Birnbaum and the Distortions of Polemic

Ben Sadock

S. A. Birnbaum, Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 544 pages, $44.95

The publication of a second edition of S. A. Birnbaum’s Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar provides a good opportunity to reexamine this key volume. First published in 1979 by the University of Toronto Press, it is a book more often talked about than read. I myself had only flipped through it, though I parroted what was generally said about it: (1) the author is Nathan Birnbaum’s son, and (2) he uses a strange transliteration system of his own devising. This new edition, and especially the three new essays that accompany it, can help us move past this superficial summation and allow us to see Birnbaum’s work in the context of the debates, at times one-sided, that the author was embroiled in.

The first essay, by Birnbaum’s sons David and Eleazar, is biographical, with many personal touches that help humanize the august figure of Salomon Birnbaum. It concisely traces his life and the development of his scholarship and thinking, including his adoption as a young man of Orthodox Jewish observance, and it touches as well upon his important work on Hebrew paleography, a field he pioneered.

Next are two lengthier essays, the first by Kalman Weiser and the second by Jean Baumgarten. Weiser’s essay is an examination of Birnbaum’s work, built in part around juxtaposing it with Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish. Birnbaum and Weinreich do form a natural pairing; both were prodigies and the sons of prominent Yiddishists. Their points of contrast are also instructive: where Birnbaum was religious and identified with Hasidism and speakers of Southern Yiddish, Weinreich was secular and a native of Wilno, the center of Lithuanian Jewry and opposition to Hasidism. These contrasting points are crucial to understanding Birnbaum’s work; much of his book is informed by the stark dichotomy he draws between secular and religious Jews and between the northeastern, Litvish realm and the rest of eastern Yiddishland. For Birnbaum only the latter parts of these pairs were fully authentic; secular Yiddishism was rooted in Litvish assimilationism and cut Jews off from the only meaningful source of their identity.

If Weiser’s essay focuses on divergences, Baumgarten’s (translated from the French by Weiser) emphasizes the parallels—not with Uriel Weinreich but with his father, Max. Like Birnbaum, Max Weinreich had Yiddishist yikhes; he was the son-in-law of the Wilno ur-Yiddishist Zemach Shabad. Both Birnbaum and Weinreich were German speakers (as Weiser notes) who acquired Yiddish later in life. And both carried out their philological work as a component of their broader cultural projects. Most notably, Baumgarten explores the surprising similarities between the ideas of the two philologists: Just as Birnbaum underscored the centrality of traditional Jewish observance to the creation and survival of Yiddish, Weinreich famously wrote of the derekh ha-shas—the way of the Talmud—shaping Jewish life and the Yiddish language. Where Weinreich called Yiddish a “fusion language,” Birnbaum too, Baumgarten writes, saw Yiddish as being “composed of different elements … that combined over time to form … a linguistic system of its own.” 1 1 S. A. Birnbaum, Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), lx. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the body of the text are to this volume. And even when it comes to the vexed question of the origin of Yiddish, both ultimately trace its birth to the same time and place: the Rhineland in the ninth century.

Yet for Birnbaum himself, the similarities are eclipsed by the differences, and this results in a polemic that shapes his book. At times it leads him to make strange arguments. In his chapter on dialects, Birnbaum takes aim at those who would standardize Yiddish pronunciation:

“The members and friends of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, New York, have strong views on [standardized pronunciation]… . The original proponents of this ‘standard’ were speakers of the Northern [Litvish] dialect and so, without further ado and without discussing the matter or giving any reasons, they decided that their own pronunciation was the ‘standard.’ … It is ironic that the partisans of the ‘standard’—all convinced democrats—should ask the majority of Yiddish-speakers to switch over from their own pronunciation to that of the [Northern] minority.” (100)

There is much that is questionable here. Such a characterization of YIVO, the organization that co-published the great Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, a monument to the diversity of Yiddish dialects, is specious. As Weiser observes in a note, “Contrary to Birnbaum’s impression of conformity to a standard pronunciation, Chaim Gininger recalls that in the Vilna YIVO, ‘Each spoke with his pronunciation… . No one felt that if he spoke with a different pronunciation, it was less dignified” (lv n. 67). To the extent that there was ever a widespread belief among Yiddishists that Yiddish-speakers should adopt a Litvish or quasi-Litvish standardized pronunciation, it had passed by 1979. Mordkhe Schaechter, perhaps the fiercest proponent of standardizing Yiddish, maintained his native Bukoviner dialect throughout his life. And Yudl Mark, a Litvish advocate of standardized Yiddish, had the following to say the year before Birnbaum’s book appeared:

