Skip to comments.For Japanese Linguist, A Long And Lonely Schlep
Posted on 04/16/2012 9:09:10 PM PDT by nickcarraway
A smattering of Yiddish words has crept into the American vernacular: Non-Jews go for a nosh or schmooze over cocktails. Yet the language itself, once spoken by millions of Jews, is now in retreat.
But you don't have to be Jewish to love Yiddish. In Japan, a linguist has toiled quietly for decades to compile the world's first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary the first time the Jewish language has been translated into a non-European language other than Hebrew.
It was in the hills of Kyushu Island in southern Japan where Kazuo Ueda carried out his impressive and quixotic quest, devoting his life to a language few Jews understand, and even fewer Japanese have even heard of.
Now Japan's leading scholar of Yiddish, Ueda was originally a specialist in German. He stumbled upon the Jewish language while reading Franz Kafka, himself a fan of Yiddish theater.
Ueda was immediately smitten with the language that is written in Hebrew letters, but is a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.
"Yiddish was full of puzzles for me," Ueda says. "That's what I love about it. Reading sentences in those strange letters it's like deciphering a code."
A Price For His Passion
Ueda made several trips to Israel, but most of his research was a lonely, solo affair. Isolated from actual speakers of the language, he taught himself, with the help of Yiddish newspapers and literature.
Ueda would later publish a series of books on the Jewish language and people, but he considers that a prelude to his magnum opus the 1,300-page, 28,000-entry Idishugo Jiten, or Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, published several years ago. His publisher wouldn't release details but conceded sales are most likely tiny for the dictionary, which costs more than $700.
"I actually think $700 is pretty cheap, considering," Ueda says.
Cheap, considering it took 20 years to finish the volume and that Ueda's doctors say the project may have shortened his life. As his dictionary neared completion, Ueda began to show signs of Parkinson's disease. Now 69, he was forced to retire from the faculty of Fukuoka University in March and struggles to walk and speak.
Ueda's wife, Kazuko, blames years of desk-bound devotion to the dictionary for aggravating his disease.
"Every day, he would sit down to work on his dictionary right after breakfast. He never took any time off," she says. "But for him, this wasn't work but sheer joy. So I thought, this is the way things had to be."
Jack Halpern, a Yiddish-speaking resident of Japan, admires Ueda but says his passion often baffles Jews.
"When Jews hear about Professor Ueda, they say, 'Why?' It's beyond their understanding," he says.
Defying Easy Translation
Just as Japan's population of 120 million is big and affluent enough to support exotic tastes like klezmer music performed by Japanese musicians Yiddish has perhaps a few dozen devotees, mostly those who discovered the language via Hebrew or German, like Ueda.
Halpern, himself a linguist and a publisher who used to teach Yiddish in Japan, describes taking a group of his young students on a field trip to New York, where they tried to mix at a traditional Hasidic wedding.
"They saw the Hasidim with black hats and coats, dancing away, and they're all speaking Yiddish to each other. So I approached one of the rabbis there, and I introduced him to this young man who's speaking Yiddish, and he just couldn't understand what's going on; it seemed so out of place for a Japanese person to be in a Hasidic wedding, speaking Yiddish," Halpern says. "It's always amazing to them."
By taking on Yiddish, Ueda grappled with a language that defies easy translation because of its many culturally specific words, like shlimazel, or "unlucky person."
"You can translate it, but you can't translate the connotation, the feeling, around the word," says Halpern. "There's something about shlimazel, that when you say it in Yiddish, it's the right language to say it in."
As for Ueda, who pats his dictionary every night before going to sleep, there are no regrets.
"I wrote it purely for the pursuit of learning," he says. "I don't expect a wave of people to start learning Yiddish."
Oy! That’s meshuggah.
Makes me think of the Japanese/Jewish restaurant, Sosumi.
I gotta wonder what kind of japanese person would give a care about yiddish. I’m trying to make a list in my mind of the most useful languages to learn and yiddish is way down on the list...far below japanese in fact.
then it gets vague...maybe a tie between german, dutch, and portugese.
Chinese would be on the list if it wasn’t such a ridiculously difficult language.
So excluding chinese, next is probably a tie between russian, arabic, and japanese.
then maybe 25 more languages
Why is French above German?
