How to Choose your Yiddish Dictionary

So you’ve decided to learn Yiddish and you want to know where to find the translation for a particular word. Or you’re finally taking the plunge into reading Yiddish literature in the original and you’ve come across dozens of words you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps you could care less about actually learning Yiddish but you want to know what that phrase your great Aunt was always saying under her breath actually meant. Or perhaps Yiddish is your native language and you speak it quite well but when talking to someone from another country in mame-loshn with whom you have no other common language you realize that you have no idea how to say “vacuum cleaner”, “mortgage”, or “grant proposal, ” let alone “oxygen” or “hydrogen bromide.” Or perhaps you want to try to decipher the meaning of your last name (or pronounce it as your family would have in the old country).

People turn to Yiddish dictionaries for all of the above reasons and then some. And unfortunately there are almost as many Yiddish dictionaries, phrasebooks and glossaries available as reasons to use them. I say unfortunately because Yiddish is one of the two or three most important languages in the world to not have either a standard monolingual or bilingual dictionary. By my own count I regularly consult a-half dozen Yiddish reference books, a German dictionary and Wiktionary.org (for Hungarian, Polish and Russian words) during the course of a typical week of reading Yiddish texts. I’m not doing this to be extra thorough or precise but because it is essential for understanding complicated texts. The lack of a standard comprehensive dictionary necessitates this.

Yiddish, is a language that has been (and still is) spoken in many countries by speakers who are almost always bilingual. And when languages are in contact speakers often borrow words from neighboring languages.

Standard literary Yiddish contains words from many origins (most prominently Middle High German, Hebrew/Aramaic, Slavic languages, French and English in that order) but is yet fairly standardized in usage. For instance, in standard literary Yiddish the word for pocket, keshene, is always of Slavic origin, the word for orphan is always of Hebrew origin, yosem, and the word for elevator is borrowed from British English lift. Colloquial Yiddish speech and writing, however, as well as newspaper prose, varies greatly by place and time.

In European Yiddish before WW2 words were often borrowed from Russian, Polish, German, and Hungarian depending on the origin of the speaker and his intended audience. In American Yiddish (both historical and the contemporary Yiddish of Hasidic communities) words are commonly borrowed from English.

In Israeli Yiddish, loan words from both Arabic and Modern Hebrew are common. Here’s a good example: In Yiddish the general term for “city-council” is a shtot-rat. But when referring to a particular city council a journalist is likely to use the word from the local language to refer to the local institution, so it would not be unusual to see “city council” transliterated into Yiddish letters in America or its Russian and Polish equivalents appearing in older articles from those countries. The same is true of the word mayor. The standard Yiddish word is birgermayster and although this word is universally understood I’ve seen the English, Hebrew, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, and even Spanish equivalents of the word in old texts from their respective countries. The “polyglotness” nature of Yiddish (and its speakers) makes the use of more than just Yiddish dictionaries necessary for reading older texts, especially older European ones.

Yiddish, like most living languages (but not modern Hebrew), also exists in various dialects which vary not only grammatically but also in terms of their basic vocabulary. Because of the wide range of languages Yiddish bumped up against these differences are more extreme than in American/British English (think differences like trunk/boot, eggplant/aubergine, pants/trouser being far more common). Because of this looking up a Yiddish word or determining an appropriate Yiddish translation for a word in another language can be difficult. The fact that no true comprehensive sources for looking up Yiddish words exists makes the problem even more acute. The situation is however, not unmanageable if one knows where to start.

An Overview of Yiddish Dictionaries

The first Yiddish dictionary, amazingly, was written in 1542 by Elia Levita in Italy (more famous for writing the Bovo Bukh), making the history of Yiddish lexicography considerably older than that of English and most other European languages. This work glossed the Yiddish words with their Latin, Hebrew, and German equivalents. Since then more than 150 Yiddish reference works have followed.

Today, comprehensive modern bilingual Yiddish dictionaries are available in the following languages: Belorussian, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew (both biblical and modern), Japanese, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

If you have a working knowledge of any of these languages in addition to English, it is a good idea to pick up one of these dictionaries (a full list is available here: http://www.yivoinstitute.org/index.php?tid=46&aid=104). Additionally, many books published solely in Yiddish focus on specific areas of Yiddish vocabulary. Such works include glossaries of technical terms, medical terms, legal terms, botanical and zoological terms. Several important works focusing on the Hebrew/Aramaic component of Yiddish also exist and are an essential item for any serious Yiddish student. Numerous “humor” books about Yiddish words also exist and vary tremendously in quality. Because I only speak English, Yiddish, and Spanish fluently, I will (with one exception) only discuss the quality of dictionaries written in those languages in the rest of this article.

Harkavy’s dictionaries

The first comprehensive Yiddish to English dictionary was published by the pioneering Yiddish lexicographer Alexander Harkavy in 1891 under the name Jewish-English Dictionary. A separate book followed several years later that supplied the Yiddish to English component and several editions of this book followed leading to Harkavy’s landmark bidirectional dictionary of 1910 which is available online in its entirety here:http://www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/yiddish/harkavy/index.utf8.html.

