Tag: language

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Recently, I saw a fellow young progressive Jew write a pretty nasty Facebook post.  With all the rancor going on about the election, you might assume it was about politics.  But actually, it was about language.

The person had taken a picture of Kosher food packaging that had misspelled the word “cookies” as “kookies”.  All sorts of giggling ensued.

While perhaps a small chuckle is warranted – after all, we all make mistakes – I was concerned when I saw some pretty nasty comments making fun of how ignorant Hasidim were.

This, frankly, is where I draw the line.  Let’s start at the very beginning (to quote one of my favorite musicals).  With the exception perhaps of the Chabad community, Hasidic Jews largely speak Yiddish as a first language.  It’s a phenomenon almost unknown in the language preservation world.  Most minority languages that have survived to this day are doing so thanks to government support (see: French in Quebec or Catalan in Catalonia).  The fact that Yiddish is starting to rebound is due in large part to the resilience of the Hasidic Jews who speak it.  So let’s give credit where credit is due.

People who make errors in Standard English often do so because they are native speakers of another language.  For example, a Spanish-speaker from Bolivia might accidentally write “Jonathan” as “Yonathan” because the Spanish “y” more closely approximates an English “j”.  An Arabic-speaker from Syria might write “Bebsi” instead of “Pepsi” because there are no “p” sounds in their dialect and the “b” is the next closest thing.  I promise you English-speakers do the same thing when they speak other languages.  It’s natural and a part of the learning process.

In the case of Hasidic Jews, there is also evidence that actually a new dialect is forming.  That, notwithstanding this one spelling mistake, Hasidic Jews (somewhat like other American Jews) have developed a Yiddish-infused English.  Some scholars call this “Jewish English“.  If I think about myself, a Reform Jew, I could see how sometimes I speak this English.  I could say, for instance, “I’m going to put on my yarmulke and go to Shabbat services.  I’m going to stay for the oneg to shmooze and do some tikkun olam with my friends from NFTY.”  Most Reform Jews would understand this thought.  But the average non-Jewish American would probably be lost.

Hasidic Jews do much the same thing.  Take this sentence, for example: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chosson v’kaloh.”  In Standard English, this means: “We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.”  If that’s not a dialect, I’m not sure what is.

A lot of cultures do this.  Growing up, I learned Standard Spanish.  I was exposed to different accents, but all of them were varieties of Spanish.  When I started working at a Mexican-American non-profit, I was exposed to Spanglish.  I had to reconfigure the way I spoke both English and Spanish to learn this new way of using the language.  “Órale pues, let’s go to the cine but afterwards, quiero bailar.”  You might translate this as “Ok, let’s go to the movies but afterwards, I want to dance.”  It’s a new thing, and once you get used to it, it can be kind of fun.

If you’re not inclined to make fun of a Latino for either misspelling something in English or speaking Spanglish, then I hope you’d reconsider whether it makes sense to ridicule a Hasidic Jew for doing the exact same thing.

This isn’t to say you can’t disagree ideologically with Hasidic Jews- I certainly do (and a lot of them disagree amongst each other!).  As the Yiddish saying goes: “tsvey yidn dray shuln” or “two Jews, three synagogues”.  I also don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a role for more secular education in the Hasidic world, as some advocates like Lipa Schmeltzer have pushed for.

All I’m saying is this: treat others with kindness and respect.  Hasidic Jews are keeping the Yiddish language alive and inventing a new dialect of English.  They’re busy!  If they misspell something in English once in a while, give them a break and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a correction.  Show a little rakhmones!


The Discovery of France: An interview with Graham Robb

The Discovery of France: An interview with Graham Robb

Recently I had the pleasure of reading what is now one of my favorite books, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It is a book about the hidden side of France- outside Paris and outside your history textbooks. It is a whimsical book filled with curious stories, not something you typically associate with non-fiction histories. And that is what makes it so delightful. Robb does an amazing job of weaving narratives together and giving you a more full picture of the country we call France but all too often just equate with Paris. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you want to have an adventure with a new culture from the comfort of your living room, give this a read. Below is my unedited interview with Mr. Robb, with special thanks to Claire Aasen and Cara Jones for helping me to arrange it and Mr. Robb for being so generous with his time:

1. In your book, you mention that in 1880, only about 20% of France spoke French comfortably (pg. 52). This was an exciting but astonishing figure to me. Today obviously the situation has changed considerably. What do you think are the prospects for reviving non-French languages and “patois” in France?

