Saturday, March 03, 2007


For those of you who didn't already know: SME is without a doubt the most influential daily in Slovakia. That being said, it sucks big time. The last editor-in-chief was well known for his visceral hate of the former Prime Minister and it really showed. The current editor-in-chief fiels the same way about the current PM and it really shows. I usually don't read anything beyond national and local news and the occasional interview, especially since they stopped publishing Calvin and Hobbes regularly. The international news page is simply apalling: it's written by a bunch of ignorant half-educated slobs who wouldn't know the meaning of the word "bias" if it bit them in the ass. Just today, SME published an article by its Israeli correspondent on the upcoming holiday of Purim. The central point of the article is the usual hatemongering concerning Iran, this time in form of popular music, a song entitled "Push the Button" reported to refer to Ahmadinejad. How was the article introduced? By explaining the origin of Purim and thereby referring to a Persian king who wanted to exterminate all the Jews and equating that king with the current president of Iran all the while insinuating that there are ancient feelings of hatred held by the Persians for the Jews.
Needless to say, wrong, wrong and wrong. Haman was the first minister, not the king (Esther 3:6). Achašveroš (probably Xerxes, though some insist it's Artaxerxes) protected the Jews and in the end punished Haman for what he attempted to do (Esther 8:7). And just in case anyone would choose to believe that bit about how Persians hate the Jews and vice-versa, just remember Cyrus the Great and the fact that Isaiah 45:1 refers to him as "God's annointed", מְשִׁיחַ.

So you understand the nervous twitch I get everytime I spot a language or linguistics-related article in SME. And oh boy, it's two-for-one day at SME Plaza! Just look at the title of this report on a petition put forward by Slovak Rusyns:
"Rusíni chcú návrat staroslovienčiny do liturgií"

"Rusyns Demand Return of Old Church Slavonic Liturgy"

I don't even need to read the article to spot two examples of grade-A BS:

1. Old Church Slavonic hasn't been in use as a language of liturgy in Slavic countries for several hundred years. Some time in the 12th century (possibly much later), it was replaced by Church Slavic.

2. Rusyns cannot even demand the return of Church Slavic since it was never abolished. To my knowledge, Slovak Greek-Catholic (Uniat) Church still gives the priests and the congregations the choice of using either Church Slavic or Slovak in liturgy. True, the use of Church Slavic is in decline (and it's my fault, too), but it is by no means uncommon, let alone something that the worshippers must demand.

It gets better after that. Contrary to the impression given by the title, the first paragraph claims that the focus of the petition is not the return of Church Slavic, but that the undersigned request the return of the use of the newly codified Rusyn language in liturgy. Confused? You ain't seen nothin' yet. To my knowledge, Rusyn has never been officially used as a liturgical language. And indeed if you read the actual text of the petition, you will find that the undersigned voice their dissatisfaction with the fact that most Greek-Catholic priest were trained in Slovak, not Rusyn, that there are no translations of Gospels, prayer books and textbooks into Rusyn and that neither priests nor bishops are willing to deliver sermons and read from the Gospels in (codified) Rusyn. In other words, the petition requests that the Rusyn faithful be given the same rights as every other ethnic group recognizing the authority of the Pope which is to worship in their own native language. But you wouldn't learn that from the article. And that's a pity, because neither the text of the petition nor the article and those interviewed for the article make it clear what the relationship between Church Slavic and Rusyn should be according to the Rusyn Academy. Now there is a question I'd love to see answered.

Did I mention how much I hate journalists?

Oh and if you can read this, it means that the technical problems plaguing me have been at least partly resolved and we will resume our regularly scheduled programming shortly.


Anonymous said...

the use of Church Slavic is in decline (and it's my fault, too)


bulbul said...

Many Greek-Catholics, especially the young, no longer hear mass in Church Slavic in traditional churches and instead opt to either go to a Slovak-liturgy church or hear mass in a Roman Catholic church. I am sorry to have to admit that I am one of those.

Anonymous said...

same stuff with people wo do not respect the way to write words in some languages like yiddish :-(

bulbul said...

... or people who insist theirs is the only right way.

Anonymous said...