Although still a valuable resource, the dictionary cannot be relied upon by either English speakers trying to ascertain the meaning of a Yiddish word or Yiddish speakers trying to ascertain the meaning of an English one (although it is much more useful in the later case) for several reasons. The first and most important reason is that the dictionary, although bidirectional, is aimed at Yiddish speakers and not English speakers. Accordingly, when one looks up an English word in order to find its Yiddish equivalent, the Yiddish word given is often not a single word but an explanation, sometimes more like an encyclopedia than a dictionary. The Yiddish words, however, are usually glossed with a single English word. The other problems with this dictionary have to do with the time and style in which it was written.

At the beginning of the 20th century the influence of the German language upon Yiddish was at its highest point and Harkavy was part of a movement to bring characteristics of the German language into Yiddish. Accordingly, Harkavy’s dictionary supplies many German words as translations of English words that would be unfamiliar to Yiddish speakers both back then and today (for instance: floor is given as fusboden, podloge and dil. Dil and podloge are both used in Yiddish but no Yiddish speaker would ever have said fusboden, which is the German word). To English speakers unfamiliar with Yiddish using this dictionary it is impossib le to tell whether a word is Yiddish or German (or both as is often but not always! the case)

Harkavy also omits many common Yiddish synonyms, especially those of Hebrew origin in favor of those of German origin. For instance, the word for danger is glossed only as gefar (a perfectly fine Yiddish word) but the equally common equivalent sakone is not listed in either the Yiddish-English or English-Yiddish section.

Even more difficult is the dictionary’s orthography. While Yiddish orthography has never been entirely standardized (despite numerous claims to the contrary by members of various groups), this work like many of its time broke with traditional Yiddish orthography and instead of spelling words relatively phonetically, spelled them identically to how they would have been spelled in German (but just in the Hebrew alphabet). About a decade after this work was published Yiddish spelling returned to models much closer to its original more phonetic form and today this spelling system is quite different than any contemporary written Yiddish. As a result, for someone familiar with the style it is quite easy to recognize a Yiddish word in the dictionary but very difficult to look up the same word in the Yiddish-English section. And this spelling system makes the matter entirely confusing for students just beginning to learn Yiddish. The movement of replacing Yiddish words with their German equivalents also began to fall out of favor during this time. And interestingly one of the main advocates of this new “purist” movement was Harkavy himself. And his new loyalties were reflected later 1925 and 1928 dictionaries.

Harkavy’s brand new 1925 dictionary and its improved 1928 follow-upconstituted a great leap forward in Yiddish lexicography which remains an indispensable reference work for any serious Yiddish student. While Harkavy’s earlier dictionaries were prescriptivism (recording the language as the dictionary’s author would like it to be; i.e. establishing standards), Harkavy’s second dictionary was descriptivist (recording the language as spoken without passing judgments on the usage of its speakers).

Harkavy’s dictionary is the most comprehensive Yiddish-English dictionary available to date and records many Slavic and Hungarian loanwords that were in wide use in various dialects of European Yiddish which would not have been acceptable to linguistic purists.

The inclusion of these words as well as Yiddish words and grammatical features that were of very limited use makes the dictionary an invaluable resource and the first place to look for anyone wanting to learn the meaning of an unknown word in a Yiddish text. The dictionary, interestingly enough, also includes glosses in biblical Hebrew along with English making it accessible to anyone who knows biblical Hebrew but not English. Unfortunately, this dictionary provides no English-Yiddish section making it useless for someone who wants to find a Yiddish translation for an English word. This was not laziness on Harkavy’s part but a conscious ideological decision. Although he (and all Yiddish speakers for that matter) had opinions on which Yiddish words were “correct”, the goal of his dictionary was to enable anyone to ascertain the meaning of as many words used in Yiddish texts as possible (or any Yiddish speaker to easily find an English or Hebrew equivalent to whatever word they were familiar with). For that reason, although as previously mentioned the Yiddish word for mayor is birgermayster, the Russian word will also be listed in its own entry.

The spelling employed in this dictionary is also much more modernized, eliminating the difficulties in looking up words present in Harkavy’s previous dictionary. It can be purchased from YIVO or the National Yiddish Book Center and from old used book dealers.

Weinreich’s dictionary

Although woefully inadequate, Harkavy’s 1910 dictionary remained the only option for English speakers seeking to learn the Yiddish translation of an English word until 1968, when two new Yiddish dictionaries were published. One of them, Aaron Bergman’s Student Dictionary, soon fell into obscurity while the other, Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English dictionary emerged as the closest thing Yiddish has yet to a standard bidirectional reference work for English speakers. An abbreviated version is available online at www.yiddishdictionaryonline.com .

In the forty years since its publication, despite the publication of about a half dozen other English-Yiddish Yiddish-English dictionaries, no other work has come close to matching Weinreich’s book in quality or breadth. The spelling is modernized and more importantly consistent throughout and unlike Harkavy’s dictionary generally provides only common Yiddish glosses for English words.Weinreich’s dictionary also contains thousands upon thousands of idioms and expressions sorted by the key English word in the phrase, something which Harkavy’s dictionaries never included.