יעדער דיאַלעקטישער אַרויסרייד האָט זיך זײַנע באַזונדערקייטן, זײַנע חנען און זײַנע מעלות און איז געוויינטלעך ליב און טײַער דעם וואָס איז אַרויסגעוואַקסן אין און מיט זײַן אַרויסרייד. דאָס ווערט דאָך אַ טייל פֿון יענער האַרציקייט און נשמהדיקייט וואָס ליגט פֿאַרבאָרגן אין דעם כּישוף וואָס מיר רופֿן מוטער־שפּראַך. . . . ווען מע לערנט אַ לשון וואָס מען איז אין אים ניט אַרײַנגעבוירן און מע לערנט אים ווי אַ לעבעדיקע שפּראַך איז אַוודאי נייטיק ניט בלויז צו זײַן באַקאַנט, נאָר צו זײַן באמת געניט אין דעם איבערדיאַלעקטן, אין דעם כּללישן אַרויסרייד. (סײַדן מע האָט גאַנץ ספּעציפֿישע צילן זיך אָפּצוגעבן מיט איין באַשטימטן דיאַלעקט.)

Each dialectal pronunciation has its own particularities, its charms and its virtues, and is generally dear and precious to those who grew up in and with that dialect. This is, of course, part of the heartiness and soulfulness that lies buried within what we call the mother tongue… . When you teach a language as a nonnative language and teach it as a living language, it is of course necessary to be not just familiar with but truly proficient in the trans-dialectal, in the standard pronunciation. (Unless you have fairly specific goals to devote yourself to one particular dialect.) 2 2 Yudl Mark, Gramatik fun der yidisher klal-shprakh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1978), 15; translation mine.

Hardly a call for Yiddish speakers to give up their native dialects.

Birnbaum has further complaints about this pseudo-Litvish standard that reveal his bias when it comes to portraying the politics of YIVO’s klal-shprakh pronunciation. For example: “The exception [to the Northernness of the standard pronunciation] is the treatment of the Northern /ẹi/ when it corresponds to the Southern /oi/” (100). This results in the merger of the vowels in בוים and הויז, which, as Birnbaum notes (using his transliteration system), are bẹim and hoiz in Northern Yiddish and boim and houz in Southern. “Thus we have here an artificial merger,” one, Birnbaum points out, that is paralleled in New High German, in which the vowels are also merged (Baum and Haus). “That too, is ironic. The adherents of nationalist Yiddishism have … sought to eliminate the influence of g[erman] … and here we find them actually introducing a feature which, in effect, brings ‘Standard Yiddish’ closer to nhg [New High German]” (100–101). Birnbaum was as knowledgeable as anyone when it came to these matters, so he must be deliberately distorting things to paint them this way. For one, this merger also merges the vowels in גרויס and הויז, which are distinct in New High German (groß and Haus). Thus one could equally see this same detail of standardization as moving Yiddish away from New High German. Further, Birnbaum’s transliteration system preserves a distinction that does not exist in any modern Yiddish vernacular (or standard) but does exist in standard German pronunciation. He maintains the distinction of the four proto-vowels in the words זון (sun), זון (son), גיסט ([you sg.] give), and גיסט ([you sg.] pour), rendering them zjn, zjjn, gist, and giist. 3 3 Weiser includes a useful summary of Birnbaum’s orthography and transcription on xliv–xlvii. Birnbaum discusses it in more detail in 200–209 and 220–222. Northern Yiddish merges the first and second pairs, while Southern Yiddish dialects merge the vowels of זון (sun) and גיסט (give) into /i/ while keeping them distinct from the merged זון (son) and גיסט (pour) vowel, /i:/. Standard German pronunciation, like Birnbaum’s transcription system and unlike any Yiddish pronunciation, preserves four distinct sounds: long and short u, and long and short i. My point here is not that Birnbaum is Germanizing Yiddish but that he is being highly selective in marshaling evidence for his accusation.

