by Yakov Rabinovich
initially posted March 9 2014, last updated July 17, 2014
The translations I have seen from Yiddish literature into English have been, almost without exception, made in ignorance or indifference to all the finer points of syntax. Subtleties of mood, and frequently of meaning, are routinely flattened into approximate renderings. Even grammar is frequently ignored.
To address this appalling situation, I offer the following observations, disorganized, provisional and incomplete as they are . This is a work in progress. Corrections and comments are welcomed.
The basics of Yiddish Grammar are dealt with adequately in the "Synopsis of Grammar" at the end of Weinreich's College Yiddish. I assume the reader has mastered this material, and will not repeat it in full.
Although Weinreich provides a convenient and clear summary of all the morphological matters, he does not begin to address the matter of subjunctive usages.
For the convenience of the reader I will repeat some of Weinreich's basic morphology.
A key to the abbreviated citations is given at the end of this essay.
Articles and Pronouns
Nominative Accusative Dative
S P S P S P
ich mir mich unz mir unz
du ir dich aych dir aych
er, zi, es zey im, zi, es zey im, ir, im zey
zich is the reflexive pronouns used with all persons, singular and plural
zayn, ir, zayn zayr
Preceding a noun in the singular, the possessive adjectives remain in their base form in all genders. Preceding plural nouns, the ending e is added to the base of the possessive adjective.
In the predicate, possessive adjectives have the usual endings of predicate adjectives.
Dos buch iz mayns.
The book (neuter) is mine.
The adjective endings are as follows: note that the neuter adjective usually has no ending when used with the indefinite article in the singular, though dative and genitive endings may optionally be added to the base.
In the plural, the ending is e for all adjectives, regardless of gender or case
M F N def. N indef.
N der guter man di gute froy das gute kind a gut kind
Acc. dem gutn man di gute froy das gut kind a gut kind
Dat. dem gutn man der guter froy dem gutn kind a gut(n) kind
Gen. dem gutn mans der guter froys dem gutn kinds a gut(n) kinds
N di gute kinder
Acc. di gute kinder
Dat. di gute kinder
Gen. di gute kinders
Adjectives in the Predicate
Predicate adjectives are used in their base form (Der mentsh iz alt) unless they are preceded by an indefinite article, in which case they have their usual nominative endings (Der mentsh iz an alter). Neuter adjectives are exceptional in that they take use a special neuter ending s when preceded by the indefinite article:
Dos falk iz alt, but Dos falk iz an alts.
M F N All
Nom. der di dos di
Acc. dem di dos di
Dat. dem der dem di
Generally, the use of the definite article in Yiddish is the same as in English. The definite article indicates something specific, as in: "The table where I left my hat," and is omitted for things which are not readily quantifiable "love," "gasoline" &c.
Unlike in English, the definite article is also used as a demonstrative pronoun and as a demonstrative adjective:
Dos is an alter mayse? Di mayse gedenk ich oych.
This is an old story? I know this story too. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
(see Weinreich, p. 314)
Often dos is often used to emphasize a subject or adverb.
It may appear, without further ado, immediately before a subject. (In the translations will use various words to express the emphasis: these will be given in italics. There is no particular formula which will do in all cases.)
Reb Dan aleyn iz noch nisht ibertsaygt, az er iz dos der roshe, az fun zayne zind shtamt dos di mageyfe. .
Reb Dan himself is not yet persuaded that he is the very criminal , that from his sin the plague itself originates. (Ansky, Four, p.77)
More commonly, emphatic dos is applied to a subject with a verb. In this case, subject and its verb will be given in reversed order.
Dos vill er oyspruvn zich aleyn un iberztsaygen zich . . .
He himself wants to test himself, and persuade himself . . . (Ansky, Four, p.77)
Dos bin ich bay nacht in mil geven, ich!
I myself was in the mill at night, I! (Ansky, Four, p.75)
Here is dos applied to an adverb rather than a subject:
Dos hob ich umgern geshrien . . .nu, baruik zich.
