Just Say Nu: Yid­dish For Every Occa­sion (When Eng­lish Just Won’t Do)

  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

At the out­set of Michael Wex’s lat­est book, he writes that his translit­er­a­tions will be in Pol­ish Yid­dish, rather than stan­dard lan­guage devel­oped by YIVO and spo­ken by vir­tu­al­ly no one.” Explain­ing the fine points of nu, takeh, gevalt, shoyn, and nebakh, he enlight­ens as he makes you smile. Indi­vid­ual chap­ters are devot­ed to Yid­dish names for stages of life, body parts, weath­er, as well as terms for Greet­ing and Meeting.” 

Dis­cussing the expres­sion, Amerike ganef (a clever per­son or inven­tion), he writes, Had they only exist­ed, any Yid­dish speak­ers present when Alexan­der untied the Gor­dian knot by cut­ting it with his sword would have exclaimed, Alexan­der ganef!’”

Few read­ers will know that tateleh,” or lit­tle father,” becomes Aetli” in Goth­ic, lat­er Atti­la,” as in the Hun — which means chick­en” in Lithuan­ian Yid­dish. Thus, Atti­la could have been called Tatele the Litvak. 

Wex also pro­vides some basic Yid­dish gram­mar, refut­ing the claim that Yid­dish has no gram­mar. As nov­el­ist, trans­la­tor of works such as Three­pen­ny Opera, and schol­ar well-versed in Torah and Tal­mud, he has much to teach us, which he does with con­sid­er­able wit. Appen­dix, glos­sary, index. 

Julia Wolf Mazow, retired uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish instruc­tor, stud­ied Yid­dish in the Oxford and YIVO sum­mer pro­grams. Her trans­la­tions from Yid­dish have appeared in BRIDGES.

Discussion Questions