D'un point de vue professionnel, le fait qu'un linguiste, particulièrement attaché de plus à l'intégrité de sa propre langue de culture, s'octroie la possibilité, à lui seul et contre toutes les instances compétentes, de décider de la manière d'écrire une langue normée est des plus inquiétants.
Il est d'autre part singulier que cette funeste et irrespectueuse décision s'applique à une langue qui a perdu la majorité de ses locuteurs en Europe centrale et orientale.
En d'autres mots, le point de vue de Bulbulovo est scandaleux et proprement inadmissible. C'est pourquoi je me suis permis d'y revenir.

bulbul said...

Sigh. And all of that for one single word... Here's what I've got to say:

1. Purquoi en français? Est-ce que vous citez quelqu'un d'autre?
2. I am unsure as to who is meant by "toutes les instances compétentes". YIVO, after all, is only one single institution and their Standard Yiddish but one dialect.
3. une langue normée
Hm and to think that these guys say that there is no "official dialect of Yiddish" (i.e. "il n'y a pas une langue Yiddish normée").
This whole thing is starting to resemble those silly debates on British vs. American spelling. There is no such thing as "the only accepted one", neither in English, nor in Yiddish.
4. à une langue qui a perdu la majorité de ses locuteurs
Playing the emotional card, are we? For the last time: גורנישט is the spelling used by (among others) Slovak speakers of Yiddish in various writings. If I find the time, I'll be happy to provide photographic evidence. I recall a particularly charming example on an 1930s election poster (something along the lines of "What did the X party ever do for you? גורנישט!"). In that sense, I am honoring Slovak speakers of Yiddish in general and my ancestors in particular. The only ones I'm disrespecting are silly prescriptivists.
And by insisting that there is only one correct way to write a word, aren't you the one who is insulting them?

Anonymous said...

En français parce que mon anglais est insuffisant. I do not play the emotional card but the respectional one for a language, equally with all other lanhahes, who has not so much defenders in the area.
You are definitely wrong. It is not only the Yivo but all the literary and scholarly institutions (newspapers, books, universities, schools) who promote since more then one century a normative literary yiddish and a normative spelling. it does not mean that peuple have no right to speak their dialects (and yes there is no oral standard because we have no state but a tendency to speak in literray and scholarly situations a mid-language who follow the inflexion of the literry spelling and this litvish-inflected yiddish is the only used in teaching and writing) but except fot citations all what is written since almost one century by normal educated people is written following rules who were not imposed by the Yivo but mainly recognized by the Yivo after, between else, by the work of the Cysho in Poland. Yes people may use non-normative spellings like in other languages but it's not the way except if you say that this way is a quotation. and a linguist has no right to defend the idea that the way a native speaker write a word is "the" way. there is no one book or newspaper in yiddish where "gornisht" (or "gurnisht" or "gu'nisht") is written with a vov. the speaker pronounce it according his dialectal or not dialectal pronounciation but it remains written with a vov.
defintitely it's not more prescriptivist than the teacher who learns my son to write french according the official and well-established way (the same for english, slovakian (!), and... except yiddish.
kèn ju ounderztant tzat? (No I do not know anybody who write english like that. But why not after all, I will not be a silly prescriptivist)

Anonymous said...

For the information of the reader and in honor of the late Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter (author of "Takones fun dem yidishn oysleyg":

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Schaechter z"l: toiling without sentimentality
"What motivated him was the desire that Yiddish should receive the respect of any other language."
transcript :
Remembering Yiddishist Mordkhe Schaechter
by Brian Zumhagen

NEW YORK, NY March 11, 2007 —ZUMHAGEN: You’re listening to Weekend Edition on WNYC. I’m Brian Zumhagen.

The Yiddish language, spoken by Jews of Eastern European origin, has lost one of its most passionate advocates. Philologist Mordkhe Schaechter -- whose voice you’re hearing now -- died in the Bronx last month at age 79, after a long illness.
I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. Schaechter at Columbia University’s Yiddish summer program. But he wasn’t just a great teacher. He also wrote textbooks, worked on dictionaries, and promoted the standardization of the language. He also founded organizations like the Yidish-Lige, or League for Yiddish, which is now directed by Sheva Zucker:

ZUCKER: What motivated him was the desire that Yiddish should receive the respect of any other language.

ZUMHAGEN: By the time Mordkhe Schaechter arrived in the US in 1951, modern Israeli Hebrew was ascendant, and American Jews were leaving Yiddish behind in droves. But Dr. Schaechter was determined to carve out a space for his beloved mame-loshn, or mother tongue. He and two other Yiddish-speaking families with small children moved together to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx... where it was all Yiddish all the time, according to Schaechter’s son Binyumen.