I screamed quite unintentionally , come now, calm yourself. (Ansky, Four, p.61)
related emphases: ot and word order
Ot has exactly the same effect as dos. It precedes a subject or an adverb to which it gives special emphasis. As with dos, the verb-subject order in such sentences is reversed.
A! Ot iz Chaim!
Ah! Chaim himself is here! (Ansky, Four, p.119)
Ot falt der tsudek fun di oygn un ich ze dem cholem
The very veil falls from my eyes and I see the dream . . . (Ansky, Four, p.63)
Un anderer hot zich barimt, az er ken machn ot die ale metaln nicht fun di zochn, vos me macht fun zey die daziker metalen.
Another boasted that he could make exactly all these metals, [and] not from thing things which one makes particular metals. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Ot applied to an adverb of place:
Der shabbosdiker gartl, ot do iz er?
The good shabbos belt, is this it right here? (Ansky, Four, p.57)
The usage in the following sentence is not typical: Ansky places the nor, which receives the emphasis, at the very beginning of the sentence, for the sake of the meter.
Nor ot hat oyfn turem-zeyger halbe nacht geshlagen . . ;.
Midnight had just at that very moment struck on the tower-clock . . . (Ansky, Four, p.51)
Ot hat er zich dermant c'nal.: "vu iz er ergetz in der velt?" un flegt krechtzn un ziftzn. Un ot hat er teykef vider a mol angehoyben nitzn zayn seychel, . . .. . .
Now he himself remembered, as cited above, (the question about)"where-ever is he in the world?" and he was groaning and sighing. And now he began most immediately to use his reasoning powers . . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Any word or conceptually connected group of words in a Yiddish sentence , except for the inflected verb, may be placed first or last for emphasis. And of course there are many words and phrases conferring emphasis, which require no special syntax. The use of ot or dos is an entirely optional means of adding emphasis.
Es, the neuter singular pronoun, appears in a common usage (called the expletive es) before the verb, acting as a dummy subject. The actual subject will come a after the verb. Compare:
Di richtige zayt is gekumen. and Es is gekumen di richtige zayt.
Both sentences mean "The right time has come." The only difference in meaning is that the sentence with es puts more emphasis on the fronted verb, the actual arrival of the time.
In this construction the verb agrees with its actual subject , and does not become singular to agree with the es.
This construction is never used with a pronoun subject. It is often accompanied by the dative of reference, as i:
Es tut mir vey di hant.
My hand hurts (literally, "It makes to me pain the hand.")
Just as in English, the definite article is a; and becomes an before a vowel. Likewise, as in English, no indefinite article is used before a plural noun.
Yiddish does not use the indefinite or the definite article before a singular noun if the noun has no antecedent.
. . . ven zey zaynen geven in vald . . .
. . . when they were in (a) forest (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Fur var, ich hob di lider nit gevolt.
Nor andere — vi fayer un vi (_) freylecher sturem,
vos zerayst dem durchsichtikn furem.
Truly, I didn't want these poems,
but others — like fire and like (a) glad storm
that impetuously (away) through the transparent form. (Margolin, Sheyne Verter)
No antecedent, no indefinite article. Thus humorous anecdotes never begin (as they would in English)" A Jew . . . " but "A certain person, a Jew . . ."
Eyner a yid iz arausgeforn fun zayn shtetl . . .
A Jew (lit. "A one, a Jew") went out from his village. . .
In this sentence we see that the rule " no antecedent, no article before a singular noun" applies to the definite article as well:
Er shikt Khananye nachkukn, vos tut zikh bay nacht in (_) mil hinter shtot.
He sends Khananye to see what takes place at night in (the) mill behind the city.(Ansky, Four, p 47)
Though nouns (with the exception of some names) are not inflected, adjectives are. Their endings are :
M F N definite N indefinite M F N
Nom. -er -e -e - -e
Acc. -em, -(e)n -e -e - -e
Dat.&Gen. -em, -(e)n -er -em, -(e)n -, -em, -(e)n -e
e.g. der guter man, di gute froy, das gute kind, a gut_ kind, di gute kinder, &c.
The possessive adjectives are dealt with above as the possessive forms of the pronouns.
