The Role of Linguistic Folklore in Yiddish Literature

Meir Viner


Introduction: Formulation of the Problem

Linguistic folklore in literature is a component of realistic style. At first, new or renewed literature is usually realistic. The same reasons that introduce common language into book-literature—the subversive urge to elevate a certain social or political stratum and make it independent of the prevailing social orders—and to make it independent from the ruling social layers—these reasons lead, as a matter of course, to primitive realism: it is an instrument used to criticize the social or state-political order. On the other hand, the same reasons lead, initially, to a populist, romantic relationship to linguistic “ethnography” with all its decorative elements. Not only because in order to be able to write at all in a literarily not yet or only slightly stabilized language you must at first write the way people speak, the way it rolls off the tongue, but also because there is an explicit sentimental attraction to this folkloristic national treasure. This is common to every literature.

However, as soon as primitive realism has developed [ . . . ] into an artistic realistic style, it turns its educational-critical aim not only against the “external” social-political order, but also against the “internal” defects in the way of life of the social stratum it wants to serve. And at that point, the attitude to linguistic folklore will also become differentiated. [ . . . ] This becomes ever more apparent in Yiddish literature with time, until after Mendele and Sholem Aleichem. And, since the folksy language element in itself has a character-defining meaning in Yiddish literature, it would be useful to take as an example a work from one of the most interesting writers of the renewal period, Shloyme Etinger’s Serkele, and by analyzing it find out: 1) why is it that the anecdotes of the negative figures use abundant linguistic folklore; 2) as for a general and [ . . . ] normative evaluation—to what extent is the use of folkloric language and idiom in literature good and useful?

Origins and Degeneration of the Idiom

[ . . . ] When a primitive or culturally backward person has to express a chain of thoughts or verbally react to events that are too complicated for existing adjectives and other ways of expression, he will help himself out with borrowed descriptions or the imagery of affective expressions. If such a sequence of words that was improvised for the first time is used again and again and in various situations, its meaning is obvious, and it becomes consistent. This sequence of words will gain emphatic effect, and if it is agreeable, it will become part of general usage. [ . . . ] It will then frequently be used even in such situations when it does not fit the concrete meaning and content in every detail. It will be used more and more often, whether because of part of its meaning (the dominant one) or because of one of its connotations, or even just part of a connotation that aims to clarify certain characteristics of concrete phenomena or emphasize a certain meaning. By being used repeatedly in situations where it is only partially appropriate, the idiom will become polished, and so it will have a chance to overcome several difficulties. In order for an idiom’s meaning and connotation that are most of the time only partially appropriate to become comprehensible, one has to arrive at a number of interpretative thought processes: the idiom absorbs a whole range of associations. This makes the idiom a suitable tool for expressing concrete cases. Born out of inaptness, the idiom becomes a sharp and multidimensional instrument of expression. [ . . . ]

In addition, we need to consider the consciousness of the speaker. His manner of speech is not objective, he is not saying what his main point is. He talks with a grin, somewhat indisposed. [ . . . ] An apologetic smile meddles in the conversation constantly. The tone of language becomes more and more parodic, defensive, and filled with bitter self-irony. The language becomes ironic, parodic; it ferments like potatoes grown in a basement that sprout again and again unhealthily, pulling moisture not from the earth but from the humidity of the basement and from itself.

And that is how it happens that at a certain point in time, language—especially if it is still in a pre-literary state, i.e., it is still an idiom or a regional dialect that has barely been touched by literary language—consists of nothing but rubbed out, thick, and swollen idioms, flowery expressions, sayings, proverbs, folk-song lines, meaningless words, expression of emotions (curses, blessings, swear words, praise words, etc.), and other types of linguistic folklore. The language no longer expresses what the speaker wants to say, but rather what the language itself wants and can express. [ . . . ]

