Wednesday, 29 February 2012

keeping schtum

Usually, when English borrows a word from some other modern language, we keep the spelling used in the source language and hesitate about the pronunciation. Thus we all agree on the spelling restaurant (from French), but disagree on how to pronounce the last syllable. We may take a cavalier line with diacritics, as when Swedish smörgåsbord becomes just smorgasbord. And with languages not written in the Roman alphabet we use a romanization, thus perestroika or tsunami. But generally speaking the spelling is not controversial, though the pronunciation may be.

There’s a word ʃtʊm that has become quite well established in the UK (or perhaps particularly in London and environs; I don’t think Americans ever use it). There is no question about its pronunciation. But we can’t agree on how to spell it. This is the other way round from what is usual.

The word means ‘silent’, and is used almost exclusively in the phrase keep ʃtʊm or its variant stay ʃtʊm ‘keep quiet (about something)’. (The OED also offers us a verb, to ʃtʊm up, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard that.)

We agree on how to say it: but how do we spell it? There are quite a few candidates.

Rather than attempt to interpret the mysteries of Google’s hit statistics, I searched the Guardian newspaper website for various possible spellings of the word.

I found
   184 hits for schtum,
   78 for shtoom,
   41 for shtum,
   21 for stumm (but some of these are for a proper name),
   15 for stum (ditto),
   5 for shtumm,
   4 for schtumm
   and 3 for schtoom.

The OED’s first citation is dated 1958. The origin of the word is Yiddish, the equivalent of German stumm ʃtʊm ‘dumb, speechless, mute, silent’. (That’s ‘dumb’ in the older sense, ‘unable to speak’, not the modern AmE sense ‘stupid’.) But we see that the spelling used in German, stumm, comes only in fourth place in the Guardian statistics. In Yiddish it’s spelt שטום, which transliterates as shtum (please correct me if I’m wrong), and this transliteration-spelling is in third place.


In German the word-initial spelling st- corresponds to ʃt. The English spellings with scht-, which look German to us, aren’t German at all.

23 comments:

  1. In Yiddish it’s spelt שטום, which transliterates as stum.

    According to the Wikipedia article, ש translaterates as "sh" and שׂ transliterates as "s". These are subtle to distinguish in the font I'm using, but based on this article section, it seems that Yiddish has preserved the Sin dot from Hebrew but not the Shin dot.

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    1. Ah, I see you corrected the article in the time it took me to compose my reply.

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    2. The letter sin is not used in Yiddish except in spelling words of Hebrew origin, which are spelled the same as in Hebrew; instead the letter samekh is used for /s/. So the shin-dot is basically redundant and standard YIVO spelling omits it.

      Interestingly, a plain alef (with no vowel mark) is written at the beginning of some words in YIVO spelling to indicate that they begin with /i/ rather than /j/, since yod is ambiguous. This alef is known as shtumer alef in Yiddish.

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  2. I think at least some Americans say "shtum", though I could be wrong, as I've lived outside of America for 23 years. I say it, but perhaps I got it from European English. In any case I would never spell it "shtoom" though, because that looks like ʃtuːm. Google gives spellings "shtum" 261,000, "shtoom" 69,300; "schtum" 45,500.

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  3. My impression is there's a tradition of spelling Yiddish ʃ as sch in English since the 19th century, maybe even more influenced by scholarly works, still mostly written in German, than by the idea that Yiddish is a corrupted form of German. I suppose a hyperforeignist tendency adds to it.

    The sch spellings became rarer during the 20th century, but stey still occur.

    (As an aside, the idea, and to a smaller degree post-1930s reality, that Jews don't look and behave like you, makes more and more Germans spell established German words such as koscher as kosher, even in inflected forms.)

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  4. If it's true that "there's no question about [ʃtʊm]'s pronunciation" then that may well make it unique, since I don't think there's any other English word that universally has the FOOT vowel before /m/ in the stressed syllable. In the onomatopoeic "oomph", "oompah" and "vroom" I'm pretty sure I've heard GOOSE as well as FOOT.

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    1. Ah, "universally". :-) Otherwise, there are room, broom, groom, with different social and regional implications.