The most common meanings are:
the interrogative pronouns "who? " and "what?",
the relative pronouns "who" and "which" (see NV p. 247 for a full listing )
[ One also finds velcher used as the relative pronoun meaning "who" or "which" (N.V. p. 259), for example:
Far vos shtraft Got nisht yene velche zindikn?
Why doesn't God punish those who sin? (An-Sky, Plays, p. 29)
Velcher is somewhat more literary and refined than vos.]
What concerns us here is the use of vos as an invariable general relative pronoun, meaning "who," "what" &c. depending on context.
Deriber vert di hochmah genomen fun dem tog, vos in im iz geven yene brie, vos fun ir iz di harcove . . .
Thus the wisdom is taken from the day in which (lit. "which in it") occurred that creation, from which (lit. "which from it") is the composition. . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Because Yiddish is poor in inflection, the general relative pronoun vos requires a further pronoun and preposition to clarify its meaning. We a parallel to this in the English of people who are not very literate: constructions like " The man who I was telling you about him . . ." Such a person isn't familiar with the accusative 'whom"; Yiddish does not have an accusative "whom."
vos as the conjunction "that"
Vos is routinely used, in less formal Yiddish, in place of az to introduce a subordinate clause which takes the subjunctive. Examples are given below of vos introducing a noun clause and a causal clause. These meaning and structure of these clauses will be explained further on.
Ich bin gor a meylets un a dabran nifla, d'hayne, a reyder zeyer a voyler, vos — es iz a voyler khidesh, vos az ich heyb-an tzu reydn mayne lider mit mayne khidos, iz gor nisht faran keyn bashefnish oyf der velt, vos zol nisht veln hern.
I am in fact an eloquent man and a wonderful orator, i.e., a very fine speaker, who —it is a real marvel that when I begin to utter my poems and my riddles, there isn't a created thing in the world that wouldn't want to hear. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Here vos appears first as relative pronoun ("who") and then is used to introduce a noun-clause ("it is a real marvel that.") At the end we find vos used as a relative pronoun once again.
Here we see vos replacing az to introduce a causal clause:
Un nisht nur vos er hot kaliye gemacht dem garten aleyn, nur er hot ibergelozt in der medine dray kites un hot zey angezogt . .
And [it was] not only that he caused harm to the garden, but he let loose upon the country three sects and told them . . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
In the indicative, Yiddish has a present, a composed past, a pluperfect and a future tense.
The tenses are relative rather than absolute; that is, the present means action contemporaneous with that of the preceding verb or the context, the composed past tense means action prior to, and so on. The actual time frame is established by time-words (yesterday, now, &c.). (Weinreich's treatment of the tense system, which regards the tenses as absolute, is simply wrong , as the examples immediately following demonstrate.)
Dervayl hobn sey a kuk geton — is der betler blind.
Meanwhile they had a look— the beggar was (lit. "is") blind. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
This form should be carefully distinguished from the composed past. It is formed similarly to the composed past, but between the helping verb (a conjugated form of zayn) and the verb itself we find the past participle form of zayn (geven or gevezn).
es is geven gezogt
It had been said
The pluperfect is only used to make indicate a time anterior to that preceding the events under discussion, and should be so translated with scrupulous care.
Derzyl, az zi hot bizn toyt
geshitst getray mit hoyle hent
dos fayer, vos iz ir geven fartroyt . . .
Tell that she faithfully protected
till death, in the hollow of her hands,
the fire that had been entrusted to her . . .(Margolin, Epitaf, p. 108)
In older Yiddish we find the pluperfect constructed with a now obsolete past participle of veren :
. . .in Beys Hamikdash vos heyst Reyshis vayl er iz voren friyer bashofn far der velt . . .
. . . in the Temple which is called "Beginning" because it had been created earlier than the world . . Ts.R. 3b
I am uncertain whether the pluperfect ever occurs with the active form of transitive verbs, which use a finite form of habn as their helping verb.
word order: the implied consecutive clause
When the verb precedes the subject, it often produces an implied consecutive clause, that is, a clause that suggests "and so" or "therefore," "since" or the like.
Zaynen di kinder arayngegangen in stub arayn. Hat men auf zey rahhmones gehat un me hat zey gegebn broyt.
