims to address.
In conclusion, Anglish/Yinglish can be considered a valuable contribution to the collection of works devoted to the American Jewish culture. The book treats the subject in an interesting way and it reads easily and enjoyably. Non-specialists will probably find the book especially interesting. It can be a leisurely read, which educates and entertains at the same time. The book might be of interest to Jewish Americans/American Jews, non-Americans and non-Jews alike. This reviewer recommends it to anyone with an interest in Jewish cultural history and the meanderings of words through various cultures over time.
English Moot website, Entry for Anglish (accessed 1 May 2010).
Ethnologue entry for Yinglish
(accessed 1 May 2010).
Fishman, Joshua A. (ed.). (1981). Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life
and Letters. The Hague: Mouton.
Fishman, Joshua A. (1991). Yiddish: Turning to Life. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Goldsmith, Emanuel. (1997 ). Modern Yiddish Culture: The Story of the Yiddish Language
Movement. New York: Fordham University Press.
Harshav, Benjamin. (1990). The Meaning of Yiddish. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Haugen, Einar. (1950). ‘The analysis of linguistic borrowing’. Language 6(2). 210–231.
Katz, Dovid. (2004). Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books.
Matras, Yaron & Jeanette Sakel (eds.) (2007). Grammatical Borrowing in Cross-Linguistic
Perspective. Empirical Approaches to Language Typology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. [For MAT- and PAT-borrowing, see Sakel, ‘Types of loans: Matter and pattern’, 15-29.]
Rosten, Leo. (1968). The Joys of Yiddish: a relaxed lexicon of Yiddish, Hebrew and Yinglish
words often encountered in English, plus dozens that ought to be, ... – from the days of the Bible to those of the Beatnik. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Rosten, Leo. (2001). The New Joys of Yiddish, ed. and revised by Lawrence Bush. New York:
Weinreich, Max. (2008 ). History of the Yiddish Language, ed. by Paul Glasser;
translated by Shlomo Noble; with the assistance of Joshua A. Fishman. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Weinreich, Uriel et al (eds.). 1954-1993. The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language,
Folklore, and Literature. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York. [5 vols.]
Wikipedia entry for Anglish (accessed 1 May 2010).
YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, ‘Jewish/Yiddish Scientific Institute’) ; Yiddish alphabet and Romanization (accessed 1 May 2010).
1. The term Yinglish was not coined by Bluestein, having appeared earlier in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish (1968). However, Rosten’s definition of Yinglish is broader, since it encompasses all Yiddish words integrated into English, as well as neologisms created by speakers of Yiddish in English-speaking countries (mostly in the USA); it is thus equivalent to Bluestein’s Anglish and Yinglish combined. Compare Joshua A. Fishman’s definition of Yinglish cited at Ethnologue. There is also an even broader interpretation of the term, whereby Yinglish refers to the language variant spoken by the Jews in English-speaking countries, which includes many Yiddish words unfamiliar to English speakers. Rosten also employs the term Ameridish, which he treats as synonymous with Yinglish, rather than as an equivalent to Bluestein’s (more strictly defined) Anglish. As for the term Anglish, it does not seem to be known (certainly not in Bluestein’s definition). Also, the same term refers to “English free of loanwords from other languages” (a.k.a. Saxon English), a form of English linguistic purism. (See Wikipedia entry for Anglish, as well as The English Moot website, with a description of Anglish.) Thus, I would not recommend using the term Anglish in Bluestein’s sense, in order to avoid confusion. In any case, the distinction between Anglish and Yinglish is not always easy to make, and it is not always relevant. Also, the author himself seems to have difficulties keeping the two terms apart, giving next-doorike (1998:2) as an example of Anglish while, according to his own definition, it should rather be classified as Yinglish.
2. YIVO is an acronym from Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, Yiddish for ‘Jewish (or Yiddish) Scientific Institute’. The Institute was established as far back as 1925 in (present-day) Vilnius, Lithuania (formerly Wilno, Poland). During the Second World War, it moved to New York. Besides its work in preserving various Yiddish sources and publishing new materials, YIVO is active in the standardization of Yiddish pronunciation and orthography. See the homepage of the institute for more details. There, YIVO transliteration guidelines can be found at as well.
3. The author chose to represent the stressed syllable in upper case letters, which gives the words a rather awkward appearance.
4. Some more examples are (YIVO, Bluestein, and familiar English spelling): beygl~BAYgl ‘bagel’, blintse~BLINts ‘blintz’, bubkes~BUHPkis ‘bubkes’, drek~drek ‘dreck’, ganev/ganef~GANif ‘ganef/gonif(f)’, heymish~HAYmish ‘haimish/heimish’, kibetsn~KIBits ‘kibitz’, klots~kluhts ‘klutz’, kosher~KUHsher ‘kosher’, kveln~kvel ‘kvell’, kvetshn~kvetsh ‘kvetch’, meyvn~MAYvn ‘maven’, mazl tov~MAZl tuhv ‘mazzel/mazel/mazal tov’, meshuge~miSHOOge ‘meshuga(h)’, mishpokhe~mishPUHkhe ‘mishpocha’, nudyen~nooj ‘noodge/ nudzh’, pots~puhts ‘putz’, shlemil~shliMEEL ‘schlemiel’, zhlob~zhluhb ‘schlub’.
