Yoshe & Yiddish dialects #general

Prof. G. L. Esterson <jerry@...>

There has been a JewishGen thread on the topic of the Yiddish given
names Yoshi and Yoshe, and I have received several inquiries
concerning other similar names, like Yeyzhe >from Kiev,
Ukraine. Similar discussions also occur >from time to time about other
Yiddish names, so I think that it is worthwhile to try to clarify a few
issues related to these threads. All of them are related to Yiddish
given names, as opposed to the Hebrew given names to which they are
linked (in the present case, the Hebrew name Yosef).

Yiddish given names are mostly of interest to Jewish genealogists
researching their ancestors in East-Central (e.g., Poland) and Eastern
Europe (Lithuania), rather than in Western (France) and West-Central
(Germany) Europe. Yiddish began its development around 1000 CE, but
around 1500 CE had reached such a stage that when the printing press
was invented, a standard written version of Yiddish was planned,
developed, and used. This standard written Yiddish was used
continuously throughout Europe during the period 1500-1900, after which
a new Standard evolved, culminating in the 1930s YIVO Standard for
written Yiddish.

One must distinguish between Yiddish as it was (and is) written and as
it was pronounced, for this has important implications for
genealogists, as we shall see. As with written and spoken English,
Yiddish was written in only one variety, but pronounced in four
different dialects. There is but one way to write English, but there
are different pronounced dialects by country (US, UK, Australia, South
Africa, etc.) as well as localized dialects within each country (Texas,
Boston, Atlanta). In fact, it is quite easy to identify women who were
born in Johannesburg by their distinctive dialect. The same is true of
Yiddish in European countries, as well as the sub-dialects within those

It is also necessary to define several broad categories of Jews over
the centuries: Religious, Cultural, Secular, and Converted (Jews who
convert to Christianity are still considered formally to
be Jews). In general, there has been a steady flow of Jews >from the
left categories to the right one, and this has led to "Jewish genes"
being found among today's Christians.

During the four centuries 1500-1900, there developed four distinct
Yiddish dialects: Western (German), Lithuanian, Polish/West-Galician,
and Ukrainian. During the Age of Enlightenment (1700-1900), Western
and West-Central Jews (particularly German Jews) eagerly sought
absorption into their country's culture. Moses Mendelsohn (1728-86)
particularly encouraged this. This led to German Jews eagerly
embracing German culture. The result was that Western Yiddish
gradually lost favor and was then considered a "bastardized" German
rather than a true language. Thus, Yiddish continued in use in Germany
mainly by the religious Jews and was abandoned by the main stream --
cultural, secular, and converted Jews. The result was that the given
names we see in German records are by and large German, Christian, and
European names rather than Yiddish names.

However, in most West-Central (Poland) and East European (Lithuania)
countries, where Yiddish became "Mame Loshen," Yiddish and Yiddish
given name development proceeded at a rapid pace. The names we see in
archival documents reflect this. Documents prepared by the Jewish
community (Rabbi electors lists, community records, etc.) all contain
Yiddish given names written in the then-existing Yiddish
standard. However, archival documents resulting >from governmental
activities were obtained by interviewing Jews and transliterating (in
real time) the verbal names into Polish, Cyrillic, or another European
language. The results are different -- the Jewish records give the
standard Yiddish spellings, while the governmental records give the
current pronunciations (in various languages) as interpreted by the
interviewer. Whether or not the latter are accurate is another
question which will not be dealt with here.

(One can also see variations in these patterns within one country. For
example, in Lithuania, in the Siauliai district, one hardly sees any
given names other than Yiddish names -- no Lithuanian or other-European
names. Yet, as one goes south and west not far >from the boundary with
Poland (say, near Mariampole), one begins to see numerous European
given names in addition to the Yiddish names. And in Poland itself,
there is a generous distribution of European given names in addition to
the Yiddish names. It goes without saying that there are local
preferences >from shtetl to shtetl for one or another given name within
East European countries.)

So, we have Icik >from a government record, while we have Itsik
(transcribed to Latin >from Yiddish, using the YIVO standard) from
Hebrew/Yiddish documents. If one looks at the new Yad VaShem data
base, there are nearly 1,300 variants for the kinuim of the Hebrew name
Yitzchak. These are not all different names, but rather include
spelling errors made by the submitters of the memorials to Yad VaShem,
alternative languages of origin of the data, attempts to transcribe the
names given in written Yiddish (or Yinglish) into an "equivalent" Latin
version, or other factors. Our ancestors had specific pronunciations
which varied geographically.

Thus, Yiddish given names derived >from Yiddish sources were actually
pronounced locally according to the local Yiddish dialect, although
each one was written exactly the same way in different
countries. These dialects differ mostly in the vowels and
consonants. Therefore, one could make a case (not completely
supportable, but adequate here) that the vowels mostly determine the
differences between the dialects, while the consonants remain more or
less the same. Thus, it would not be surprising, in addition to Yoshe,
to see Yosha, Yoshi, Yosho, and various others "derived" >from these
("Yoshko"). And these would be adopted preferentially in different countries.

Thus, one might expect for the transcribed Yiddish name Yoshe, to see
Yoshe in Lithuania, but Yeyshe in Poland and Ukraine in accord with
their different pronunciation of the standard Yiddish in those two
countries. Furthermore, it is known that certain Slavic consonants
were preferred in some Yiddish dialects as compared to others. For
example, the slavic consonant "zh" (pronounced somewhat like the "s" in
"pleasure") was more popular in some countries (Ukraine) than in others
(Lithuania). So, the pronunciation Yeyshe in Kiev is not surprising.

I hope that this discussion is helpful to Jewish genealogists.

Professor G. L. Esterson, Ra'anana, Israel

Stan Goodman <stan@...>

jerry@... (Prof. G. L. Esterson) opined:
It is also necessary to define several broad categories of Jews over
the centuries: Religious, Cultural, Secular, and Converted (Jews who
convert to Christianity are still considered formally to
be Jews). In general, there has been a steady flow of Jews >from the
left categories to the right one, and this has led to "Jewish genes"
being found among today's Christians.

Several assertions in Prof. Esterson's generally valuable discussion
are not above challenge, or are subjective. The one egregious one that
caught my eye is that quoted above. In Halakha, onee who has accepted
voluntarily another religion has cut himself off >from the Jewish
People, and is no longer considered a Jew. There are groups, e.g. the
Reform stream and "Jews for Jesus", that do not accept this
limitation, simply because they do not accept Halakha altogether; if
they are what Prof. Esterson meant, he should have said so. For Jews
who subscribe to the idea that a people, like any other social entity,
makes rules to define itself, and that Halakha embodies those rules,
the assertion is false.

Stan Goodman, Qiryat Tiv'on, Israel

ISMACH: >from Lomza Gubernia, Galicia, and Ukraina
HERTANU, ABRAMOVICI, LAUER: >from Dorohoi District, Romania
GRISARU, VATARU: >from Iasi, Romania

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MODERATOR NOTE: Discussion of Jewish law and religion, except as they
pertain to genealogy, are off topic for this forum. Any further discussion
of the these matters should be continued privately. The Thread for
discussion of the name Yoshe and Yiddish dialects remains open.

Ellen Zyroff <ezyroff@...>

Thanks to Professor Esterson for addressing not only the specifics of
"Yoshe" variations, but also the broader historical and linguistic
contexts in which such variations developed.

Ellen Zyroff
La Jolla, California