Although the first place to look for an English speaker seeking to translate an English word into Yiddish, Weinreich’s dictionary is unfortunately not without serious pitfalls. Like Harkavy’s first Yiddish dictionaries, Weinreich’s dictionary is also a prescriptivism dictionary and his opinions on what words constituted “real” Yiddish greatly impacted which words appeared in his dictionary. While Harkavy’s first dictionaries added German words into the language, Weinreich removed many common borrowings from modern German from his dictionary entirely. Other common German-loanwords that he chose to include were glossed to more “admissible” Yiddish words. This makes Weinreich’s dictionary inadequate for learning the meaning of many words that were commonly used in Yiddish literary texts and Harkavy’s 1928 dictionary must be used instead. Even more confusing for English speakers trying to learn the appropriate translation for some Yiddish words is the fact that Weinreich simply invented some words and inserted them into the dictionary unmarked alongside regular Yiddish words. These words were mostly for neologisms, concepts that had developed post WW2 and had no standard Yiddish translation.

Although often quite clever, these words are foreign to native Yiddish speakers unfamiliar with late 20th century Yiddishist Yiddish. Because these neologisms exist unmarked in Weinreich’s dictionary, words from this source cannot always be fully trusted. Although Weinreich’s dictionary would have you believe otherwise, there simply is no standardized Yiddish word for “skateboard,” or “vacuum cleaner.” (Although in the later case several common terms WERE widely used in European Yiddish, none of which appear in Weinreich’s dictionary, Weinreich instead uses the neologism shoyb-mashin “dust-machine,” which although comprehensible to most Yiddish speakers was as far as I’ve been able to find never actually used).

Niborski’s dictionary of Hebrew/Aramaic words

Another problem with Weinreich’s dictionary is that it is weak on Hebrew phrases commonly borrowed into Yiddish. Harkavy’s 1928 dictionary is much stronger in this area. Additionally, for those who know Yiddish well, the Paris based Argentinean born Yiddish scholar Yitskhok Niborski published an indispensable guide to Yiddish words of Hebrew/Aramaic origin in 1997.

The guide, published by Paris Medem Bibliotek, glosses thousands of Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases with Yiddish synonyms or definitions and is a must have item for any Yiddish speaker or advanced Yiddish student. While Harkavy’s 1928 dictionary is the first place to look for the meaning of most Yiddish words, Niborski’s work is the go to source for Yiddish words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin.

Niborski also coauthored one of the two Yiddish-Spanish Spanish-Yiddish dictionaries I am familiar with in 1979 (the other Yiddish Spanish dictionary I’ve seen is Konstantinovsky’s 1986 dictionary). If you know Spanish well Niborski’s work is worth having although if I remember correctly it is only a Yiddish to Spanish work. Niborski’s Yiddish-French dictionary, future dictionaries

In 2002 Niborski published a Yiddish-French unidirectional dictionary that is widely considered the best Yiddish dictionary available. Practically speaking, the dictionary is a compromise between Weinreich’s and Harkavy’s work, aiming to take in the wide range of words used in Yiddish but distinguishing them by register (colloquial, scientific, literary, slang,) and dialect/origin. It contains almost a third more words than Weinreich’s dictionary and although it marks their origin (for instance an Anglicism or a modern German borrowing is marked as such), the words are included which makes their translation possible. The work was also written in 2002 and not 1968 so it contains many terms for items that have developed in the intervening years. The work is currently being translated and reworked into English. Information about this ongoing project is available at verterbukh.org

Mordkhe Schaechter

The Yiddish scholar Mordkhe Schaechter , who published many books of specialized Yiddish terminology (botany, gastro-intestinal terminology, and childbirth among other topics) as well as a wonderful advanced Yiddish textbook (Yiddish 2), spent many years compiling a dictionary of Yiddish complete with terms aimed for 21st century life. Upon his death in 2007 the project remained unfinished although it is quite likely that an English to Yiddish dictionary will eventually emerge from his decades of research.

Practical Advice

With all of the preceding digested, here is the practical advice I can give you about Yiddish dictionaries: If you know a language other than English well, buy a bilingual dictionary for that language. Dictionaries available in French (Niborski’s) and several in Russian and Hebrew are particularly strong. For English speaking Yiddish students the first dictionary to purchase is Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English dictionary. If you are an intermediate student or a native Yiddish speaker, both Harkavy’s 1928 trilingual dictionary and Niborskis guide to words of Hebrew/Aramaic origin are indispensable.

When looking up a word in Yiddish take the following steps: If the word is of Hebrew/Aramaic origin, look it up in Niborski’s guide . If the word is not of Hebrew/Aramaic origin, look it up in Harkavy’s 1928 dictionary. For translating a Yiddish word into English, use Weinreich’s dictionary.

If you get far enough along, you will eventually need to purchase a German dictionary and become familiar with German orthography. Wiktionary.org can be very useful for finding the meanings of words of Slavic origin. As far as the other Yiddish dictionaries that exists for English speakers: don’t bother with them.