Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish, by Joseph Witriol

Mumme Loohshen, Joseph Witriol’s book on Yiddish, is now “published” at The Yiddish recorded in the book is that spoken by his mother, mumme loohshen (mame loshen being one of several more usual transcriptions). In the few instances where this deviates, or seems to deviate, from “printed” Yiddish he still records what he heard his mother speak. It was the first linguistically oriented book on the Yiddish language as a whole to be written in English.

For non-linguists, his discussion of Yiddish proverbs and sayings and words and idioms would undoubtedly be more accessible than the meaty, text-book like chapters on the HebrewGerman and Slav elements of the language. Many examples that he uses to illustrate words and expressions reflect his own circumstances and experiences as a Jew growing up in London in the 1920s and 1930s as well as his later life as a teacher, husband and father. The final chapter entitled The Tragedy of Yiddish is a moving one, albeit with a concluding opinion that some would reject.

A quote from one of his letters to a publisher:

“…[Mumme Loohshen] is a comprehensive survey of the Yiddish language [with] a strong linguistic bias. The book is discursive in style and, I hope, makes pleasurable reading. Inevitably, however, there are a few parts which are of a text-book nature. The book contains a great deal of solid linguistic information which I believe can be found in no other English book, certainly not in Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish or Lilian Mermin Feinsilver’s The Taste of YiddishGermanisten, in particular, would find the description of the links joining Yiddish with Archaic German and Middle High German of great interest….”

I discovered from this hand-written draft of a letter to The Jewish Chronicle’s Publications Department that he first mooted the idea in April 1952 and he wrote

I hope to have the complete typescript ready by 30th September 1953 (sic).

[His sic presumably shows that he meant to write 1952.]

The reply from the Manager is here. The next letter I have – two decades and three kids later – is also to The Jewish Chronicle and in it he says he has completed the typescript!

I have various typescripts and hand-written articles written, I presume, at about the same time. This one is on the Polish and Russian elements in Yiddish.

For the next three years, as he put it with typical self-deprecating candour,

“…like the young man who was thrown out of some of the best Jewish houses, [Mumme Loohshen] was rejected by some of the best Jewish and non-Jewish publishers…”

Some of these rejections are here as well as letters to and from at least one vanity publishing outfit as well as “some of the best Jewish and non-Jewish publishers”.

Apart from the customary spousal thanks, the Acknowledgments page mentions Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend of my father’s, who helped with Polish and Russian words. This document has queries dad sent to him with his responses.

I am happy for the work, or extracts from it, to be published elsewhere, but would appreciate acknowledgement of the author and a link to the original website.


Post-mortem Arrangements

Today is the tenth anniversary (in the secular calendar) of Joseph Witriol’s death. JW – Post-mortem Arrangements  was 16 handwritten pages for pre-mortem reading (perhaps post –  note the faint question mark)  by his wife and children.

Joseph Witriol - post mortem arrangements

An exercise in post-mortemism

Typically, it contains the nitty-gritty, with his trademark attention to detail, as well as more general comments and reflections. This is what he wrote although I have left some details out, mainly parts dealing with the financial position.


Darling, [i.e to Edith Witriol]

These are idyllic circumstances in which to contemplate death: I am writing these lines in the garden, in the shade of the table parasol. Even though the garden is under-cultivated (as I frequently say to myself: I must be one of the few people in Mayfield Avenue who know that Voltaire said “Il faut cultiver son jardin” and my garden must be one of the least cultivated of all the Mayfield Avenue gardens. Voltaire was speaking figuratively (in Candide – well worth reading in English). He meant we must do whatever job we’re capable of doing as well as we can) – even though the garden is not much, and even if the garden chairs are Woollies – still, it’s very pleasant.

Let me try to get down to brass tacks, pausing only to say how grateful I am to you for having given me the best 24+ years of my life.

A.  Immediate financial arrangements Cancel all Bank Standing Orders….

B.  Funeral Standard United Synagogue. Announce death in classified (NOT “Social and Personal”) columns of Jewish Chronicle. The children should NOT attend if they would prejudice their careers by doing so. Should my demise occur just before they are taking their Finals, they should NOT absent themselves from their exams (or important interviews or whatever); the best tribute they can pay me is to perform maxima cum laude, i.e. to get Firsts.

*C. Shiva. Same remarks re non-attendance apply. The mood should be serene. If my luck holds, I shall die quickly and painlessly, so there is no need for sadness. If I am unlucky, and my death is ling — er-ing, then על אחת כמה וכמ and/or קל וחומר – a fortiori my release will be even less a cause for sadness.

