Tuesday, April 08, 2008



One of the many reasons why I love all of Law and Order is how the writers and producers get stuff right, especially when it comes to the many facets of the multicultural, multireligious and multilingual New York City. This is a special forte of Criminal Intent where such excurses into the everyday lives of various - often self-contained - communities serve to demonstrate the astounding abilities of detective Goren, such as his familiarity with Aramaic or his knowledge of modern-day nomadic peoples. But this dedication to accuracy - hardly a distinguishing feature of network television - can be observed in other parts of the franchise, too, especially in linguistic matters. And so on Law and Order, Arabic is real Arabic, Syriac is written in real honest-to-God serṭō and even though one of the five boroughs stands in for Prague and the accent is so thick you couldn't cut through it with a damn blowtorch, the Prague police officers speak real Czech.
The latest example I've seen is episode 9x13 of Law and Order: SVU. The investigation of another grisly sex crime brings Stabler and Munch to Kehilat Moshe, a Hasidic community in upstate New York. In a brief voiceover narrated by the victim's mother, we are told that people in Kehilat Moshe (a fictionalized version of the real-life Satmar Hasidic town Kiryas Joel) are "extremely orthodox" and that "Many barely speak English." This is where I crossed my finders and muttered "Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, please let me hear some Yiddish!"
And sure enough, just a minute or two later, the detectives make contact with the local law enforcement and the following conversation takes place:

Yep, that's Yiddish all right. But if you listen closely, you may notice there's something off here. What follows is my clumsy attempt at transcription:

A: Der politsi ...
A: The police ...
B: Farshtey. ... ze mus gayn bayn der rebbe, [bʌt] nemt den lange veg un nisht baym shil.
B: Understood. [Tell them] they must see the Rabi, but take the long way, not the way around the temple.

Now I'm by no means an expert, as is evident by the blank I drew on the first part of the conversation. But to my knowledge, "the police" and "the temple" should both be feminine, i.e. "di politsye" and "di shil/shul". "By the temple" should therefore be "bay der shil" (בײַ דער שיל), not "baym (bay dem) shil". I'm also not quite certain about the "bayn der rebbe" part. Hearing "bayn" (בײַן) instead of the expected "baym" (בײַם) wouldn't be that strange, I do sometimes confuse my nasals. But "bayn/baym der rebe" definitely doesn't sound right - "baym rebe" (בײַם רבי) or "bay dem rebe" (בײַ דעם רבי) is what I would expect here. Same goes for "nemt den lange veg" and the absence of case suffix. If I'm not mistaken, "der langer veg" (which is what the Nominative is) should be here in the Accusative, i.e. "den langn veg" (דען לאַנגן וועג). And one more thing: notice how the name of the real Hasidic community reflects the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew - "Kiryas Joel", as opposed to "Kiryat Joel" in the Modern Hebrew/Sephardic pronunciation. Shouldn't the name of the fictional town (presumably קהלת משה in Hebrew) also be pronounced the Yiddish way and thus written "Kehilas Moshe" or even "Kehilas Moyshe" in English?
Of course I wouldn't expect a living language - which, thank God, Yiddish still is - to be exactly the same now as it was when it was recorded and described by Uriel Weinreich, Shlomo Birnbaum, Joshua Fishman and other great scholars of Yiddish. Doubly so in the light of the fact that standard Yiddish based on Lithuanian Yiddish is far from the only dialect there is and definitely not the one with most native speakers - Satmar Hasidim speak a Galician (Polish-Hungarian) dialect of Yiddish. Some change, especially due to language contact, would be expected even in case of close-knit communities such as the Hasidim - which is what I believe happened when instead of אָבער "but" we get [bʌt]. But as for the rest of the deviations from the Yiddish I know, if there indeed are any, I am at the end of my ken. So here is where I turn to you, my esteemed readership, to help me fill out the blanks in my transcription, especially that first line. And of course, I'd be immensely grateful if anybody could explain to me what is going on in that conversation. Who knows, we may even find out that my praise for the writers of Law and Order was a bit premature...


Anonymous said...

The reason you couldn't understand the first part of the dialog is because it is not Yiddish. It is "Di Politsiye zenen by de zehaveze (which is just yiddish sounding mumble)... the person on the other speaks Yiddish, but native chassidic Yiddish speakers do not speak a grammatical Yiddish. The articles and the cases are always a mess when you are talking to a chosid. Peope who learn Yiddish in class always know the difference between "der, di, dem, dos", chassidim always say "de" and they stick "n" and "m" where it doesn't belong.But I am disappointed - the guy wth the peyos answers "Da" into the Walkie-talkie. Russian, are we now?


dumneazu said...

Hasidic yiddish has been losing gender for the last forty years, possibly because of the influence of Hebrew replacing Yiddish in most literary contexts, while Yiddish remains the main spoken language (especially among the Satmars and Vizhnitzers up in Rockland County and in Brooklyn., NY)

bulbul said...

thank you :)

Russian, are we now?
The guy with the walkie-talkie might have been.

thank you too. Do you by any chance happen to know of any research into this?

Anonymous said...

modne; bulbulovo iz atsind farinteresirt mit klolim; m'hot frier farshtanen az er ken beser yidish vi yeder eyner.
nominativ : der langer veg
akusativ : dem langn veg

di politsey (af di ale yidishe dialektn) un nisht di politsya/politsye vos kumt avade fun rusish

un yo bay a sakh yunge khsidim (bifrat in amerike) iz di gantse beygung-sistem a tsefalene


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Yiddish said...

The translation was a bit inaccurate