Mother Tongues

Mother Tongue (noun): the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood.

            My mother tongue is English. My father’s mother tongue is English, too. My father’s father’s mother tongue was Yiddish. It was the only language he spoke until he was eight, when he fled his hometown.

            My father’s father married a woman who spoke Yiddish. They spoke it sometimes to each other, but they did not speak it to my father. They did not speak it to my father because they were afraid for him; they were afraid that even though they were raising him in America, where they came in hopes of being safe, teaching him Yiddish would mark him for violence and alienation. Even here, they were afraid.

white printer paper

Schmuck (noun, pejorative): a foolish or contemptible person, lit. male genitals.

            “I just think it’s such a perfect word for him,” my non-Jewish thirteen-year-old friend said about the word schmuck. The “him” in question was a classmate she had a not particularly well-founded distaste for her. I didn’t know how to tell her that to many Yiddish speakers, schmuck is too offensive a term for this context. 

            “Yiddish just does such a better job of expressing things than English!” she gushed. It would be the better part of a decade until I was finally taught that many Jews in concentration camps only spoke Yiddish. They could not express anything to their captors or their non-Yiddish speaking neighbors. Many of them would never express anything again.  

Shtetl (noun, historical): a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe.

            “Do you know the name of the shtetl your family is from?” I am asked by another Jewish father figure. His family has been here longer than mine has. He knows more Yiddish; his mother is less afraid. Sometimes, she teaches me words, mostly insults. I have a difficult time using them; they don’t sound right in the middle of an English sentence. I don’t know enough Yiddish to make Yiddish sentences.

            “No, I never knew my grandfather.” I know some things. My father’s father thought he was from Ukraine. Our family friend said that the area was under Polish control when my grandfather left. If my grandfather knew the name of his shtetl, he would have known it in Yiddish. I’m afraid that if I’d ever known my grandfather, he would have had a difficult time telling me my own family history. I’m worried that he would have been afraid to talk about it. He spoke English, but it wasn’t his mother tongue. We wouldn’t have spoken each other’s languages.

Koved (noun): honor, dignity, respect.

            “Look, I got it. Can I get some koved-ing?” I asked my friend. I don’t remember what “it” was.

            “Some … what?”

            “Koved-ing” is a Yiddish-English hybrid word I think my family invented. It is always used in the context given above – koved-ing is always demanded. It means, roughly, respect, praise, lauding. “Can I get some koved-ing?” is a way of asking for acknowledgement, sort of. It’s hard to describe exactly what it means, which is why, when I want koved-ing I ask for koved-ing, rather than asking for something in English.

            “Um, it’s like …” I trail off. I have a hard time explaining it to my friend.

Mother Tongue (noun): the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood.

            My father did not speak Yiddish to me because he could not, because his father did not speak it to him. It cost me three hours of work to buy the updated Yiddish-English dictionary on Amazon. It contains tens of thousands of words.

vintage books collection

My father did not speak Yiddish to me, but I hope, one day, I will speak Yiddish to him.   

By Sasha Uchitel

Leave a Reply