The spectacular example of Wales shows that `minority’ languages which seemed moribund can be revived, though for this to happen, the language must be standardized to some extent (which is what the French Academy did to what we now call French). Nostalgic or political campaigns in certain French regions seem to have had little effect, though the extent to which dialects are spoken is probably underestimated. One commonly hears forms of Breton, Alsatian and Languedocian spoken in France today, as well as some dialects which their speakers do not consider to be dialects. However, new forms of French are forming all the time, especially in the big conurbations.

2. Local culture is a theme of your book. How does understanding France outside of Paris change your perspective on the country?

It suggests that Paris is still a nation in its own right, and that the relation of the regions to Paris is in some respects that of provinces to an imperial capital.

3. As you biked around France, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the country and why?

Simply that, apart from specialist studies, certain guide books and self-consciously quaint `celebrations’ of `rural’ France, there was very little information on a vast proportion of the country. Most general histories of France are still almost exclusively histories of Paris.

4. In your book, you mention that the start of World War I was the first event whose news reached the whole country in one day. The idea that this didn’t happen until last century astonishes me. What changed in France to make this more rapid communication possible? And why didn’t it happen until the 20th century?

Relatively rapid communication already existed (telegraph, post, railways), but there was not necessarily a corresponding appetite for instant information. Also, this was a very simple piece of information (France was at war and there was mass conscription). Even today, with newspapers, radio, tv and the Internet, the comprehension of certain events of national importance in certain regions owes a great deal to rumour. (I was in a small town in Savoie when 9/11 happened, and a local woman told me and my American wife, `They’ve blown up Manhattan’.)

5. You talk a lot about the historic divide between Langues d’oc and Langues d’oïl – in what ways do we still see this divide in France culturally, linguistically, politically, or otherwise?

I’m afraid that’s too big a question – even for a whole book!

6. What do people outside of France most misunderstand about the country? And what do people who are French most misunderstand about their own country?

I was struck, when I talked about the book in the United States, by the number of people who were pleased to learn that the French had not always been `sophisticated’… The French are often the first to say that no one (especially Parisians) knows France.

7. Even though modern communication, war, and movement of people have changed the local cultures of France, are you optimistic about the survival of local traditions and culture?

As soon as a local tradition becomes conscious of itself as `local’, it no longer exists in the same way. France is fortunate in having a large immigrant population (including expatriate British!) which can bring new life to regions which were stagnating. A big problem in many parts of France is the continuing rise of industrial-scale agriculture and the depopulation of small towns and villages.

8. I’ve now read The Discovery of France and am working on Parisians. Do you have any thoughts about which book of yours I should read next?

You could try my biography of Rimbaud (same publishers). There’s quite a lot about Paris and the provinces. Rimbaud came from near the Franco-Belgian border and, unlike almost every other successful French writer, never became a proper Parisian!

9. Your most recent book is The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Any ideas for your next project? As an American francophile, can I convince you to bike around Quebec?

That’s a tempting idea! I’m writing a book which I hope will be published in 2017. The subject is British, but it may have some resonance in Quebec.

Photo credit: Philippe Matsas
Photo credit: Philippe Matsas

Graham Robb is a former Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (since 1998) and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The Mayor of Paris awarded him the Grande Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 2012 after the publication of the French translation of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.

His three biographies (Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud) were New York Times `Best Books of the Year’. Victor Hugo won the Whitbread Biography Prize and the Heinemann Award, and Rimbaud was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

The Discovery of France (Ondaatje Prize, Duff Cooper Prize, Lire magazine `History Book of the Year’) was inspired by several thousand miles of velocipedal research. The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe opened up new ways of understanding the world of the Celts and made several important technical and historical contributions to the study of cartography.

