Monday, March 19, 2012

Farms, Cattle, Linguistics, and Me

Guest Voice

We welcome back a regular Guest Voice, Prof. George Jochnowitz, who writes about language, geography and dialects. When he was a young boy in the 1940s, he worked on his parents' farm, learning to harvest onions and how to drive a tractor. More important, he learned about people and the different languages they spoke and the significance of regional dialects. Instead of becoming an engineer, as his parents might have hoped, Jochnowitz became a professor of linguistics. As he put it, "the farm was a good place to study linguistics."
by George Jochnowitz

I was born on August 1, 1937, just like Senator D’Amato. When I was five, my parents bought a farm in the Town of Goshen, Orange County, New York State. Starting in the summer of 1943, my parents and I spent summers and weekends there, although we usually didn’t go there during the winter. My parents, who believed in work for its own sake, worked in the city during the week and worked on the farm on weekends. At first they raised potatoes, but soon they realized that part of the farm was in the black-dirt area of Orange County, the nation’s largest onion-growing region at that time, and we switched to raising onions.

Sometimes I would work weeding onions, on my hands and knees, but it was a job I didn’t like, especially in the hot sun. At harvest time, however, I helped with screening the onions (scraping off the outer skin and dividing them according to size). Then when they were being weighed, I would put in or take out a few onions from the bags in order to make sure each bag weighed exactly 50 pounds. And then in the fall, the fields were disked with a disk harrow before they were plowed. I learned to drive a tractor when I was about nine years old, and I actually could disk a field by myself. A bit later, I learned to drive a car on the dirt roads that ran from field to field. Of course, I couldn’t drive on a public road. But I did learn to drive, and I took the New York State driving test the day after my 18th birthday and passed.

Most of the onion farmers in the area were from Poland or descended from people who had come from Poland. My parents, who had come from Poland, sometimes spoke Polish to them, but never enough for me to pick up the language. They never never spoke Polish to each other. When we visited my grandparents, everybody communicated in Yiddish, since my grandparents had come to America in their 50s and weren’t too good at English. I learned some Yiddish, but the only Polish words I knew were words my parents had never learned how to say in English: ropucha (toad), pokrzywa (stinging nettle), rusztowanie (scaffolding), etc.

In addition to the onion farmers, there were dairy farmers in the area. Some were descended from people who had lived there for generations. Others were recent arrivals from Holland. And then there was another group: cattle dealers. Cattle dealers also had to be dairy farmers, since they had to care for and milk the cows they hoped to sell. The cattle dealers were generally recent arrivals from Germany—Jews who had fled Hitler. Unbeknownst to me, they had a dialect of their own, a type of West Yiddish with lots of words pertaining to their business.

I was passionately interested in dialects, even though I didn’t know the word. It was quite obvious to me that the people we knew in Orange County didn’t speak like the people in New York City. In the city, bad and bared sounded the same. They didn’t rhyme with had. In Orange County, bad and had rhymed, and the r in bared was pronounced, just like on the radio. I learned to switch back and forth between my city and country pronunciations, but nobody noticed or cared.

My parents would have liked me to study engineering and take over their metal-products factory. They would have wanted me to be able to do real farm work. I did neither. I became a professor of linguistics instead. But it turned out that the farm was a good place to study linguistics. We had some bungalows on the farm, and after I had my degree in linguistics, we rented them to a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim. I noticed that the girls spoke English like Americans but some of the boys had Yiddish accents. I noticed that the Yiddish of the parents wasn’t uniform, but the children all spoke Yiddish the same way. In 1967 I questioned every parent and child about how they said different words and wrote an article, “Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children,” which was later published in American Speech.

The following year, after discovering that Italian Jews had their own dialects of Italian, I went to Italy to do research on the subject. I learned that the Hebrew root ganav, meaning “thief,” and the Italian infinitive suffix –are had led to the Judeo-Italian word ganaviare, meaning “to steal,” just as the same Hebrew root and a Yiddish infinitive suffix had led to the Yiddish word for “steal,” which is ganvenen. It was certainly a worthwhile experience to travel to Italy and record Judeo-Italian dialects. What I didn’t know yet was that West Yiddish cattle-dealer dialects were spoken in the very area where my farm was.

Most people don’t know about West Yiddish. We associate Yiddish with Eastern Europe, which is where a majority of the world’s Jews lived before World War II. Yiddish—a language very close to German—was spoken in areas where the surrounding populations spoke Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Belarusan, and other languages. The language was brought to the area by Jews fleeing from German-speaking areas during the Middle Ages. Most of them moved into the enormous Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, where they were relatively secure. Their Yiddish, a Germanic language with lots of words of Hebrew and Aramaic origin, adopted many local words, mostly from Slavic languages.

But before there was East Yiddish, there was West Yiddish. The earliest text dates from 1272, but the language may be rather older. West Yiddish, like Judeo-Italian, was a language very close to its surrounding language but included words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin and was typically written in the Hebrew alphabet. After the Enlightenment, German Jews became increasingly assimilated, started speaking German, and generally lost their knowledge of Yiddish. The only people who continued to use Yiddish were cattle dealers, although they too spoke German most of the time. Many of them managed to get out of Germany before World War II, and some moved to Orange County. I knew that there were Jews from Germany living in the area, but I didn’t learn that they spoke a rare, historic variant of Yiddish until it was almost too late.

I had read articles about West Yiddish, and I knew that it existed. Then one day, I heard a friend use a word or expression—I forget the details—and I realized it was West Yiddish. I started asking him questions. I started asking whether there were other people in the area who knew the language. I was told there were three. I decided to interview them all. One died before I ever got to meet him. The other two provided me with a great deal of information.

I learned that three letters of the Hebrew alphabet—daled, yud, and lamed—could be pronounced dales, yus, and lames. I learned that numbers were sometimes expressed by the names of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, following the ancient tradition of writing numbers in the years before Arabic numbers became almost universal. I learned that there was a word for “cow” pronounced bore, from the Hebrew para, all different from East Yiddish, where either ku, ki, or beheyme is used. I learned that instead of the word sider for “prayerbook” (from Hebrew siddur), the word tfile or pfile, from Hebrew tefila (prayer) was used. The word tefilà is also found in Judeo-Italian.

I have heard people speak of the Law of Unexpected Consequences. When my parents bought our farm, they thought it might enable me to combine the professions of agriculture and engineering, or to have the opportunity to choose one of the two. Instead, they furthered my career as a linguist by putting me in touch with Lubavitcher Hasidim and letting me hear West Yiddish while it was still spoken.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This memoir appeared in And Then, Volume 15, 2010. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz.  It is republished here with the author's permission.