A Linguist’s Take on the Knaidel / Kneydl Controversy

As a linguist who studies Yiddish-influenced English, I’ve had a busy week. As soon as Arvind Mahankali won the Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word “knaidel,” the messages began to arrive. On facebook, through email, and in person, my friends, relatives, and colleagues wanted to know what I thought. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked, along with my answers.

How do you spell knaidel?

I don’t. I rarely have opportunity to write or even say the word in question. Instead, I call it a “matzah ball,” as do most non-Orthodox American Jews under 70. The word knaidel does appear on my website, the Jewish English Lexicon, a collaborative database of Yiddish, Hebrew, and other words used by Jews within English. I created this site on the models of Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia as a way of collecting information and sharing it with the public. The entry for knaidel includes ten possible spellings, listed here in the order of their popularity according to Google: knaidel, knaidle, kneidle, kneidel, kneydl, knaydl, knaydel, kneydel, kenaidle, kenaidel. Knaidel is by far the most common spelling, both on the Internet and in books published since 1950 (according to Ngrams). But I’ve certainly seen it written in other ways in Jewish writing. The spelling “kneidel” is especially common on Orthodox blogs and forums. So how would I spell it? Up until May 29, I probably would have spelled it kneidel or kneydel, but as of May 30 I’ve been spelling it knaidel. And I imagine I’m not the only one who has made the switch. Public discussion of words, as we’ve seen over the past week, sometimes contributes to the standardization of their spelling.

Why do some people prefer kneydl?

As the New York Times reported, some Yiddish activists believe the correct spelling is kneydl. This is based on the YIVO system of transliterating Hebrew letters into Latin/English letters, which follows a set of conventions. For example, the double yud that makes the main vowel in the word קנײדל (knaidel/kneydl) is rendered “ey,” while English uses “ai,” “ay,” and a_e,” as in Eliza Doolittle’s articulation exercise, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane.” (Interestingly, both Yiddish and English have nonstandard dialects that pronounce this vowel as in English “mine” / Yiddish “mayn.” I once wrote a Yiddish mini-version of My Fair Lady in which the Eliza character used the nonstandard Galitsianer vowel: “Dus shayne maydl gayt ahaym alayn” – ‘the pretty girl goes home alone.’ When she finally acquired the standard Litvak pronunciation, she sang, “Dos sheyne meydl geyt aheym aleyn.”)

As author Dara Horn eloquently explains, Yiddish writers’ spelling decisions have historically been tied with identity politics. The same holds true for transliteration of Yiddish into English today. When people write an English sentence with the word “kneydl” and other forms using YIVO’s rules, they are indicating knowledge of and allegiance to academic Yiddish norms. For example, the cultural organization Yiddishkayt Los Angeles wishes its members a “Happy Khanike” and has a “kugl kukh-off” (kugel cook-off), and the secular Sholem Community celebrates a boy’s “bar mitsve.” Mainstream Jewish organizations use the more common forms of these words: Chanukah/Hanukah (and several other variants), kugel, and bar mitzvah. The Yiddishkayt and Sholem leaders who use these YIVO forms are well aware that most American Jews do a double-take when they read them. But they use them consciously to indicate their allegiance to secular Yiddishism, as well as a sense of separateness from mainstream Jewish communities.

Don’t you agree that Yiddish words should be spelled according to YIVO standards?

Yes, when one is writing full Yiddish phrases or sentences. But in this case we’re talking about a Yiddish-origin word used in English. A concept from linguistics can be useful here: the distinction between code switching and loanwords. Code switching is when a bilingual speaker or writer alternates between two languages mid-sentence, mid-conversation, or between conversations. A loanword is a word originating in one language that has become part of another language, whether or not the people who say the word can converse in (or are even aware of) the language it came from. The YIVO transliteration system is useful for code switching: when writers wish to render full Yiddish phrases or texts into Latin letters within otherwise English texts. It is not as useful for spelling Yiddish loanwords, as English has developed (variable) spellings for many of those: maven, chutzpah, and blech, rather than the YIVO forms meyvn, khutspe, and blekh.

To see how the code switching/loanword distinction works, I looked at the English Forward, which maintains ideological ties to YIVO. I found that they use the YIVO system when they print full Yiddish phrases and sentences, and for most loanwords they use commonly accepted (non-YIVO) spellings. In my searches on the Forward website, I got 92 hits for kreplach (a Jewish wonton) but zero hits for kreplekh, the YIVO standard. 275 hits for cholent (Sabbath stew) and none for tsholent. 155 for hamantaschen (Purim pastry) and only two for homentashn, both of which occurred in the song title “Hop Mayne Homentashn.” I got hundreds of hits for mazel (luck) but only a few for mazl, most of which appear in full Yiddish phrases and sentences, as in: “She lifted a glass of water and said ‘Zol zayn mit mazl,’ wishing the young couple good luck.” When writers render a full Yiddish phrase or sentence in an otherwise English text and they do not use the YIVO system, they indicate a lack of formal training in (non-Haredi) Yiddish. But when they write a Yiddish loanword in an English sentence and they don’t use the YIVO system, it just indicates mainstream orientation or lack of ties to secular Yiddishism.

What would you have done if you had been a contestant and gotten “knaidel”?

As a linguist, I would have given ten possible spellings, explained what various spellings indicate about the people who write them, and then protested the English spelling bee’s use of loanwords from a language that does not use Latin script. Clearly, I would have lost. But I gained something out of this situation – a story about the relationship between language and identity, one that will most likely find its way into my next book.

Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College. She is the author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism and the creator of the Jewish English Lexicon.