Yiddish - Princeton University

Constructional Borrowing and the Process of Factorization1
Adele Goldberg
University of California, Berkeley
Most if not all of what is normally referred to as syntactic
or grammatical borrowing involves the identification of both
syntax and semantics/pragmatics.
A hypothetical example should make this
point clear. Questions in English normally require the
inversion of subject and auxiliary verb.
Suppose a language, which previously had no inversion
of subject and auxiliary for any purpose, begins,
after a period of contact with English, to invert
not in questions, but in declarative sentences.
I submit that almost no linguist would
attribute the effects in the second language
to a “syntactic borrowing” from English.
Yet the majority of textbooks and essays describing the
borrowing of form/function patterns classify
them under the heading of syntactic or grammatical borrowing, the implication
being that borrowing of form is primary, the
identification of function merely incidental.
In a change of emphasis, I would like to describe the phenomena
as essentially involving the transfer of elements of both form and function.
The framework I use is Construction Grammar, a theory which hypothesizes
that the units of grammar are pairings of both syntax and semantics/pragmatics; these
pairings are
called "constructions".
Under Construction Grammar's strict definition
of a construction, morphemes and lexical items are constructions in
that they are form and meaning pairs. In this sense of construction,
constructional borrowings have been amply discussed under the
I was fortunate to have consultants of the highest quality.
For Yiddish these included Len Talmy and my grandmother,
Rose Wallach; for Yiddish-English, George Lakoff and Richard...
These sources were supplemented by Weinreich (1949),
Galvin and Tamarkin (1986), and Rosten (1982).
Also grateful acknowledgement goes to Claudia Brugman
and Eve Sweetser for their very helpful comments and
critisms. All the usual disclaimers apply.
rubric of morphological and lexical borrowings. The constructions
that I will discuss here involve the borrowing of syntactic patterns
along with their associated semantics and pragmatics.
In section I I identify and discuss three cases of constructional borrowing
from Yiddish into
non-standard English, discussing the elements of both
form and function which are borrowed.
Section II is a discussion of Prince's claim that Yiddish movement
represents a case of pure pragmatic borrowing since the
syntax is not borrowed invariant. I argue that the borrowing
can be accounted for rigorously, simply and intuitively as a
borrowing of both form and pragmatics, i.e. the borrowing of
a construction, within the framework of Construction Grammar.
The argument rests on the idea of “factorization” of
inherited constructions which will be introduced in this section.
I.Four Constructions borrowed from Yiddish into non-Standard
The following constructions
have been assimilated
by a group of native English speakers. This
is what allows me to call them constructions
of English (“albeit” non-standard).
I.1.What's to forgive?
1.Non-Standard English construction: WHAT'S TO _________?(bare infinitive)
Examples of this non-Standard English construction are:
1.Forgive you? What's to forgive? I'm glad to be rid of him!
2.You should take that job. What's to lose?
3.Sophie, my dear, he'll adore you. You're my daughter. What's not to like?
The construction is used rhetorically with the intended meaning that
there is nothing to forgive (lose or not to like).
This non-Standard English example is borrowed from Yiddish on the basis
of the Yiddish construction:
Yiddish construction: “VOS IZ TSU” __________(infinitive)2
Apparently not all dialects of Yiddish have this construction.
Lit. "What is to __________"
The Yiddish construction, like the English, contrasts
with the neutral, “Vos iz do tsu fargebn?”, "What is there to
It can be used in the same situations as the
English equivalent, with the same intended meaning.
For example, my informant starred the example “Vos iz tsu esn?”,
lit. "What is to eat?", saying, "No you can't say that because
there you are asking a real question. But you could say
“Vos iz nix tsu esn?” (lit, "What's not to eat?")
in the following context: say
your son walks into your house which is full of fresh
and delicious foods that you've been preparing, and he shrugs his
shoulders to mean he doesn't care for any of your offerings.
In that case, you could say, “Vos iz nix tsu esn”!?
("What's not to eat!?")."
I.1. She's a crazy!
The second construction involves the use of an adjective
as a referring expression.
2.Non-Standard English construction: det__________(adj)
1.She is a crazy.
2.She is a skinny.
3.(After a joke):That's a funny.
4. What a nasty!
5. He's a goofy.
Yiddish construction: det_______(adj, inflected as adj)
1'.”Zi iz a meshugena”.
She is a crazy.
One of my Yiddish informants did not accept this as a Yiddish
pattern, saying that he had to use the
standard form, “Vos iz do tsu fargebn?”, lit. "What is
there to forgive?"
2'.”Zi iz a nalesha”.
She is a silly.
3'.(after a joke): “Dos iz a comeshe”.
That is a funny.
The only difference in syntax is that
adjectives are inflected in Yiddish.
(This structural feature will be discussed
in section II.A.)
Differences in use are difficult to
pinpoint. According to my Yid. informant, in Yiddish, the
adjectives normally refer to humans, but
can be extended to other referents if given a clear context.
The process is productive.
My non-Standard English informants differ in degrees of productivity:
one can only say that someone is a fatty; one can only refer
to situations as "a crazy"; and one can only say someone is a crazy.