Interview with Dr. Robert Barnett: “Tibetan Language: Policy and Practice”

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve taken an interest in Tibet. As a high schooler, I was a member of Students for a Free Tibet and last year, I participated in the International Campaign for Tibet’s lobby day in D.C. As a Jew, I feel great solidarity with the Tibetan people- a people displaced from their land and striving to maintain their culture both at home and in their Diaspora.

A key aspect of culture is language. In this interview, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Tibet expert Dr. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about the Tibetan language. The language is complex and in fact there are various dialects that are (upon first encounter) mutually unintelligible. A Tibetan told once told me his mother met the Dalai Lama. He asked her how it went. She said “it would’ve been better if he spoke Tibetan”- the two spoke different dialects. Dr. Barnett sheds light on the dialects of Tibetan as well as political, economic, and educational issues facing the language. I am grateful for the time he took to share his thoughts with me. Here is the unedited interview below:

1. To what degree is the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan emerging as a lingua franca (in diaspora communities and/or within Tibet) and why?

The Tibetan spoken among exiles is more or less a variant of Lhasa Tibetan – you can hear some differences in accent and phraseology, but there’s no problem for speakers of each variant to understand each other. So Lhasa Tibetan has become a standard for those who interact with exiles, and is the form of Tibetan that’s usually taught to foreigners. That’s a function of history and politics, not statistics, though: the exiles are not significant numerically – 97% of Tibetans remain in Tibet – but they are influential outside Tibet through their engagement with the media, politics, and religion. Within the entire Tibetan area, Lhasa Tibetan is spoken or understood by roughly half the population and is the dialect used on Tibet TV, so it’s the most prevalent form of Tibetan.

But Amdo Tibetan, spoken by about a fifth to a quarter of all Tibetans, is of huge and growing importance, even though Lhasa Tibetan and Amdo Tibetan are mutually unintelligible at first encounter. But it only takes about a month of familiarization for a Tibetan to become accustomed to the differences, which are mostly vowel changes and consonantal switches (for example, ‘b’, ‘j’, ‘e’ and ‘i’ in Lhasa are sounded approximately as ‘w’, ‘shj’, ‘a’ and ‘e’ in Amdo), so speakers of one can quickly learn the other. Amdo Tibetan is now competing with Lhasa Tibetan as a major form of the language, simply because so much cultural and intellectual creativity – music, film, television dramas, poetry, fiction, essays, commentaries and debate – is produced by Tibetans from the Amdo area, including among exiles, and circulated on dvds or other media. This is partly because language policy is much more progressive there than in the Lhasa area. Kham Tibetan, also spoken by about a fifth of all Tibetans, is easily intelligible in its standard form to both Amdowans and Lhasa Tibetans, and recently has been given a television station of its own, so it is significant too.

2. How has Chinese occupation impacted the Tibetan language?

The Chinese take-over of Tibet introduced mass media to Tibetans for the first time – modern printing, radio, and later television and more recently DVDs and so forth. It also imposed a certain, limited set of ideas and vocabulary on the population and established an official, foreign language as the dominant form of discourse, with the result that Tibetan became “minoritized” and seen as secondary or deficient. This kind of aggressive intervention in a society comes at a very high cost for traditional culture and for the people, but it leads to beneficial outcomes too, such as compulsory education, increased literacy and some standardization of local languages. The Chinese concentrated at first on translation of Chinese texts into Tibetan, but only texts with certain politically-approved ideas, with intensive repetition of certain key political words, terms and concepts – a kind of force-feeding of socialism, modernization theory, and Chinese nationalism. You can see how damaging this is if you talk with Tibetan political leaders of a certain kind who have been brought up on this narrow range of concepts; it is often a painful experience. Tibetan prose style in newspapers and political texts has been damaged beyond belief by the bureaucratic style and format of Chinese communist verbiage. The Chinese also introduced a special, invented form of Tibetan for use by broadcasters on television which was intended to be pan-regional, but is actually rather ugly. During the high Maoist era they also tried to remove all forms of honorific language from Tibetan too (something which only exists in Lhasa Tibetan, and which is not universally popular among Tibetans), but this effort had been abandoned by the 1980s.