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  5. I see also that schmuck (a somewhat vulgar pejorative term) is another example. The OED gives the pronunciation /ʃmʌk/ for both this and variant spelling shmuck. It does also give versions schmock and shmock, pronounced /ʃmɒk/, but I haven't heard these in practice (despite their apparently being closer to Yiddish שמאָק) and the Guardian tends to agree:

    schmuck 240
    shmuck 13
    schmock 1
    shmock 0

    Presumably the pronunciation of what the OED gives as /ʌ/ would still vary within Britain in the usual way?

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    1. I was thinking about Schmuck. In German, this means jewellery. I've wondered if there is a link between the two.

      I've just looked up Wikipedia and it says that the Yiddish "schmuck" means "penis" and is a taboo word. The German equivalent is actually Schmock rather than Schmuck.

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    2. The word doesn't exist in German. In Yiddish, it has an ɔ, usually mapped to the English TOP vowel, which, when merged into the PALM vowel might be identified as the STRUT vowel in turn.

      Yes, American Jews visiting a German-speaking country love to be photographed at shops advertising Schmuck in large letters. Germans have no idea about the word, as a rule. (Or maybe shtum's the word.)

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    3. I don't think Yiddish /ɔ/ *is* usually mapped to the English TOP vowel. Most usually Yiddish /a/ gets mapped to the English TOP vowel (e.g. "nosh", "lox", "schlock"), while /ɔ/ does seem to typically become the STRUT vowel (not only "schmuck" but also "putz"). I assume this is just because these were the closest phonetic matches in New York at the time these borrowings were happening, but it's incredibly annoying to me as someone whose TOP vowel is closer to /ɔ/ than to /a/ and whose STRUT vowel is closer to /a/ than to /ɔ/. (I usually use my unmerged PALM vowel in "nosh" and "lox" to make up for it, in defiance of the English spelling.)

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    4. I've always assumed that these discrepancies are because the source dialects of Yiddish for the English words were non-Litvak (the YIVO standard is basically Litvak, at least with respect to the vowels). It's ironic that most of the surviving L1 Yiddish in the world is Poylish or Galitzianer, and therefore remote from the standard of L2 Yiddish. (Lubavitchers use Litvak pronunciations, though.)

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    5. I think the most common non-Litvak pronunciations push the discrepancies even further, at least in the case of "schmuck" and "putz", though? The Poylish equivalent of Yivo /ɔ/ is [ʊ] or [u], isn't it? —which is even farther from the New York STRUT vowel.

      (I can't remember if that only applies to the reflex of proto-Yiddish /ā/, or to proto-Yiddish /ɔ/ as well. It's presumably the latter that's in "schmuck".)

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    6. The YIVO standard is based only in parts on the "Litvish" dialect (NEY), even concerning the vowels, but more importantly, the vowel in shmock and its synonym potz is /ɔ/ in all dialects.

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    7. On the German Wikipedia, there are some details about "Schmock" (how reliable, I don't know) that made me wince. If this is true, I can see why it's such a Taboo word in Yiddish.

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    8. Lot of nonsense there. The word does mean membrum virile, though, and the usage for a person is metonymical, just as dick in English.

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  6. Google scholar gives 13 hits for "schm-reduplication" as against 47 for "shm-reduplication".

    @vp: I have GOOSE in "vroom"; it lends itself more easily to onomatopoeic elongation ("vroom vroooom!").

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    1. Google scholar gives 13 hits for "schm-reduplication" as against 47 for "shm-reduplication".

      Scholar, schmolar!

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  7. I can confirm that "schtum" is not in usage in the US. I think the meaning is obvious, but then, I'm used to making quick connections. I suspect that most Americans would have difficulty with it, since when I forget my own idiom and say "touch wood" instead of "knock on wood," confusion reigneth around here - and you'd hardly think it was that difficult to work out.

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  8. Surely it's just hypercorrection into what's assumed to be German. "Sch-" is iconic for German words.

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  9. 'scht-' does not occur in Standard German initially, since its job, [ʃt-] is done by 'st-'.

    In those variants (dialects) of Dutch which have [ʃt-] rather than [st-], it is spelled 'sjt-', for instance 'sjtom', mute, dumb, rather than 'stom' (Standard Dutch).

    There is, however, no English lore concerning what Dutch, standard or not, looks like, is there?

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