In fact, I think that Birnbaum’s transcription system is phenomenally useful, at least from a philological standpoint. YIVO transcription reflects Yiddish orthography, which does not mark certain historical vowel distinctions that are preserved in various dialects. Students who come to Yiddish through books may not realize that komets-alef, for example, represents two distinct vowels, and they are often confused by dialects that keep them separate as /u/ and /o/. Birnbaum manages to create a system that distinguishes all thirteen proto-vowels of Eastern Yiddish, 4 4 As detailed by Marvin I. Herzog in The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1965), esp. 161. in contrast to the seven or eight vowels in Yiddish spelling: /a/, /o/, /u/, /i/, /e/, /ey/, /oy/, and, in some systems, /ay/. Of course, this puts his transcription at odds with Yiddish orthography, so he devises his own orthography to match his Romanization. One might justly complain that YIVO’s standardized Yiddish orthography differs too much from the spelling used in most Yiddish texts, but Birnbaum’s system, though it draws on historical precedents, is a degree of magnitude more farfremdt; one needs a fair amount of philological knowledge to use it correctly. Thus it is to the credit of the editors that in their extensive supplementary bibliography (and in the three essays) they successfully use Birnbaumian transcription. I noticed no mistakes in their transcriptions, which shows their expertise. The bibliography itself, furthermore, is a minor triumph; it is as comprehensive to the degree that any bibliography can be. This alone makes the new edition worthwhile.

Birnbaum’s book is really a collection of distinct parts: the survey, which tries to situate Yiddish historically; a collection of Yiddish texts in transliteration, spanning a broad range of Yiddish historically and geographically; two appendices on details of the history of Yiddish orthography; and the grammar, which is perhaps the most substantive section. It may be tempting to compare it to such grammars as Yudl Mark’s, Dovid Katz’s, or Neil Jacobs’s, but these are all monograph-length works, whereas Birnbaum’s grammar, at just over a hundred pages, makes up less than a quarter of this volume. Therefore the most fitting comparison, as noted in Weiser’s essay, is with Uriel Weinreich’s grammar appended to College Yiddish. 5 5 Mark, Gramatik; Dovid Katz, Grammar of the Yiddish Language (London: Duckworth, 1987); Neil G. Jacobs, Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Uriel Weinreich, College Yiddish, 6th ed. (New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1999). Weinreich’s grammar is one-third the size of Birnbaum’s. As such, Birnbaum’s is much more detailed, but this detail can be bewildering. As an example, Weinreich’s analysis of Yiddish verbs divides them according to conventional categories: base, present tense, imperative, etc. 6 6 Weinreich, College Yiddish, 315–322. Birnbaum, on the other hand, discerns exotic classes like the optative, permissive, prohibitive, and obligative moods, and he demarcates four distinct conjugations (261–291). The result is like much of Birnbaum’s work: rich, provocative, idiosyncratic, and overwhelming.

Ultimately, Birnbaum’s polemic warps his argumentation. And it is based, further, in a distinction without much difference. As Baumgarten shows, Birnbaum and Max Weinreich were in agreement about many things—including the origins of Yiddish and the role of religion in its birth and preservation—while the standardization Birnbaum rails against is largely a straw man. The Weinreichs and other prominent YIVO scholars loved dialects and did not want to standardize their pronunciation. Perhaps the main difference lay in their attitudes toward the role of traditional Judaism in the future of Yiddish, with Birnbaum seeing religious observance as essential not just to the past of Yiddish but also to its future. But even here there is consensus. Uriel Weinreich wrote in 1964: “In [contemporary Hasidic communities] the Yiddish language is reported to be entrenched more successfully, and more thoroughly communicated to new generations, than in any other sector of Jewish society.” 7 7 Uriel Weinreich, “Western Traits in Transcarpathian Yiddish,” in For Max Weinreich on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Alexander Erlich, Rachel Erlich, and Joshua A. Fishman (The Hague: Mouton, 1964), 264. Thus in his disagreement with YIVO and Weinreichian Yiddishism, Birnbaum turns out to be right, and yet in this disagreement, he also turns out to be, well, in agreement. The new essays in this edition, drawing attention to Birnbaum’s polemic and comparing and contrasting him with the Weinreichs, position the reader to appreciate this irony.

Sadock, Ben. “Birnbaum and the Distortions of Polemic.” In geveb, June 2017:
Sadock, Ben. “Birnbaum and the Distortions of Polemic.” In geveb (June 2017): Accessed Aug 16, 2017.


Ben Sadock

Ben Sadock is an editor and independent scholar.