Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Yiddish Spelling: Harder Than Chinese Algebra

"Yiddish scholars objected to the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was won by a 13-year-old from Queens who spelled the name of a traditional dumpling “k-n-a-i-d-e-l” in accordance with Webster’s Dictionary, rather than the traditional spelling, “k-n-e-y-d-l.” “K-n-a-d-e-l,” said a Yiddish speaker at a Bronx seniors center. “K-n-a-w-d-l-e,” said a man at a nearby table. “There’s no real spelling of the word,” said the owner of a Manhattan deli that sells T-shirts reading “kneidel."
                                                                           "Harper's Weekly Review," June 4, 2013

When I was a lad in knee breeches sending hoops down the sidewalk with a stick and selling door-to-door subscriptions to "Boy's Best Chum" whilst peeling someone's Fleer Dubble Bubble off the soles of my gum shoes, I was a fearsome speller. In those palmy days before Texas Instruments, before illicit under-the desk smart phones with spelling apps, we had classroom spelling bees, school-wide spelling bees, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian spelling bees ("homiletics, h-o-m-i-l-e-t-i-c-s, soteriology, s-o-t-e-r-i-o-l-o-g-y . . ."). We had Fourth of July spelling bees, county fair spelling bees ("heifer, h-e-f-f-e-r . . .").

 Miguel as a fourth-grade spelling champion

I was always the last man standing, so to speak. I could correct the sometimes erratic spelling of my teachers to a point at which my largesse was spurned and I sulked in satisfying contempt of a figure whom God had placed in authority over me. The teachers would turn niggardly and give me only the easiest words to spell after a while, figuring everyone else needed the practice. I once had a mental block, early in one such contest when I was getting the easy pitches: "art - a-r-t-e." Sniggers. "Try it again." "Art - a-r-t-e." Crude laughter, and finally I mentally heard my mistake. On the world tour I would have been packing my prepubescent portmanteau (say that one fast - or spell it).

 "P-r-e-p-u-b-e-s-s . . ."

This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee winner is a kid from Queens named Arvind Mahankali. Arvind, being from an ethnic group more of the chappati-paratha persuasion, has never even tasted a knaidel, but - who knew? - he was able to spell the German-derived Yiddish word for a matzo ball to earn the trophy and more than $30,000 in cash and prizes. "The German curse," Arvind said, "has turned into a German blessing."

The 'German curse'? Hmmmm . . . the suburbanite's Porsche Cayenne? linzertort with a chocolate crust? (no, Austrian) . Maybe fat people on Greek islands wearing shorts and bikinis? Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . no, Austrian again. I meant Angela Merkel, they look alike. Oh, now I get it - according to a local news website, "Arvind finished third the two previous years, eliminated both times on German words." Fair enough, I've fluffed "Fahrenheit." (German words always seem like they need a terminal exclamation point as part of the spelling. Where would "Arbeit Macht Frei" have gotten without at least an implied punkt?) And why should some skinny Indian kid from Jackson Heights (just a guess) know German from Gujarati, or Yiddish from Yugoslavian? I mean, could you spell the Gujarati word for 'bugger off'?

Arvind at work

So this young stand-up orthographer gives a Webster spelling for a yiddish word and the world of Judaic orthographic scholarship (all eleven in attendance at the last world convention in the Tel Aviv Ramada Garden Inn) is protesting as though it's the World Cup and they should burn the Egyptian stadium down. As though Yiddish orthographic precepts were to be discovered by a careful reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . 

. . . I mean to say, is it schwanz or schwans, schwanse or shvansig? What was ordained to Moses? No, make that Moishe. I grant you it's a Yiddish scholar's job to object, but give the kid a leedle break. Take a rest. You shouldn't be so much upsetting yourself. You should probably call your mother oftener. I'm not saying you should have a good time, just not a terrible time.

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