I was looking at wordlists for tomorrow's class (our theme of the day will be "Expand your modern vocabulary using old words.") and I finally realised that the reason so many Yiddish words and phrases are a comfortable fit in English is because many of them're cognate*. Not all of them, but enough for comfort's sake. And this is why the Yiddish in the book I hated the other day (which I didn't tell you about - I read a book a day or thereabouts, you don't need to know that this one entirely annoyed me) was so very wrong. A Jewish character who has English as a native language and Yiddish as a childhood language ought to be exploiting that natural fit between these two Germanic languages. In this novel-I-did-not-like every Yiddish word bristled. Those words fought against English and didn't want to belong to it.
This made me think about how we write bilingual speakers and speakers of English as a second language into our fiction in general. And the answer is "Not very well, on the whole." Only a few writers sort out that natural fluidity and how languages fit together. Too many writers put in a few words of French or Kiswahili or Polyglottian to indicate the speaker's linguistic status and the rest is taken on trust.
When a writer manages to sort it, the results are seriously cool. Chabon manages to sort out the Yiddish problem, for instance, in a way that brings whole worlds of Yiddish/English thought to life.
How do I work this out, myself? It's a work in progress. My current struggle is making Americans sound like Americans. I keep wanting to throw in colourful words and ignore the syntax. The syntax is essential, though, and the colourful words have to reflect real language use. Real language comes from underlying congruencies between languages and harmonies in sound and style. I have a long way to go. And I need to keep an eye out for writers who have a good ear for dialect and borrowings and how people fit languages together in their everyday lives.
Next time in Melbourne, I'm going to visit some of my old stomping grounds. Yiddish and American are alien to me, but Greek Australian and Italian Australian are the cadences of my childhood. I need to find out how my old schoolfriends in Camberwell and Hawthorn are speaking now that they're a full generation further removed from Greece and Italy. In fact, I need to have lunch (which I needed to anyway) with a particular old schoolfriend who has kept in touch with everyone and we need to go shopping together.
* don't laugh yasminke - I know the history of Yiddish - I'm just slow