Yinglish four hands, for fun and instruction

The Daily Mail, even though far from my favourite British paper, regularly posts very beautiful and interesting photo series. One example is this stunning selection from the New York municipal archives, which several friends of mine reposted on Facebook tonight. My partner Melinda, who is Jewish (and has ancestors on one side of her family who were merchants in NYC), was captivated  but also amused by this street scene from July 1908, from the Lower East Side:




Her amusement was directed at the large piece of bilingual signage in the right hand side of the photo. After she posted, she came by my desk and asked “Can you see why it’s funny?” Ok, a challenge!

Now my Yiddish is close to non-existent, and I still need to have an alphabet chart next to me to decipher Yiddish text, while she can read the Hebrew alphabet just fine. However, I’m often able to extrapolate some more complicated words from German. That is, together we make an irresistible Yiddish task force. But here I first refused her help and set off with my transliteration. Luckily, it didn’t take more than a few letters of the large text to figure out what had happened here.

After having a good laugh, we joined forces to transliterate the entire lower sign from Hebrew to Latin script so that I could blog its extraordinary oddness. Please forgive me — I’m not very good at spelling Yiddish with Latin letters, either, so the following is just my own best guess at how to write what’s on the sign. I take full responsibility for all crimes against the Yiddish language committed in it, other than what the original writers did.

extra news in die East Side!
ein groser bankratsil fon 15000 vare
mit ausferkauft veren[??] 15 tag
komt [xx] kauft grose bargain
vare vird ferkauft [xx]  halbe preise. komt [xx] [xxxx]

([xx] marks words that are too small to decipher – they can usually be guessed from context.) I could take a guess at the last word (clearly something like German “überzeugt euch”), and sorry again for the non-standard Yiddish transliteration. The gist of it all is this: The author of the sign didn’t know either how to say bankruptcy, news, men’s furnishings or bargain in Yiddish, and didn’t have a word for East Side. Anglicisms borrowed over directly into one’s target language are manifestly not a late 20th century invention.

Now if we could figure out what the small sign behind the Jewish boy in the middle of the image says.

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Comments (3)

  1. Geoff wrote::

    Attempted to improve on Chris’s transcription. Yiddish in brackets using standard Stage Yiddish orthography, with English in standard spelling:

    extra [noyes] in [di] East Side
    [ayn groyser bankrat] sale [fon] $15000 [vare]
    [fon] men’s furnishing
    [mit oysverkauft veren ?in 15 teg]
    [kamt ?und koyft groyse] bargains
    [vare vird ferkoyft mit helbe prayzen. kemt XX ?ibertsaynt oych]

    Monday, June 10, 2013 at 5:57 am #
  2. Mike Koplow wrote::

    Thank you for this. Thirty-five years ago or thereabouts, I was a messenger, and my late Yiddish-speaking grandmother described my work by saying “Er delivert peckedges.”

    A few observations, none of them on any specific transcriptions of yours.

    1. The YIVO chart is a little bit fallible here. Yiddish orthography isn’t standardized, and YIVO orthography is a modern intellectual orthography used only by atheists (just kidding about that last part). Point is, it’s not the one used in shop signs, either then or now. But they’re all pretty close.

    2. The author actually did know the Yiddish word for “news,” which is /nayes/, spelled correctly and almost YIVO’ly on the sign.

    3. Some styles of Yiddish writing (although not speech) are more like transliterated German than actual Yiddish, and that’s somewhat the case with this sign. For example, in German “ein” is both the number one and the indefinite article. In Yiddish, /ejn/ is the number one, but the indefinite article is /a/ or /an/, depending on whether the following sound is a consonant or a vowel. The sign uses /ejn/ (one) as an indefinite article.

    3a. You may have noticed that the Yiddish indefinite article works like the English one. It’s not an English borrowing, since it was used in Yiddish long before the language had contact with English.

    Again, very interesting. Thank you.

    Monday, July 29, 2013 at 6:10 am #
  3. walt slocombe wrote::

    Is the shop the boy is standing in front of a scissors grinder? The sign says something about grinding and it looks like the is a figure of a giant scissors among the stuff in front of the store.

    Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 7:32 am #