CORDIS - EU research results

Antwerp Yiddish Noun Plurals

Periodic Report Summary 1 - AYNP (Antwerp Yiddish Noun Plurals)

Hasidic Yiddish is a living language spoken by adults and children in segregated communities around the world. The largest European native Yiddish-speaking center today is the Hasidic community in Antwerp. Members of this community are mostly bilingual, speaking Yiddish and Dutch, and praying in Loshn Koydesh (the 'holly tongue'). The project AYNP aimed to explore structure and acquisition of spoken Antwerp Yiddish focusing on the system of noun plurals (kind-er ‘child-ren’). The study progressed through two logically ordered phases: In the first phase the fellow constructed the adult plural system in order to get a firm grasp of the target system Yiddish speaking children acquire. In the second phase the fellow undertook a psycholinguistic study of the acquisition of the plural system in children aged 5 to 11.
Since grammatical descriptions of contemporary spoken Yiddish are basically lacking, the aims of the first phase were (a) to construct the real system of noun plurals used by native adults and (b) to arrive at the basic description of the morphophonological alternations underlying plural formation in contemporary spoken Antwerp Yiddish. A confrontational naming task was administered to 100 men and women, all native speakers of Antwerp Hasidic Yiddish. Participants (interviewed orally and individually) were asked to name 95 singular nouns from pictures and to provide their singular and plural forms. Based on recordings of the interviews, a fair amount of time (almost two months) was devoted to transcribing singular and plural responses into CLAN and to coding them into JMP.
Our findings revealed the actual plural system in native Antwerp Yiddish showing how similar it is to its historical roots, engaging suffixation (e.g. bal-n ‘ball-s’), stem modification (e.g. top-tep ‘pot-s’) or a combination of the two (e.g. boim-baimer ‘tree-s’), clearly reflecting the Germanic and the Hebrew origins. At the same time, the system was found to be fraught with variation so that many lemmas have more than one plural form (dokters and doktoyrim for ‘doctors’). Results also provide a basic description of the morphophonological alternations underlying plural formation specifically relating to characteristics of the final rhyme of the singular word. For example, monosyllabic nouns ending in a vowel take the plural marker –(e)n (ki-en ‘cow-s’) while bi- syllabic nouns ending in a vowel take the plural marker –s (velo-s ‘bicycle-s’). Obtaining the baseline of the adult plural system in the investigated community serves as the basis for studying how children from the same Hasidic community in Antwerp acquire noun plurals. Children were expected to produce the most predictable and consistent forms adults employ.
The second phase of the project aimed to map the development of plural formation across age groups and arrive at the basic description of the morphophonological alternations underlying plural formation in contemporary spoken Antwerp Yiddish. Participants were 80 Hasidic children in four age groups (5, 7, 9, 11) who were administered two tasks differing in degree of monitoring and control and designed to elicit noun plurals in Yiddish: (1) the Classical Study - a structured elicitation procedure in which children were asked to pluralize a given noun based on pictures, and (2) the Scripts Study – an open-ended elicitation measure based on pictures from different themes, accompanied with pre-prepared questions for maximal elicitation of noun plurals. Data collection of the second phase ended in June, and responses of the classical study were transcribed and coded. Results are currently analyzed.
AYNP provides experimental and spontaneous-speech data on the emergence and consolidation of Hasidic Yiddish noun plurals, and consequently sets developmental scale for its acquisition by native speakers. Since to date no such developmental measures exist, this scale is extremely helpful to educators and speech therapists working in the Hasidic community, who already contacted the fellow for assistance.
The project is expected to yield at least three publications on the sociolinguistic situation in the Hasidic Antwerp community, the structure of the plural system in spoken Antwerp Hasidic Yiddish and the acquisition of Antwerp Hasidic Yiddish. The fellow also convened and submitted a symposium and a poster to the 13th International Congress for the Study of Child Language to be held in Amsterdam in July 2014, and will present a paper at a conference “The Stuff Words are Made of”:
An International Conference on the Cross-linguistic Comparison of Indo-Germanic and Semitic Languages to be held in Konstanz University in July 2014.

A note on data collection
One sociolinguistic hindrance to investigating contemporary Yiddish in any Hasidic community has to do with its highly segregated nature. Hasidic communities lead a life of a self-imposed isolation from any outside secular environment – for example, their members do not watch television and refrain from using smartphones. They are also reluctant to cooperate with researchers who do not adapt research methods so as to respect their privacy, behavioral norms and dressing codes. In the current project, the fellow slowly but surely, gained the cooperation of Antwerp Hasidic leaders and members by strictly adhering to these codes and was thus welcomed into Hasidic schools and homes.