I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Your soul is a dark forest. But the trees are of a particular species, they are genealogical trees. --Marcel Proust

A part of what was lost nearly a century ago now, along with my Cousin Benjamin (see previous post), in my family's migration to the New World (new only for some, of course), was the little language of Yiddish. My grandmother (pictured on right) grew up with this language, but like nearly all first-generation US-born children, taught only English to my mother and her other children. She has told me that this loss was not an easy one: rocks were thrown at her as she walked to primary school, the funny Jewish girl with the even funnier tongue.

The origins of Yiddish are the subject of some debate,and speakers struggle to maintain the language itself.

Let me come close to the joy of the Yiddish word
Give me whole days and nights of it
Weave me, bind me into it
Feed me crumbs, with the crows
I’ll sleep on a hard bed
Under a leaky roof
Just don’t let me forget the Yiddish word
For a single Moment

-Jacob Glatstein, 1961

Click here to listen to excerpts of Yiddish read out loud. Yiddish-speakers, of course, are not the only ones fighting to maintain their language. (image above found here)

Why preserve a language that is dying? Wouldn't it be easier if we all spoke in the same way?

National Poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis addresses this point nicely:

You can read more of her work here. Our languages, like our bodies, are richly diverse. It is only through memory that we may hope to avoid the mistakes of our ancestors, and in language and body, memory is held.

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