* I’d like Philip, Max and Susannah to observe yoohrsteit for Uncle Sam [his older brother]. He died on 25 Shevat. (Susannah could light yoohrsteit candle.)

D. Tombstone “Joseph Witriol, (וסף בנ ‘שראל וואלף) brother of Samuel Witriol, died aged  —  (It’s  וואלף on the tombstone of my father עייה, but the Israeli spelling, which I prefer, is וולף – talk about A Grammarian’s Funeral ! (by Robert Browning, must read). If Max can think of a suitable פסוק – O.K; but otherwise the bare, standard minimum will do. (But I’d like the “Brother of Samuel Witriol” to be in). I had thought of having לֹא-אָמוּת כִּי-אֶחְיֶה “I shall not die, but live” (Psalms) inscribed, but hypocritical though I may have been in life, at the grave hypocrisy must have no place.*

* Just where it’s most prevalent, actually – de mortuis nil nisi bunkum

E. Charitable Donations With very few exceptions, I have left no appeal unanswered, but you will not be able to do the same…

F. Income Tax This will NOT be a problem…

G. Income and Expenditure…a minimum expenditure of £30 a week [i.e. just for utilities, rates and insurance]…and a maximum net income of £45 a week.  £15 a week to feed and clothe yourself, pay shool bill…TV licence! (£46 p.a.), newspapers, etc. etc.

H. Supplementary Benefit You might have to claim supp ben, for which you would be eligible – I think – if your capital were less than £2500 (Don’t try to reduce your capital by  giving the kids £1000 each or anything like that – they know all the dodges…)

I. The Financial Solution There are all kinds of permutations and combinations. Lodger(s)? – could be troublesome…swap for another house or flat…

J. Re-marriage Of course do so if an opportunity presents itself…

K. My Literary Estate (Save the mark!) As a retirement occupation for them/him/her, (one of) the children could publish my Yiddish book…re-typing would cost, say £500…300 copies could be run off, by Gestetner or offset litho, making the total cost including binding, say £3000. I still believe you could sell 200 copies at £30 each…If someone has the time, and if and when they have the cash, I’d like this to be done. But obviously the children must first establish themselves securely in their careers. (Get out a book on publishing, whoever undertakes the job.)

There’s also a bound, professionally typed transcript of Poor Cicero by Max Brod, in my translation. Someone might be able to flog that, as also my translation of Max Brod’s Janacek[Brod’s biography of Heinrich Heine was first published in English in 1956 in a  translation by Joseph Witriol]. Whoever wants it/them can have my “cuttings” album, my “journals” and my autobiography if I get round to writing it. As eldest, Philip has first choice.

L. Books. I’ve no doubt Max will want all my Judaica.* The hope is that all three children will be able to use some of the books. Tatty books discard. It might be worth hanging on to books for which no-one has any apparent use. To give just one example: my Middle (= medieval) High German grammar and my MHG dictionary. Although it’s unlikely any of the children will be interested in MHG, it’s not impossible that one of their children will be and  – this is the point – while my present German dictionary will be out of date in 20-30 years time, my Middle High German books will be just as valuable in 100 years time, since New High German will have changed, but Middle High German won’t.

There are four volumes, in Yiddish, of Geshikhte der Yidishe Shprakh…I must have paid something like £30 for them in 1974. The first two volumes have now been translated into English, so the volumes in Yiddish will be less valuable. But vols iii and iv, notes and references, will be needed by anyone who is doing serious work on Yiddish…

You may wish to keep Lorna Doone, the only school prize I’ve ever won (and which I’ve never read). [also see here] And try to keep Bland, Brown and Tawney’s Economic Documents of the Middle Ages…and a book on Counterpoint –  which Sam עייה got when thinking of getting a Mus Bac degree – though with a full-time job and the shop [ a fancy goods and confectionery shop in Newington Butts opened in 1924 by their widowed mother] to cope with, it was doomed from the start.

* 29/10/1982. Not so sure about this now! There’s no point in hanging on to books if no one is ever going to look at them.** Anyway, Max can use his discretion in disposing of them.

** But even the cheap set of Dickens – given away free with the old Daily Herald or News Chronicle – is worth hanging on to. Commentaries on Dickens will change, but the text won’t, and you never know when someone might want to read Pickwick or whatever.