Now the original essence of linguistic folklore surfaces and becomes clear. Linguistic folklore was, from the very beginning, a form of emergency help: instead of calling things by their name, instead of characterizing them with a precise adjective, they imperfectly described or circumscribed concepts and images. Now this inadequacy appears to its fullest extent. [ . . . ] The inexactness of the idiom will now be exploited by all those who, by using flowery expressions, stereotypical phrases, and meaningless language signs, actually want to conceal their ideas rather than express them, those who speak loquaciously and do not actually “get to the point.” In this phase, this “funny” proverbialism and forced [use of] phraseology no longer has any connection whatsoever to “healthy primitivity,” “freshness,” and “naïveté,” which people usually mistake for the nature of all linguistic folklore. [ . . . ]

This kind of speech is not “naïve” at all; on the contrary, it is highly guileful, although essentially limited and defective. Crafty and thoroughly tested in usage during long periods of backwardness, this overgrown manner of speech is an instrument of trade, of bargaining; it is the common language of commerce. The poor small-merchant and the luftmentsh—in other words, the lumpen petty-bourgeoisie—of remote and politically and economically crippled Tuneyadevke, Glupsk, and Kabtsansk is trying hard [ . . . ] to arrive at some favorable position, whatever that might be. [ . . . ]

Book Phraseology in Manner of Speech

At the beginning of its renewal (early nineteenth century), the Yiddish language was loaded not only with its own linguistic tradition but also with lots of linguistic material, phraseology, and syntactic forms that did not grow from its own linguistic soil. What we mean here are those elements that came from the inherited Hebrew religious and cultural tradition. [ . . . ]

However, as much as the Yiddish language has been bound to written Hebrew and its influences for centuries, Yiddish also played a role in fossilizing Hebrew. The influence was double: 1) direct influence through the constant flow of religious, secular, and especially abstract terms, words, entire phrases, quotations, idioms, proverbs, curses, blessings, etc. in their original, not at all or only slightly adapted (“Yiddishized”) forms; and 2) direct influence through the significant translation literature that always remained slavishly faithful to the original text, took over its archaic forms, sentence structures, and used every possible means to preserve the character of the original.

A struggle became necessary, which was not unlike the struggle of the Russian literary language against the hindering effects of Church Slavonic in the eighteenth century, or the struggle of the European national languages against Church Latin. Yiddish literature had the task of freeing Yiddish, both the spoken and written language, of its own linguistic folklore and the linguistic folklore imposed by Hebrew [ . . . ], and to do it very carefully, without causing harm to its important parts. [ . . . ]


Returning to the problem we formulated above, the following conclusions can be drawn:

The hypertrophic, exaggerated linguistic folklore of a certain period is the linguistic expression of social and societal paralysis. In life, the actual function of this manner of speech is to cunningly hide the speaker’s real intention. In this manner of speech we can feel a playful flippancy and self-irony; the density of the folkloristic elements sometimes sounds like one big farce, mockery of their own social and societal situation. Thus, in its literary reproduction, this manner of speech serves as an instrument of satire, critique (in the works of writers from Wolfsohn and Levinson until Sholem Aleichem). To some extent this manner of speech, which at times has been treated sentimentally, itself becomes the object of criticism. [ . . . ]

Thus, we cannot say that the use of linguistic folklore, linguistic folksiness, regional dialects, and sociolects always indicates “healthy freshness,” “originality, and creative naïveté.”

However, those parts of the old and regularly blossoming new linguistic folklore, book language, regional idioms, etc. that can serve—if they are applied with discipline and reformulated—to express hitherto unexpressed phenomena need to be evaluated positively in an artistic sense. Everything else is doomed to fall apart and disappear, and is only relevant for philological documentation.

This must be emphasized especially today, because new language sources are gushing to the surface from the masses and from the hitherto silent provinces, and with their overflowing abundance they produce a stream of verbiage, misuse, and seemingly new discoveries that are actually often recurrences; they reformulate concepts that had already been successfully fixed in the language a long time ago. New language material must be curbed by strict and merciless critical discipline that rejects superfluous loquaciousness and sets itself a goal: achieving maximum understandability with the utmost frugality in using linguistic devices; achieving maximum clarity, plasticity, flexibility, and ability to express nuances with the minimum use of linguistic shifts.

Translated by


Meir Viner, “Di rol fun shprakh–folklor in der Yidisher literature” [The Role of Linguistic Folklore in Yiddish Literature], from Shriftn (Kiev: Kultur–Lige, 1928), pp. 73–91, 102–104.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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