BINYUMEN SCHAECHTER: For him it was a full-time job. There was no listening to Mets games on the radio, or anything like that.

ZUMHAGEN: Binyumen and his three sisters had to put money in a jar every time they uttered a word in English. But Dr. Schaechter also used games to win the kids over to the cause:

SCHAECHTER: My father created a children’s group called "Engeh-Bengeh," and very often, maybe every Saturday, we "shpatsir’d," we took a walk to "Engeh-Bengeh Land," which is also known as Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and we would sing Yiddish songs on the way over there, and when we were there we would play khapelakh, un baheltelakh un blinde kih, which are Yiddish equivalents for tag, hide-and-seek and blind man’s bluff.

ZUMHAGEN: Binyumen, who now uses Yiddish regularly in his work as a composer and as conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, cites his father’s singing as an influence -- particularly this lullabye about a white goat:

SCHAECHTER SINGS: Ikh vil dir dertseylen a mayse...

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter’s dedication paid off; he’s survived by sixteen Yiddish-speaking grandchildren. Binyumen says family continuity was an important factor in the decision to donate Dr. Schaechter’s collection of 10-thousand Yiddish books to Johns-Hopkins University. He says the family was impressed by the school’s growing Yiddish-studies program and its commitment to keep the library intact:

SCHAECHTER: But what mattered as much, if not more, was the fact that two of the people who are most important in that department are two of my father’s former students, each of whom are speaking Yiddish with their children.

ZUMHAGEN: One of those two professors, Marc Caplan, showed me the carriage house where there are boxes and boxes of books from the Schaechter collection:

CAPLAN: “Di balade fun nekhtikn vald,” published in 1948 by Chava Rosenfarb, one of the leading Yiddish novelists still around. And here you have a personal inscription to Dr. Schaechter in 1956. This is really good stuff.

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter also published books of his own; he spent his last years on his unfinished opus, a Yiddish dictionary for the 21st Century. Schaechter worked tirelessly to research and develop terminology for everything from plants and computers to pregnancy and childbirth -- and, while we’re on that subject, Marc Caplan says Dr. Schaechter’s hunt for authentic vocabulary took him to places where most philologists fear to tread:

CAPLAN: He had card after card after card, full file cabinets, of the terminology of sexual practices used by students in rabbinic Yeshivas in Europe and the United States. Not because he had a dirty mind, not because he was prurient, but because he had a passion to know how the language was used in all its aspects.

ZUMHAGEN: Caplan is part of a group of younger scholars Mordkhe Schaechter groomed to continue his work. Another is Paul Glasser, Associate Dean of the YIVO Institute’s Max Weinreich Center. He says there’s no one out there with the depth and breadth of Dr. Schaechter’s knowledge:

GLASSER: He was very interested in everything that came to Yiddish, every type of terminology, every dialect, every historical period. And if he had lived a few hundred more years, he might have had a chance to publish his findings on all of those subjects.

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter toiled without sentimentality on behalf of a language that’s been embattled on many fronts: decimated in Europe, dismissed in Israel as a relic of diaspora life, and finally, treated all too often as a vulgar joke or an object of nostalgia here in America. But while others mourned Yiddish as a dying or even a dead language, Dr. Schaechter proved that Yiddish will live as long as people bring life to it.

Mordkhe Schaechter will be remembered next Sunday March 18th at a ceremony to mark the traditional Jewish milestone of 30 days following his death. It’ll be held at 5:30pm at the Workmen’s Circle Building, 45 East 33rd St.

and also :

An evening of remembrance and Yiddish learning
on the shloyshim of Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter z"l

Sunday, March 18th, 5:30 P.M.
at the Workmen’s Circle / Forward Building,
45 East 33rd Street
between Madison and Park Avenues
in New York City

The speakers:
David Braun, Harvard University
Marc Caplan, Johns Hopkins University
Paul Glasser, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Rakhmiel Peltz, Drexel University
David Roskies, Jewish Theological Seminary
A few Yiddish songs especially meaningful to Dr. Schaechter will be
Primarily in Yiddish.

Languagehat said...

Yikes. This thread sure brought the nuts out of the trees. If I may ask a question that actually pertains to the post: what does SME stand for?

Rogerh said...

Sme isn't an acronym. It's a Slovak word meaning "we are" (they also have a network of local papers called "MY" which is "we") and it's also abbreviated from the name of the newspaper Sme derived from, Smena, which means something like "shift" in a factory.

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