Scots-Yiddish: A Dialect Re-imagined
The Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia and Eastern Europe brought to every city in which they settled a mother language, the mamaloshen, known as Yiddish, along with Hebrew, their language of religious observance. When the home language brushed up against local languages, interesting mixter-maxter combos could arise, such as the Yinglish of New York and Hollywood shmaltz. In Scotland, Yiddish speakers found Scots easy to absorb into their patter, as Scots and Yiddish share a common sound world, including especially the voiceless velar fricative ? that ch sound which comes from the back of the throat in words like loch.
Scots-Yiddish is said to have been particularly spoken by the trebblers, a Scots-Yiddish word for the travelling salesmen who would take the Edinburgh train to Fife and ply their wares in towns and villages where they had no option but to converse in Scots. Much of what little we know of Scots-Yiddish comes from the anecdotal account of David Daiches in his 1957 autobiography, Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood. Daiches tells of how Jewish immigrants, not yet knowing any English, could chat with Scots speakers, with mutual intelligibility. Such was the similarity of the soundscape. He describes it as a short-lived language, probably flourishing between 1912 and 1940. Daiches regretted that the opportunity had been missed to record the speech of Scots-Yiddish speakers in the 1920s and 1930s, the golden years of Scots-Yiddish. Writing in 1957 he lamented: But nobody had thought of it then, and it was too late now.
Yet it was still possible, in 1957, to find an occasional old person who spoke the dialect. And, even today, there remain traces in memory and literature. An article by Professor Fred Freeman in Cencrastus magazine (No 51, Spring/Summer 1995) introduced me to the remarkable Scots-Yiddish Poems of Avrom Greenbaum. Known mainly as a playwright and leader of Glasgow’s Avrom Greenbaum Players, Greenbaum published a handful of Scots-Yiddish poems in the early 1960s in Glasgow’s Jewish Echo. His poems, available in the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Garnethill, are not entirely forgotten. Notably, Fiona Brodie recites his Address to the Fress, a Scots-Yiddish pastiche of the Address to the Haggis, at the annual Burns Supper of Glasgow Reform Synagogue. The poem begins in praise of the traditional Jewish spicy noodle (lokshen) pudding :
Lives there a man sae thrawn and frugal
Wad turn up his neb at lokshen kugel?
Another poet, A.C.Jacobs, toiled with his mixed identity as a Scots Jew from the Vilna (Lithuania) part of Glasgow: A bit east of the Gorbals/ In around the heart. In Dear Mr Leonard (Collected Poems & Selected Translations, Menard Press,1996), Jacobs cites a remark of an aunt, who, in the course of a conversation, says:
Ah’m no froom
Bit whan Ah see them
Ee’in the trayfi meat
It scunners me.
Froom is Yiddish for orthodox/observant, while trayfi is non-kosher food, such as pork.
Three years ago, the late David Kaye recalled hearing a snatch of conversation on the street in the Gorbals, this would have been in the 1950s. In response to a neighbour’s question, Ach, are you weel?, came the response: Oy, vay’z mir, ich hob ayn gey sair heid. Over the weeks that followed, this authentic fragment of Scots-Yiddish played in my head. I must have been dreaming about how a Scots-Yiddish speaking trebbler would acquire a gey sair heid as one morning I woke up with a half-formed story in some kind of Scots and Yiddish mish-mosh. It featured a trebbler’s misadventures in Fife and his return, having lost his money and his wares doun at some ferm in Fife. The Trebbler’s Tale which resulted is around 5% found Scots-Yiddish, the rest being reimagined and reconstituted from the component languages.
So, does Scots-Yiddish have a future? If, as may well be, I am inspired to write in Scots-Yiddish, I will not pretend that I am an authentic speaker of the dialect. Rather, it is a game in which the melding melodies of two lovely languages can be enjoyed. For fun and yet with a certain sadness at the loss of the dialect and a fond remembrance of those who spoke it. Always with an ear open for any fragmentary traces which may remain. I hope others may join me in this playful endeavour and enrich modern Scots with what Leo Rosten called The Joys of Yiddish.
Speaking of remnants and recalling that word loch, pronounced the same in Scots and Yiddish, Ephraim Borowski told me of a house in Glasgow’s Newlands suburb which had the name Lochinvant. There is, of course, no such place. But loch is one of those happy homophones as it is Yiddish for hole. And vant is wall. The house had been given the Scots-Yiddish name: Hole in the Wall. So, if I ever write about that imaginary Scots-Yiddish shtetl of my daydreams, perhaps the name of the place will be Lochinvant?
David Bleiman is an Edinburgh poet, writing in English, Scots and a little Yiddish and Spanish. The Trebbler’s Tale, winner of the 2020 Sangschaw Prize, is included in his first pamphlet, This Kilt of Many Colours. His pamphlets are available at https://poetrykilt.bigcartel.com/