5. To do the author justice, I must note that in the case of a few widely known Yiddish words, there are cross-references in the dictionary, e.g. Chasidim – see KHOOsid, chutzpah – see KHOOTSpe, kosher – see KUHsher, CHOTCHke or TCHOTCHke – see TSAtskele, and so on. For these words, a more familiar spelling is also given in brackets after the lemma, e.g. “KHOOTSpe (usually chutzpah)”. However, there are few cross-references, and other words remain difficult to find.
6. Yiddish entered American English not only via literature but (even more importantly) from the fields of entertainment (burlesque, nightclubs, theater, comedy, radio, TV, film).
7. The author mentions that there “has been a rash of Yiddish studies in recent years” and gives possible accounts for this (1998:xxi-xxii), but he does not explain how his study differs from the rest.
8. The term “fusion language” or “hybrid language” has frequently been applied to Yiddish. The model sentence that illustrates the four main components of Yiddish (H = Hebrew, L = Latin/Loez, G = German, S = Slavic) is: NUHKHn (G) BENTSHn (L) huht (G) dear (G) ZAYde (S) geKOYFT (G) a SAYfer (H),“Following the benediction after the meal, grandfather bought a religious book”. The example comes from Weinreich (however, the exact source of the quotation is not given), although Bluestein modifies the transliteration to make it conform to his own. Note that he adopts the term Loez from Weinreich, but he does not give its definition. Uninitiated readers might be unfamiliar with the term, which Weinreich used to refer to Romance (as spoken by the Jews), distinguishing between Western Loez (Old French) and Southern Loez (Old Italian). These were languages spoken by Jews prior to their immigration to the Rhineland, where Yiddish originated. Loez is not equivalent to Ladino (a.k.a. Judaeo-Spanish, Judezmo, and a few other names) – a Jewish language from a Romance language family derived from Old Spanish. Ladino vis-à-vis Spanish is often compared to Yiddish vis-à-vis German.
9. As a familiar saying goes, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” [Yiddish: a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot], often attributed to Max Weinrech, although he was actually quoting someone in his audience.
10. According to the author (1998:xxvi): “Today in Europe, and even in Israel, Yiddish still provides an avenue of communication, despite whatever other language blocks exist.”
11. Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language (2008 ) remains the standard reference work on Yiddish.
12. Thus, on page xxii, Bluestein cites a comment “by a German-Yiddish scholar around the end of the seventeenth century”. Indeed, the quotation belongs to Johannes Wagenseil, and dates back to 1699. It is cited after “Weinreich HYL [History of the Yiddish Language], 103–114” (apparently a misprint for “Weinreich HYL, 103–104”). In a few other instances, however, the source of the quotation is not given precisely, so it is not always easy to trace it. Thus, Bluestein can refer rather vaguely to “the works of Weinreich”. However, this is a minor problem considering the fact that the book is meant for a general audience (and perhaps mostly for entertainment) rather than for experts, students or those who wish to get a deeper knowledge of the field.
13. Thus, drek in English more often means ‘dirt’ than ‘shit’, while shmuhk is a ‘jerk’, ‘nerd’, and most people are unfamiliar with its original meaning ‘penis’, ‘prick’.
14. As we know, many Yiddish words are a part of English now, but others are not. Furthermore, this might also depend on the geographical location. Outside of the major Jewish centres in the U.S., Yiddish is not well-known. The centers are New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, and scattered in other areas.
15. There is a vast literature on language contact and borrowing which could be relevant for the present study. One could think of Haugen’s (1950) typology of borrowing which distinguishes loanwords, loanblends or hybrids, and loanshifts (further subdivided into loan translations or calques, phrasal loans, and semantic loans). Haugen’s classification is more refined than that of Bluestein, but it could also cause confusion for uninitiated readers. Interestingly enough, Bluestein’s Anglish vs. Yinglish distinction comes rather close to Matras & Sakel’s (2007) distinction between MAT (matter)- and PAT (pattern)-borrowing.
16. There are several instances of disputable etymology in the lexicon, but these generally involve words for which there is no universally accepted etymology, such as schmuhk. The word zhluhb is described as “effectively onomatopoeic”, while according to other sources (e.g. the OED), it has a Polish origin. More often than not, the etymology is simply left out of the discussion, also for words that certainly have a Semitic or Slavic background.
17. As Anglish/Yinglish, Rosten’s lexicon mainly focuses on Yiddish words and expressions that permeated (American) English. The majority of words are explained through jokes, which makes the book also a source of Jewish humor. Bluestein includes some of these jokes in his dictionary.
18. Indeed, a new and revised edition of Rosten’s lexicon, The New Joys of Yiddish, appeared in 2001 (posthumously, and after Bluestein’s Anglish/Yinglish).
19. Among the authors cited are some well-known Jewish writers, such as Sholom Aleichem (whose name can also be found under the entry “SHUHlim aLAYkhim” in the dictionary), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), Saul Bellow (1915-2005), Grace Paley (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Cynthia Ozick (1928), and Philip Roth (1933) to name just a few.
20. Personally, this reviewer would include in the bibliography Uriel Weinreich (1954–1993), Goldsmith (1976/97), Fishman (1981) and (1991), and Harshav (1990). Also, some significant studies about Yiddish were published after Bluestein’s book, e.g. Rosten (2001) and Katz (2004). The book could profit from the inclusion of a more detailed bibliography, so that the reader whose curiosity was stimulated by the present study could continue his interest on his own.
Jenia Gutova , University of Leiden (contact the reviewer).