Language made me a crazy linguist

I remember how English sounded when I didn’t speak it.  It sounded like people trying to talk with pebbles in the back of their mouths without moving their lips.  The first time I met kids who spoke it, I didn’t, so they chased me away.  That was my incentive and within a year I was playing with them and trying to learn how to read from my brother’s Dick and Jane reader.  See Spot Run.  See Rubin Run.

But it didn’t really dawn on me that it was a completely different language from Yiddish I until I started to speak Yiddish to my mother in front of the customers in our store.   That was then she made sure I understood that I was to speak Yiddish only in the back or upstairs where we lived and English everywhere else.  I’m not sure I even knew the labels or understood them until she used them in that context.  Up until then, these were just two different ways of talking.

From that point on, I became more attentive to how my parents sounded and how other adults talked and it became clearer than ever that they spoke differently, even when they were supposedly using English.  I also started to notice that how the teachers spoke English was completely different from the way we kids spoke in schoolyard and to each other.  Then I noticed that other Yiddish speakers said some words differently from the way my parents said them.  This can either make you crazy or a linguist.  I was lucky and got the best of both worlds.

For instance my parents used “what” when they spoke English, in places that others used “that” (Dis i de suit what de kustomeh like it).  It turns out that this is because in Yiddish you use the word for “what” (voss) where English speakers use that.  They used “e” as in bet where English speakers said “a” as in bat.  And they said “d” or “t” for “th” so a bet was something I took every Friday before Shabbos and it had to with a tub and not a horse race.

When you start down this path of looking at language, though, you can’t stop.  So I started to notice how some things in English were completely arbitrary and no wonder it was hard for my parents to learn them.

Let’s take something simple.  “I found a place to park the car.”  Sounds OK?  How about “I found a garage to park the car”?  What’s the difference?  Compare “I found a place to live” with “I found a house to live”.   As we ask on Passover, “Mah neshtana?”

Recently a friend said they couldn’t stand it when people used the combination “off of” instead of just “off” as the first combination contained redundancy (Get off of the table vs. Get off the table).  Yet the parallel structure using “out” seems to require the “of” (Get out of the water vs. Get out the water).   It turns out that both “off” and “out” had dialect forms “offn” and “outn” which were used in exactly the same way (Get offn the table vs. Get outn the water).  Why have these usages diverged?  As a guess, let’s imagine that it has something to do with the modern use of “get out” which can take an object so you have to say “get out of the car” to make sure it’s out not confused with “get out the car” (take it out of the garage).  But you would have to have a twisted and perverted imagination to think of a context where “get off the table” was transitive.

So in the end of it all, you have to rely on what sounds right to you.  And if you tell me to “hie me hence” it will somehow sound more genteel than telling me to “get out of here”.


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