And so the children went into a home. And so the people had pity on them and gave them bread. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Note that, in the above example, the consecutive clause affects a second clause which does not have reversed subject-verb.
In the next example we find an inversion making a consecutive clause, even though the causal idea is rendered by iber dem (for this reason):
Iber dem hat es zey nisht geshadt, un zey zaynen nisht nispaker gevoren.
And so, for this reason, it did no harm to them (dat.of ref.) and they didn't become atheistic. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
The word order may however be inverted simply to shift emphasis to the word which is being fronted.
Dervayl hobn sey a kuk geton — iz der betler blind.
So in the meantime they had a look— the beggar (really) was blind. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
volt: the independent, potential subjunctive
Volt is for the subjunctive in independent clauses Another verb, zol, is used for the subjunctive in dependent clauses. This will be discussed below.
Volt, meaning "would" or "might", was originally the imperfect of veln. Over the course of time it ceased to be used as past tense of that verb, and its place was taken by the composed tense (hat gevolt).
Volt, followed by the infinitive or the past participle, became the way Yiddish made an potential subjunctive ( a form of the verb that expressed possibility)
It is a point worth stressing that, unlike its parent verb veln, volt does not mean "wish" or "will": it is purely a helping verb that makes a following verb subjunctive. (Weinreich's treatment of volt (p. 320) takes no account of the different subjunctive tenses.)
forms of volt
Volt must not be confused with vel, the future auxiliary verb, "is going to . . " which also takes the infinitive , and is conjugated:
These volt and vel must also be distinguished from veln (past participle:gevelt), "to wish, to desire," which is conjugated
volt to express the present potential subjunctive
. . . fun mayn lebn oys-tzushreybn
keyn tint un feder volt nit kleken.
Oyb tint un feder volt shoyn yo klecken,
den voltn mayn hent nit steynen . . .
. . . to write about my life
no ink and feather (pen) would suffice.
If ink and pen should indeed truly (lit. "already") suffice
my hands would not stand (up to the task) (Rubin, Life)
The last two lines have the "should-would" structure, which will be discussed in more detail below.
In the next example volt makes a present subjunctive with the verb kennen: a particularly common and useful construction.
Aber ven ich volt kenen fargeben
mayn farpaynikt lebn . . .
But if I could (literally, "would be able to") forgive (that is, "forgive others for")
my tortured life. . . (Margolin, Sheyne Verter)
Un ich volt velln zayn anders tsu mentshn . . .
I would like to be (lit. "would to like to be") different to people . . . (that is, "to behave differently towards" (Margolin, Sheyne Verter)
This construction, with infinitive after infinitive, looks a little odd to us, until we realize that the potential subjunctive, formed by volt plus the infinitive, is so formed even when the verb in question is veln!
volt to express the past potential subjunctive
Followed by a past participle, volt makes a past potential subjunctive, with the meaning "would have."
Volt ich geven a soycher,
hob ich nit keyn schoyre;
volt ich geven a melamed,
ken ich nit keyn Toryre.
I would have been a mechant,
(but) I have no merchandise;
I would have become a teacher,
but I don't know any Torah. (Rubin)
un azo veyneg hanaa vi ich hob fun dem ukets, azo veyneg hanaa volt ich gehat fun dem boym vos du hast farboten tsu esen.
... and as little pleasure as I have from (biting off) the point of the Etrog, so little would I have had from the tree in the Garden of Eden) which you forbade. (Ts. R, Bereishis)
Zol: basic meaning, expression of wish
Zoln, which has the primary meanings "ought to" and "should," is conjugated:
Essentially, zoln is used to express moral obligation. This is particularly clear in its use as an imperative:
Dan bin ich gozer, zolst derzeyln! Herst?
Then I command, you must tell! Do you hear? (Ansky, Four Plays, p. 49)
In a logical development of this meaning zoln is used to express wishes (things that ought to happen. Then one will translated it with "may" or :might"
Un der daziker blinder betler hot zey gebentsht, az zey zoln zayn vi er, az "Ir zolt zayn azoy alt vi ich."
