To many, Yiddish has got a flavour of shtetl nostalgia to it, but anybody who is friends with native speakers knows that the language is alive and thriving and as colourful as it gets.
Between Leo Rosten and Uriel Weinreich, a lot of books have been written about Yiddish, some great, others so-so. Among the most entertaining ones, in my humble opinion, are Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch and his most recent Just Say Nu. Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do).
I started reading Just Say Nu on my flight on Wednesday (thanks to the nice lady at the check-in counter, I had a row of seats all to myself; a post on annoying fellow travellers is soon to follow) and kept reading it on the train here, and so far I’m greatly delighted. Wex possesses the skill not only to explain the origins of Yiddish phrases and how they, in part, have influenced common English aside from Yiddishisms, but also to do a pretty good job at embedding the pecularities of Yiddish into its native speakers’ particular culture with its superstitions, obsessions and latent tendency to kvetch. Wex’s manner is amusing, not lecturing, yet very educational at the same time.
While this book can certainly be enjoyed by anybody who is interested in languages and how culture shapes language use and while Wex does provide English translations for his sample sentences, some basic knowledge of either Yiddish or German will definitely be helpful to enjoy all the nuances and flavours of the examples Wex provides.
So, if you’ve always wondered how to say, “My name is Maurice, but some people call me the Space Cowboy” or to how to sing Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” in Yiddish, if you’ve always wanted to dumbfound the family at get-togethers with mysterious slurs, blessings and comments on whatever catches your attention, grab yourself a copy of Just Say Nu. I’ll soon enough try it on my family and will let you know how it works.
(Note to Muffti, there is also a Kindle version of the book.)