Did you ever have something that generated feelings of pride and shame simultaneously, depending on your viewpoint?Something you wanted to share but also wanted to hold close? Something good you didn’t trust to others? I remember a friend who grew up in a northern California Pomo family telling me that her grandmother instructed her never to teach basketry to non-Indians, because they would not use the knowledge for good. Whether you agree or not, you know what she was talking about, right?
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I grew up in a household where the adults used Yiddish as a secret code.We kids learned a few words that were part of everyday home talk, but without being told, we knew never to use them in school. In fact, at a certain point, I told my grandmother not to make me any more chopped liver sandwiches, because my lunch-mates teased me so unmercifully about them. But I always regretted not knowing the language. Later in life, I even took Yiddish classes. But by then I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and I never became fluent. My husband grew up in Hawaii speaking Pidgin at home and among friends, and Standard English in school. When we visited there recently, he began teaching me a bit of the language. It delights him to hear me trying out my new knowledge, however badly I stumble. But both of us understand that even when my facility improves, there are reasons to keep it private. It will be our secret code.
Broke da mout: incredibly delicious. Dat saimin so good it broke da mout.
Though linguists don’t generally characterize them the same way, it seems clear to me that Yiddish and Pidgin (of which there are many varieties, for example, Nigerian and Filipino as well as Hawaiian) are what are called “Creole” languages, hybrids of other languages that enabled people to communicate across cultural barriers. In Hawaii, plantation workers from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea, and indigenous Hawaiians needed to understand each other, first in the performance of their work, and then in transacting commerce and community. In the Hawaiian language, Pidgin is called “ʻolelo paʻi ʻai,” “pounding-taro language.” In Europe and North America, the Yiddishes spoken by Ashkenazi Jews are hybrids of Near Eastern and European languages written in Hebrew characters: traces of German, Dutch, even French and Italian remain.