Today, in the post-Mao era, the language of state mouthpieces like the newspapers, television, radio and official texts (including history texts) is still locked in the Leninist era from 35 years ago – to read an official Tibetan newspaper day after day, with its wooden terminology and endless praise of the state, is a mind-numbing experience. And China’s education policies in Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region are very damaging for Tibetan language: all middle schools there (unlike Qinghai) are required to use Chinese as the teaching medium. This is starting to happen in kindergartens now too. So a lot depends on whether the Qinghai or the Lhasa model of education is adopted in the future.

But, although there is much they are not allowed to write about, other areas of culture and language in Tibet that are less important to the state have flourished since the 1990s, making claims of cultural genocide seem overstated. The huge increase in education, publishing and distribution of commercial media has led to a surge in creative writing and publishing in Tibetan, particularly in poetry, short story writing, popular music, religious texts, and more recently in film, particularly in Amdo. But the larger problem is that Tibetans who are fluent in Tibetan find it hard to get good jobs, even in Qinghai, so in the longer term this is likely to act as a general economic disincentive for the future of Tibetan language, and the current renaissance faces serious risks and challenges unless progressive policies are introduced.

3. What is the greatest challenge faced by people trying to preserve the Tibetan language?

We can see that the use of Tibetan is becoming partial: it’s vibrant in some areas, like the countryside, many people’s homes, the monasteries, and the areas of cultural renaissance by Tibetan artists and intellectuals. There are also Tibetan-language dramas on television, and newspapers in Tibetan, though these are almost all translated from Chinese. But in other areas of society and life, the language faces severe challenges: can Tibetan-speakers find worthwhile jobs, other than as language teachers? Certainly, it would be very rare to get a white-collar job without being fluent in Chinese, and the same for technical and commercial jobs as well. Almost all discussions and writing in China about anything considered important are done in Chinese. And, despite the regulations and the laws, officials in any meeting where a Chinese person is present revert to Chinese language. In other words, Chinese is hegemonic, it dominates all the sectors seen as “modern” and important. And Chinese policy-makers and thinkers seem to have no concept of true bilingualism: their policies are termed bilingual but are always Chinese-dominant. It’s as if they’ve never been to India, Hong Kong, or Scandinavia, where equal fluency in two languages or more is common. The struggle to put Tibetan on the same level as Chinese is huge.

4. What role can non-Tibetans play in preserving Tibetan language and culture?

Maybe we should refuse to let visiting officials from Tibet talk to us in Chinese, as they almost always do? But few of us get that chance, and even fewer would dare to take it. Small gestures sometimes help: I admire a former student of mine who walked out of a screening of a Tibetan film at MoMA once because they showed it in a Chinese-language version. If we visit Tibet, we should demand that tour guides and operators are fluent in Tibetan. And showing whenever possible that we value Tibetan culture is worthwhile, too – and not just the bits that westerners find useful, such as religious teachings, but all forms of expression.

In theory, we should be able to help by sharing with Chinese people the lethal histories of colonialism and cultural swamping by our own societies, so that they can pressure their leaders to avoid repeating that cycle before it is too late. But we’re no position to lecture others, sadly. Even so, admitting the failures in our own cultures, we should try, each in our own way. As for bilingual language policies, we should be encouraging China’s planners to go to countries where these have been shown to work, and certainly not the US or the UK, to witness how successful policies operate. And we should be producing and disseminating research that shows the long-term economic value that comes from a strong bilingual education system.


Robert Barnett is the Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. His books include Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field (with Ronald Schwartz, 2008), Lhasa: Streets with Memories (2006) and A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Petition of the 10th Panchen Lama (1997). He has published articles on modern Tibetan history, Tibetan films and television dramas, and women and politics in Tibet, as well as on religious policies, political leadership, oral history, and exorcism rituals in contemporary Tibet. From 2000 to 2006 he ran the annual Summer Program for foreign students at Tibet University in Lhasa, as well as training projects in Tibet on ecotourism, teaching and oral culture. He was the founder and director of the Tibet Information Network, an independent news and research organization based in the UK. He is a frequent commentator and writer on Tibet-related issues for the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and other media outlets.