And the aforementioned blind beggar blessed them, that they should be like him, [saying] that "May you (live to) be as old as I." (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
This quotation also includes a noun clause, az zey zoln zayn vi er," which will be described below.
Zol as the subjunctive in subordinate clauses
Volt is used for the subjunctive in independent clauses Zol, is used for the subjunctive in dependent clauses.
In this usage, zoln is the most versatile verb in Yiddish, and the careful distinguishing of its various meanings is vital to a real understanding of Yiddish syntax. It is used to create:
clauses dependent of verbs of will or intent
relative clauses of characteristic
Except for conditional sentences, all of these usages of zoln are introduced by az (that). Note however that in informal and spoken Yiddish the az is frequently replaced by vos, or simply omitted.
English uses a variety of modal verbs in these situations, so a simple and single translation of the zol in subordinate clauses is not possible. But wherever possible, I will use "should," for the sake of clarity.
Zol after a verb expressing will or intention;
Un di kinder habn apgemacht tsvishn zich, az se zoln tomed zayn in eynem.
And the children agreed between themselves that they should always be together. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
The verb expressing will or intent has the same effect even when it is negated.
Dos vil ich nisht, az ir zolt geyn mit mir.
I don't want this, that you should go with me. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Zol in a purpose clause
A purpose clause is one which explains the goal or rationale of an action.
Mir geyen tsu der medina fun ashires, az zey zoln undz helfn.
We are going to the land of wealth in order that that they may help us. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Nur az das harts bedarf zich a bisl apruen, es zol zich kenen apsapen a bisl . . .
But when the heart need to rest a little, in order that it may catch its breath a little . . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Un noch an anderer hat zich barimt, az er hat aroysgebracht me zol kenen machn gold.
And yet another boasted that he had brought it about that a person should be able to produce gold. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
As with all the subjunctive clauses introduced by az, the az may be omitted without in any way affecting the meaning.
Nechtn is der gantser kahal vi eyn mentsh,
tsu mir gekumen ich zol geyn un redn . . .
Yesterday the whole community, like a single person
come to me so that I should go and speak . . .(Ansky, Four, p. 19)
Ordinarily the omission of az is a sign of informality. Here Ansky omits it for the sake of the scansion.
A purpose clause can also be made with an infinitive
Er shikt Khananye nachkukn, vos tut zikh bay nacht in mil hinter shtot.
He sends Khananye to see what takes place at night in the mill behind the city.(Ansky, Four, p 47)
Zol in a relative clause of characteristic
This clause conveys the idea "of the sort that would" or "of a kind to" Even though one wouldn't always express this full meaning in a translation, I shall do so here for the sake of making the precise meaning explicit.
. . . az ich heyb-an tzu reydn mayne lider . . . iz gor nisht faran keyn bashefnish oyf der velt, vos zol nisht veln hern..
when I begin to utter my poems . . . there isn't a created thing in the world of a kind that wouldn't want to hear. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
A causal clause is simply one that expresses the cause of an action. (Take care to distinguish this from purpose clauses: the cause of an action is not necessarily the same as its intention!)
Deriber iz er a muat hamakhaziyk es m'rubreh. Warum a shtikl moakh zol oyf zich tragn azoy fil mentshn mit gor zeyer zachn, c'nal.
For this reason he is a "little that holds much," because a little bit of brain can carry [information about] so many people and their affairs as well, as stated above. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Note that when the causal sense is conveyed by a conjunction (warum), the causal form with zol is not essential, as we see in the following nearly identical construction taken at close proximity from Nachman's story.
Un eyner hot gezogt, az zayn shvaygn iz in der pkhine fun muat makhaziyk es ham'rubeh. Warum er hat oyf zich a sach mekatreygim un baley loshn-ho're, vos zaynen oyf im malshin zeyr fil.
And one said that his silence was in the category of a "little that holds much," for he had a great many detractors and slanderers, who said much against him. (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)]
While purpose and causal clauses require the subjunctive zol, the conceptually related result clause does not use the subjunctive:
Dort kumen far bay nacht vilde zachn, az bay di vos hobn dos tsugezen, steln zich di hor kapoyr.
