Two old friends of The Vortsman have reached out with similar questions about Yiddish transliteration (or, as the academics prefer, transcription) into English letters. One wanted to know whether it should be goot or gut shabes in the traditional sabbath greeting. The other checked whether eynikl was the correct word for grandchild (it is) and then opined that the spelling “looked funny.”
We’ve repeatedly heard the argument that transliteration by the Standard established by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research just doesn’t accord with the common understanding of how English words sound when spelled in a particular way. We’d be sympathetic to that approach if it weren’t for the crazy, mixed-up, downright meshuge nature of English spelling.
For one tiny example, there’s the ever present use of “ch” to represent the sound found in Bach (the name, not the music). A long-forgotten GOP presidential aspirant became a laughing stock when she referred to someone’s “tshoots-puh,” her reading of the term commonly spelled as chutzpah. Too bad she (and the media) didn’t have the YIVO Standard spelling: khutspe.
And, how does a knowledgeable English speaker read aloud these words with the “ch” combo: Rachel, ache, moustache, Christmas? None of them “look funny” — except to folks trying to learn English.
Such folks abounded at NATO headquarters; they put together a rollicking poem about the craziness of English spelling. Some examples: creature/creation, corpse/corps, horse/worse, tear (in eye)/tear (paper), how/low and on, and on, and on. Those wishing to see the entire (long) list may contact The Vortsman.
So…just what is this YIVO Standard, anyway? In its full form, it’s rather complicated. But, have no fear, The Vortsman is here. (See how I slipped in another example of meshuge English spelling?) The chart below fully summarizes the Standard’s transliteration (transcription) rules. Try them. They might “look funny,” but remember Michele Bachmann.
The Vortsman’s Guide to Writing Yiddish in English Letters
a as in father
e as in lemon
ee as in heed (when spoken or sung)*
i as in kid (and in heed, for silent reading)
o as in not
u as in due
ay as in aye
ey as in grey
oy as in boy
*The Vortsman’s sole deviation from the YIVO Standard, to help singers/speakers: in eem (in him), rather than the Standard’s in im, which is adequate for silent reading.
There’s no need for an “h” when a word ends in a vowel.
dzh as in judge (take your pick)
g as in give
kh as in Bach or Kharkov
sh as in shoot
ts as in fits
tsh as in pinch
zh as in measure
All other consonants and combinations are as (usually) spelled in English.