M. Moral Testament. I suppose I ought to leave some kind of moral testament for my children, but I can’t think of anything other than that they should try to earn an honest living, should not separate themselves from the Jewish community, while integrating fully into the larger, British, international community – I’m sure they see what I mean – and they should try to shed lustre on the name of Witriol. It was a name given in contempt (like the “Contemptible little Army” as Kaiser Bill described the British Expeditionary Force – but people were proud to call themselves “Old Contemptibles”), but it would be nice if one or all of the children could give it the distinction I failed to achieve for it.

         Farewell, good luck.

First Jewish Chronicle article

This is my father’s first article in The Jewish Chronicle. At least, it is the first one in the cuttings book in which he preserved his published articles and reviews. He noted that he was paid three guineas for it.

I have uploaded it in this post as a pdf file from the JC archives which may take a little while to open.

It summarises some of the key points he makes at greater length in Mumme Loohshen – an Anatomy of the Yiddish Language I note he used a different transcription in the article, namely mamme lushen.

Translations from German and Hebrew

The penultimate part of Journal entries relating to Hasmonean are here.

As well as his personal Journal,  unpublished autobiography and Yiddish book,  he also had two significant translations published.  These are two sites which a quick and unacademic Google search brings up:’s_wilderness

God’s Wilderness Discoveries in Sinai
Beno Rothenberg ; in collaboration with Yohanan Aharoni and Avia Hashimshoni ; [translated from the Hebrew by Joseph Witriol].


Heinrich Heine : the artist in revolt / by M.Brod. Trans. from the German by J.Witriol

Serendipitously I spotted the latter book in a Magg’s catalogue of books for sale from Yehudi Menuhin’s library – see also here. It’s worth a look at their site – they are one of the most renowned antiquarian booksellers in the world.

Mumme Looshen – An Anatomy of Yiddish

Over thirty seven years ago my father, Joseph Witriol (1912 – 2002), typed up the 200 page manuscript of his work which he called Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish.

In the preface he wrote:

 “This is the first linguistically oriented book on the Yiddish language as a whole, as opposed to monographs on specific aspects of Yiddish linguistics, to be written in English.”

This was researched and written in the pre-internet era and typed on an electric typewriter, with its limitations. Eight and a half years after his death in March 2002 and I have still not managed to completely retype it on computer. But I am nearly there.

I still have to decide whether to ‘publish’ it directly onto the net or first try traditional publishing.

I also want to use this site to give some sort of background and context to the work. I have changed as little as possible in the text as I do not want to alter a work that reflects my dad’s style and personality as well as recognising that it was written in the 1970s.

There are technical, specific aspects – for instance some references will be dated, e.g. referring to the Ukrainian SSR. Some – at that time – unpublished works may have now been published and so on.

My dad sometimes used complex and lengthy sentences which need careful reading. This is particularly true – and harder to avoid – when one is discussing the interplay between three or more languages.

He also uses ‘difficult’ words and – usually difficult by definition – foreign words and tags. This was not an affectation, but a natural aspect of his impressive vocabulary and literary knowledge. And they can be whimsical, useful words like borborygmus.

In today’s world of beyond-parody PC gold standards, some references will fall short. So sue.

Punctuation, spelling and other stylistic conventions have sometimes been kept – again, this means deviating from today’s norms.

In part intentionally, partly for practical reasons, the work was written only in English so neither Yiddish or Hebrew words are in Hebrew characters.

There are references to other pages in the text, but I will probably let Ctrl + F do the work.

I’m still mulling over whether to include the comprehensive word lists and index that must have entailed many hours of tedious toil on my dad’s part.

My editing and typing up has been somewhat haphazard. For example, I usually ignored stress marks for the first hundred or so pages before deciding I should keep them. I may tighten that up eventually.

Some passages baffled me but as I have no knowledge of German and very little Hebrew, I have not changed anything as it is as likely to be my misreading as it is my father’s miswriting. Again, I may well go back to these, once I have published.

I will also add entries about the background to the book, the research, the writing etc. And from that to my dad’s other articles and translations from Hebrew, Yiddish, German and French.

And then to his life (including his, also unpublished, ‘autobiography’ and Journal which he regularly wrote for over 40 years) which, inter alia, provide fascinating insights into both the domestic mundane as well as the wider and tragic events he directly witnessed or lived through.

July 2012 update: Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish is now online here and I have scanned “Also Lived” The Autobiography of a Failure.