A reader notes that nisht and nit are both used in Yiddish to denote “not,” often in the same paragraph or song lyric. He asks: is one more desirable than the other, and is there a rule about which to use when?
Good questions. The Vortsman—certainly not a philologist—isn’t sure he has a good answer. There’s a vague memory about a rule, but…
The newest (2002) Comprehensive Yiddish-English dictionary offers this clue: while nit takes up more than two columns worth of entries, nisht merits only seven individual listings, two of which direct the searcher to compare the equivalent nit entries. A similar major-minor contrast is found in earlier dictionaries. So…we’ll go with the majority: nit it is.
Which brings up the overall question of Yiddish grammar, recently discussed in the Yiddish forverts by Hershl Glasser. He notes that the question “does Yiddish have a grammar?” was first raised 152 years ago (1863) by Aleksander Tsederboym (Cederbaum), as modern Yiddish was first developing. Glasser also notes that Ber Borokhov—both the first Yiddish philologist and the founder of Left Socialist Zionism—stressed that languages such as Latin and Russian had many complicated declension systems, while Yiddish had only three and English only one.
No question, though, that Yiddish, like every language, has an accepted, normalized grammatical structure; as in all other languages, it’s subject to evolutionary changes.
People who speak only English are confused by gender differences and their declensions in other languages, such as “El” and “La” in Spanish. And, in Yiddish, der (masculine: der foter iz a sheyneR), di (feminine: di muter iz a sheynE) and dos (neuter: dos kind iz a sheynS). In English, they’re all the same: the father, the mother, the child are all attractive: no changes in the article, “the,” nor in “attractive.” No genders, no declensions, no problem.
(Things get even more complex when we throw “case” into the mix: but this isn’t a language lesson.)
Some people in The Vortsman’s generation who spoke Yiddish, but not too-well, “solved” the der-di-dos “problem” by muttering a non-defined duh to take the place of all three. Turns out that the same “solution” is prevalent among today’s Hasidic and Haredi speakers of the argot that is sometimes called Hareydish or Yeshivish.
A language is a living thing that grows. Yidish lebt! Yiddish lives!
The Vortsman welcomes queries—and disagreements—from readers about Yiddish words and phrases. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.