Thursday, 16 July 2009

kvetch and pasta

On Ms G's advice, I borrowed Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of its Moods by Michael Wex. It's a very entertaining and informative book - he goes into detail on the reasons behind the u/i variation in, for example, meshuge/meshige and kugl/kigl (in some words it originates in Hebrew and in others it comes from German). Early on he writes a sentence that struck me: "From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero" (page 15). He seems to be arguing that many Yiddish word and idioms reflect the Jewish worldview, that Yiddish arose "to give voice to a system of opposition and exclusion" (page 18). A simple example he gives is הײַנט haynt "today", which is derived from Middle High German heint "tonight" - "the Yiddish meaning depends on the notion of evening preceding morning, on the lunar calendar implied on the first page of Genesis and explain on the first page of the Talmud" (page 17).

Anyway, kvetch. קװעטשן kvetshn "press, squeeze, pinch, strain" is undoubtedly related to German quetschen "to squeeze" which was borrowed from Latin quatere "to shake" according to Grimm. Quatere is from Proto-Indo-European *kweh₁t- "to shake". In Greek, *kweh₁t- became πάσσω/παστός "to sprinkle". The derivative πασταί "barley porridge" was borrowed into Latin as pasta but with the meaning "small square piece of a medicinal preparation". This word became Italian pasta.

I've written about this root before, but I think the connection between kvetch and pasta is too cool not to mention.


Z. D. Smith said...

I wouldn't put too much faith in Wex's books, in general, when it comes to Yiddish etymologies or anything else. He's one of these folks who, as much as he imagines himself to be a maven or at least partisan for Yiddish, constantly pigeonholes it and marginalizes it; emphasizing, if not its ludic qualities, then what might be said to be its programmatic qualities, or more plainly, its stereotypical qualities. That is, repeatedly he points to lexical or syntactical facts as evidence for some supposed (and inevitably 2-dimensional) character trait of Yidn. For every potentially legitimate vocabulary-to-culture connection the man makes, like haynt's "tonight" being influenced by traditional Jewish conceptions of night and day (said conceptions being so struck through the rest of Yiddish vocabulary, I am prepared to accept the claim), he will make three like his contention that the traditional inversion formula: "Sholem aleykhem: aleykhem sholem" is some kind of clever and subtle evidence of the inherent Jewish propensity to argumentativeness and contrarianism. Sadly, I have not made this up. It's among the very first passages in his other book, Just Say Nu.

zmjezhd said...

Word. What Z said. If you want to read two books that discuss Yiddish linguistics, one directly and the other obliquely, get: (1) The Meaning of Yiddish by Bejamin Harshav, and (2) Ghil'ad Zuckermann Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. I know of others, and if you want to find out more, send me an email.

goofy said...

Yes, I think Muslims also use that inversion formula, which makes Wex's claim hard to believe. I find myself questioning some of Wex's more complicated etymologies, but I don't know much about Yiddish so I can't comment.

Thanks for the recommendations, zmjezhd.