Jun 22, 2016
To view an updated vocabulary list, reflecting readers’ responses, click here or on the download to the right.
Vardit Lightstone’s piece “How Do You Say ‘Parents’ In Yiddish?” generated so much feedback that we thought we should run a special post addressing some of the questions raised and the feedback generated. The original post included a vocabulary sheet with some basic Yiddish terms for queer sexualities and nonbinary genders, but we knew we could find more.
Lightstone, and the In geveb editorial team, asked readers to respond with other Yiddish words for non-normative genders and sexualities that they use or have overheard in speech. Shayn Smulyan wrote to say that he had seen the word oysterlish used for queer, and ibergeminter for transsexual. Our own editor Diana Clarke has seen gendertreyf—a Yiddish-English neologism for an in-between or both/and identity—in the bio of cultural worker and organizer Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky. Gendertreyf (or dzhendertreyf) is particularly interesting because it is neither just a calque nor only a neologism. One easy English translation is “genderqueer,” but the forbidden connotation of treyf renders the word closer to genderfuck, a term that indicates intentional troubling and defiance of (that is, fucking with) traditional gender categories. Arele (Arun) Viswanath wrote in to say that he was “looking forward to more content that touches on the intersection of Yiddish and modern realities,” and offered some corrections to our vocabulary sheet. We’ve attached a revised version, incorporating both Arele’s corrections (though we kept dos partner as a gender-neutral term) and Shayn’s suggestions. It seems important to note that it was easier to find Yiddish terms for older, perhaps more widely socially acceptable, terms like gay, lesbian, and bisexual.
Zackary Sholem Berger wrote with additional questions about useful words for which, so far, we haven’t found Yiddish translations. Feel free to send us suggestions at [email protected]. (We will update the vocabulary sheet as we learn more.):
Vi zogt men:
Trans man/cis man
Trans woman/cis woman
LGBTQ (as an adjective)
A somewhat separate subject emerged as a conversation on Facebook. A commenter wanted to know why these terms in Yiddish borrowed so heavily from English. To that we would answer: to the best of our knowledge, so do quite a number of other languages, if not most! Polish, for example, uses gej and lesbijka, and transpłciowy or trans (płciowy meaning “sexual”), a direct calque. “Queer” can be rendered as kłir, adapting the English term but getting away from Anglo-centric spelling. German-speakers often use homosexuell, queer, intersexuell, and intergeschlechtlich (intersex). Schwul and gay are both used (the latter generally only in written form), as well as lesbisch. Hebrew seems also to borrow liberally from English (homo, lesbit, bisexuali/t). Of course, all languages also have variants, slang, and derogatory terms, but those are outside the scope of this post, and of most classroom discussions. So: Yiddish is certainly not the only language to borrow heavily from English for its LGBTQ terms; many other languages take English loan words, morphologically adapting them.
(Special shout-outs to our corresponding linguists Jodi Grieg, Anna Koch, Jeremy Lin, and Shayna Weiss!)
Lightstone had a few words to add about the role she sees the internet playing in this conversation and in the future development of Yiddish as a whole:
“This conversation around LGBTQ vocabulary, beginning with my search for the vocabulary and continuing in this response, shows how the internet can be used to both collect and provide Yiddish vocabulary necessary for our evolving and lived realities. Some of this vocabulary either did not exist or was not part of common parlance until relatively recently, like words for transgender, or it was taboo, for example sexual vocabulary. The vocabulary, therefore, is either extremely hard to find or simply cannot be found in the most frequently used sources: text books, dictionaries, and classic Yiddish literature. The common alternate sources for language learning, family and friends, either often have the same gaps in knowledge as we do or, for many of us, have even less information (in my case, none of my family and only a small group of my friends know Yiddish).
This is where the internet comes in. The internet connects Yiddish speakers who do not know each other personally and who live around the globe. Yiddish speakers sometimes use various internet forums to look for, request, and suggest vocabulary which either does not yet exist or which is only known to a few (due to lack of access or perhaps simply because it is found in a lesser read text). In geveb is incidentally one of the spaces in which this exchange of vocabulary happens, as it publishes pieces which in one way or another include lesser-known words.
Neal McLeod, poet and professor of Indigenous Studies at Trent University (Canada), created a crowdsourcing project for contemporary Cree vocabulary—a language with a much more shattered chain of transmission than Yiddish. Perhaps his project can be a model for a new digital Yiddish project, designed to share but also create vocabulary needed to express our lived realities. Such a project could also be designed to reflect the variety within contemporary Yiddish, and the organic nature of the language—e.g. including the different word used by Polish Yiddish speakers and English Yiddish speakers to express the same thing.”
We are so appreciative of all your feedback and questions. We’re happy that this is a topic of interest to so many of you, as we try to blend our love of Yiddish with our lived realities. As always, you can contact us with more suggestions and questions (and if you’re reading this via social media, keep the conversation going there!).