There wild things take place by night, so that those who see them have their hair stand on end. (Ansky, Four, p. 47)
conditional sentences with volt
A conditional sentence is one that states that if one thing occurs, then something else follows. For example, "If I were richer, then I would pay more in taxes."
Conditional sentences take a wide variety of tenses and moods, depending on the time, and the probability of the events narrated. The examples given below are the principal ones. "Mixed conditions" are frequently made by combining half of one sort with half of another.
In older Yiddish (as in Nachman's stories) zol is used in place of volt in the "if" clause of a conditional sentence.
present general: "does . . does" present indicative for both verbs
present contrafactual: "should . . .would" volt+ inf. . . . volt+inf.
Oyb tint un feder volt shoyn yo klecken,
den voltn mayn hent nit steynen . . .
If ink and pen should indeed truly (lit. "already") suffice
my hands would not stand (up to the task) (Rubin, Life)
past contrafactual: "had . . .would have: volt + past participle . . .volt+past participle
Ven me volt gevolt mit dir redn, volt men mit dir shoyn geredt.
It we had wanted to talk to you, we would have already done so. (Wex, p. 13)
examples of mixed conditions
present contrafactual with present general:
. . . zol er zi avekshicken fun zich — fardrist im zeyr . .
. . . if he should send her away, that will distress (lit. "that distresses" ) him greatly. . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
The present indicative is used in the "then" clause here because the consequence is viewed as certain.
Related to conditional sentences are those where a an action is described as only possible or probable.
Es iz noch meglech, ir zoltn gefinen eyne di andere. . .
It is yet possible you may find one another. . . (Nachman, Zibn Betlers)
Nisht getrofn, r'zol a khet fargesn . . .
It never happened that he would forget a sin . . (Ansky Four, p. 33.)
Note that with the verb trefn, the dependent clause is in the indicative if there is no doubt or denial of the event.
Es treft, az in shvern grin-goldenem gartn
hengt di zun, vi a frucht oyfn boym.
It happens that in a heavy green-gold garden
the sun hangs like a fruit on a tree. (Margolin, Drunk, p. 122)
Words with Special Meanings & Constructions
This verb literally means "to need to" or "to be necessary." Since it describes an actual, physical requirement rather than an ethical obligation, it is stronger than zol. It is however often used in place of zol, for emphasis. It this example the emphasis is humorous:
A shadchen darf men kenen zayn,
Es iz fun Got a broche.
Ich fardin mir mayn kerbl gring
On a shum meloche.
One needs to know how to be a matchmaker,
it's a blessing from God.
(Thereby) I earn my ruble with ease
without any work at all. (Rubin)
see above under Pronouns
flegn modal verb used with the infinitive, making it a past-imperfect, which we translate by "was doing: or "used to do"
Demonstrative term, meaning " here; there; look, behold; precisely; now; soon." (NV, p. 48) Usage described above in the section on pronouns
veren, iz gevorn
this word simply means "becomes" and has no special syntax
These are not necessarily the best editions textually. They are however those which are in print and easily available,
An-Sky, Four Plays, bilingual edition by Penalosa. Reliable text, adequate translation.
NV : Niborski-Vaisbrot Dictionnaire Yiddish Francais
Margolin: Anna Margolin, the poems cited may be most conveniently found in the Kumove bilingual edition "Drunk from the Bitter Truth," which is however beset with minor transcription errors in punctuation and spelling. Margolin's collected poems, Lider, is available online through Yiddish Book Center, and must be consulted to correct the text, but does not contain the poems which Kumove includes in the supplement to her book.
Nachman: Nachman of Breslov, Sippurei Mayses The specific stories are cited.
Rubin: Ruth Rubin Jewish Life Folkways CD.
Weinriech: Uriel Weinreich, College Yiddish, YIVO (1949) 1984.
Wex: Michael Wex, Just Say Nu
All previously available Yiddish dictionaries have been superseded by the
Niborski-Vaisbrot Dictionnaire Yiddish Francais, which has recently been translated into English by Beinfeld and Bochner. It is available though Amazon. But even this is far from adequate.