Swahili-Yiddish online dictionary
Where on the planet do you find native german speakers? germany, austria, and just a few other places near germany.
That’s it. Nowhere else. Sure there are minority enclaves in various places but they are insignificant.
various islands in the carribean
various islands all around the world
one tiny country in south america
parts of north africa
parts of west africa
france of course
French beats german easily.
In fact, in some ways French beats Spanish.
French is the language of diplomacy and also of seduction.
Could you imagine attempting a seduction of a woman in German? Even a German one would prefer French..
Most useful depends.... English and Spanish are at the top of the list, but I’d put Arabic ahead of French, but that would depend on where you are at. If you are in East Africa then Swahili. If in West Africa, then French. North Africa Arabic. In India Hindi would get you around. Russia would get you around all of the Russias yes, but nowhere else
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (of Flemish origin) in thr 1500s supposedly said “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”
thanks for a fascinating article..
An inaccurate description of Yiddish, which is essentially German with some Hebrew vocabulary and smaller borrowings from Russian and French. Yiddish is immediately intelligible to German speakers.
My experience is that with standard German you can use in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and get by in the Netherlands, but most of those countries speak English as well. French is useful not only in France (where they’ll refuse to speak English), but also Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, West Africa etc. and it was also the preferred second language for most of the world until the internet age..
One of the major sources he dealt with were libraries owned by left-wing Jewish organizations that had been founded decades ago and were going out of business.
I thought it was the Franophile Frederick the Great who said he only spoke German to horses and children.
And why Spanish to God and not Latin or Greek or Hebrew, or some other liturical language?
Yiddish-Japanese ping.....yeah...thats right.
My list was with the assumption that english is your first language and you live in the USA.
Until the internet age? Hmmm, I think English overtook French a little before then. I’d put it somewhere between 1950 and 1970.
Then your list is spot on accurate.
we in the anglophone world don't have a good idea of the other language traditions. What I mean by English not overtaking French is that before the internet age in much of the world French was considered hte language of culture, so, say, Poles learnt French, even though that had no "use" per se except to be cultured.
But with the internet age, there was a larger world and reason to learn English as the language of commerce.
I don't mean that the internet was the only reason, I dare say globalization at the same time played a role, i'm just calling it the internet age for want of any other term
Back in the 1970s, public schools(in the US) started to teach spanish instead of French. Before that time, Spanish was the language of illiterates and no one would seriously attempt to study it. THen in the late 80s there was a momentary surge to learn japanese. Interest in japanese kinda evaporated after the japanese economy tanked. Spanish is pretty much the universally taught second language in the USA now. It’s different though. When french was taught, they strived for literary perfection. Spanish is more relaxed. More conversational.
But french was in decline way before the internet age. Arabic started displacing french in africa 40 years ago. French began to dissappear from french-indo-china during the vietnam war. French is basically extinct in Louisiana now. English began to be a universal language in western europe after WWII when american military bases were put up in germany.
Perhaps because a larger percentage of words in English come from French than German. I learned more about English while studying French than I did in English class.
While English is considered a West Germanic language, it was heavily influenced by Norman French.
French - 29%, Latin - 29%, Germanic Languages - 26%, Greek - 6%, Other Languages - 6%, and proper names - 4%
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English and Hindi are the official languages of India. English and Urdu are the official languages of Pakistan.
Barely 3 to 9% of the population can speak English out of which only about 2% can converse normally.
Even Hindi -- only about 40% to 50% know the language, the rest don't.
When I travelled around the country, in the south most didn't know Hindi. There were places were some knew broken English, but no Hindi. And there were many places where they knew neither!
I’d say Spanish is also simpler — not as easy as Italian, but easier than French, gramatically..
I was told by an Indian that all the educated city dwellers speak english.
I’ll tell ya what keeps me from trying to learn italian...
Italians have told me its a waste of time because every town in italy uses a different version of italian and that its even hard for italians to understand each other. They say there is no standard italian or at least none that anyone tries to adhere to.
Urdu and Hindi are the same language. They just use different alphabets to write their language.
true, that’s what my Italian friends say — and Milanese can’t understand Sicilians. I learnt the Rome dialect (mostly because I love to travel to Rome) and it’s simple enough to begin with...
Among the populace of these places, I'd venture that only a few speak English fluently. Many can use English words but are unable to carry on a conversation in them.
do note that even the 2% of India that do speak English fluently are about 24 million in number!
By “educated” he meant college. I think their college courses are in english, so they’d better be fluent.
I found this on wiki...
1. Mandarin Chinese (1.12 billion)
2. English (480 million)
3. Spanish (320 million)
4. Russian (285 million)
5. French (270 million)
6. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
7. Portuguese (248 million)
8. Arabic (221 million)
9. Bengali (185 million)
10. Japanese (133 million)
11. Punjabi (130 million)
12. German (100 million)
The number for english seems a little low to me.
add all the native speakers in the world from:
various tiny and island nations
plus all the other people in the world who speak english as a second language and you only get 480M?? I don’t know about that.
Perhaps they are counting only those who are fluent in the language?
So far, with the exception of a smattering of Arabic, I've never learnt any non-Indo-European language. I find I can see some threads of similarity between various Indo-European languages which make it easier to pick up. What about you?
not just indo european but strictly western european languages for me. I’m not fluent in any language other than english. I was at one time able to read german fluently but I was never able to use it verbally beyond a few common sayings and expressions. I have picked up some spanish out of necessity and simply by being around it so much. I studied french in highschool. I had italian friends as a youngster who taught me italian but I do not remember hardly any of it. They spoke italian inside their house quite a bit so I had to learn it when I was in their house, which was quite often. When I was very small, my great grandfather spoke german, yiddish, and swedish and my dad says I used to know some of the german but I can’t remember it now. I dated a girl at one time who taught me norweigan but I do not remember it(god morgan means good morning and that’s all I can remember at the moment). My mother’s father spoke danish but I never picked up more than a handful of words. “dobberkris” means brick maker or brick layer...I have no idea why that just popped into my head.
All these things that I do not remember any more...sometimes they come back to me out of the blue when I’m not trying to remember. But if I try to remember, I can’t remember. it is very irritating. When I try to converse with hispanic people, I tend to accidentally mix in french and italian words without realizing it.
The only non western european language I’ve ever tried to learn even a little bit of was vietnamese. After about 50 words I decided that was a waste of my time. I’m sorry, but vietnamese has got to be one of the stupidest languages on the planet. I don’t mean to insult vietnamese people because I know they are very smart... but this is my honest opinion. That language is pathetic. Its not much more than a complex series of grunts. There is a limited choice of pronouns to choose from, tense is not dealt with properly, and the rising or falling tone of your voice is more important to the meaning of words than syllables are. It is a ridiculous language.
And now I have a better understanding why south east asians have such a hard time learning english. ITs because their brains do not understand pronouns and tense.
Here’s an example...the pronoun “anh” is the equivalent of he, him, it, you, his, me(and I think mine and my, I can’t remember now)...all wrapped up into one word. I’m sorry but that is just not a real language in my opinion. My dog has a language as complex as that. The female equivalent is “em”...and means she, her, it, you, hers me(and maybe mine and my).
As you pointed out about Spanish, when you are in an environment where you have to speak a language, you can generally pick it up.
There is a limited choice of pronouns to choose from, tense is not dealt with properly, and the rising or falling tone of your voice is more important to the meaning of words than syllables are. It is a ridiculous language. -- having never even attempted that language, I can't comment.
with regards to pronouns, I realized that English is different from satem Indo-European languages in that it insists on having personal pronouns -- I found that Slavic, Indic languages do not have that insistence (you don't have to say "you, he, it etc" even though those pronouns exist as the form of the verb defines it clearly). They don't have prepositions either, hence their difficulty to know when to put "it"
Finally, tenses -- in American English we've simplified it, more or less removing past perfect. For Poles, in modern, post-war Polish, the concept of perfect tenses don't exist as they have a separate set of verbs that denotes perfective actions
Ever notice how some languages are pleasing to the ear and others are painful or annoying to listen to? I like the sound of dutch, portugese, and french. I dislike east asian languages and mexican spanish.
Hast du gesehen in deine leben?
(All the Yiddish I know is from Mel Brooks movies)
I am very partial to the Polish language, I listen to a lot of Polish music, I find it even more sexy when a woman sings in Polish than even in French. I think somebody once stated that Polish is “Russian with a French accent”.
true, I dislike the sound of German.<p
I’m not real thrilled with it myself. I would call it odd sounding but not quite annoying.
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