However, according to Rosten (1982)(the above exx come from this
there are non-Standard English dialects in which
this process is productive.
Because of a lack of informants with this pattern available
and productive, I have been unable
to examine the full use
of this construction. For example, in all of the examples
I have, the construction is used predicatively, and
I do not know the extend to which, if at all, it can be used
I.3. Milk shmilk, bring out the shnaps!
The third construction is the now widely recognized example,
3.Non-Standard English construction (or more generally English):
WX, shmX
W:onset of a syllable, X:rest of the word
1.papers, shmapers
2.boys, shmoys
This example is often referred to as a case of morphological
borrowing. However, the productive use of the
“shm-” morpheme is restricted to its appearance in this
particular construction. For example, it is unacceptable
to say, "She is sick of being a shmudent!". Therefore
this case can be more adequately described
as a partially morphologically filled constructional borrowing.
This construction was borrowed directly without alteration
from the following Yiddish construction:
Yiddish construction: WX, shmX W:onset of a syllable, X:rest of the word
1.”kets, shmets”
cats, shmats
2.”esn shmesn”
eat, shmeat
There appear to be no differences in syntax or function
between the non-Standard English and Yiddish constructions.
In both languages the construction is freely productive, the
"shm" replacing the onset of the first syllable of the second word.
In both languages the construction connotes the general disregard for
the referent in question.
II. On the factoring out of inherited constructions before borrowing
In Prince's recent paper, "On Pragmatic Borrowing, with
Slavic-Yiddish and non-Standard English
Evidence," she argues that non-Standard English's Yiddish-movement
does not involve any borrowing of syntax,
but is rather a case of pure pragmatic borrowing from
Yiddish. In this section I present
Prince's argument, and in turn argue that the
data can be more fully accounted for if what is
borrowed is understood to be a construction, i.e. the
pairing of both syntax and semantics/pragmatics.
The specific construction that is borrowed, I will suggest,
is the pragmatically parallel Yiddish construction after
a process of “factoring out of inherited constructions”
has been performed.
The Non-Standard English construction referred to as "Yiddish
movement" can be characterized as follows:
size 12 { left [~left [~sub 1~non-subj~ NP~right ]~~
rest~ of~ proposition~ in~ canonical~ order~right ] }
1.Filth, he lives in.
2.[referring to the nephew of the addressee] A prodigy, your brother has.
The Yiddish construction appears more restricted:
size 12 { left [{ left [~sub 1~{Non-subj~ NP~} right ] over {left ( object~of~PP~->~PP~
right ) } ~
left [~sub 2~ Vtns~right ]~~rest~of~proposition~} right ] }
1'.”in shmutz voynt er”.
In shmutz lives he.
2'.”an illa hot dayn bruder”
a prodigy has your brother.
The canonical order for these examples is:
1''. “Er voynt in shmutz”
He lives in filth.
2''. “Dayn bruder hot an illa”.
Your brother has a prodigy.
In both the English and Yiddish non-subject NP constructions, the
open proposition, i.e. the proposition minus the
NP argument, is understood to be shared knowledge.
The non-subject NP is in non-canonical order as the first element.
There are two major syntactic differences between the non-Standard English
and Yiddish constructions. First, the Yiddish construction
has the tensed verb before the subject, in second position,
while the English construction has the tensed verb following
the subject in canonical order.
Secondly, the Yiddish construction does not allow
the object of a prepositional phrase to be fronted without
its preposition, while the English construction does (contrast
exx. 1 and 1' and note: *”Shmuts voynt er in”).
The Government and Binding structures posited for
sentences 2 and 2' are:
.EQ L :English
size 12 {left [ ~sub XP-i ~A~prodigy~right ] left [ ~sub S? ~left [ ~sub np~ your~brother
right ] left [ ~sub vp ~has~ e-i right ] right ] }
.EQ L :Yiddish
size 12 {
left [ ~sub XP-i ~An~illa right ] left [ ~sub Infl ~hot right ]
left [ ~sub np ~dayn~bruder right ] left [ ~sub vp ~e-i right ]
Prince concludes on the basis of the differences
between these structures that the two constructions
cannot have the same GB derivation, and therefore
cannot share the same syntax.
That is, she argues that the syntax was not
borrowed from Yiddish into English, and therefore proposes
that Yiddish movement is a case of pure pragmatic borrowing.
Within a Construction Grammar framework, we can understand
this case as a constructional borrowing of both form
and function, where the
differences in syntax are attributable to the input of other independent
constructions of Yiddish. That is,
features found in
instances of the Yiddish
construction which are understood to have been
inherited from other constructions have been
factored out by the borrower; put more simply,
the borrower has ignored elements of the
Yiddish syntax which he has attributed to
independent constraints of Yiddish grammar.
has been borrowed, then, is a minimal characterization of the
Yiddish construction.
To see how this works, consider again the
schematic Construction Grammar formalization of the
Yiddish construction
provided above,
.EQ L :Yiddish
size 12 {
left [{ left [~sub 1~{Non-subj~ NP~} right ] over {left ( object~of~PP~->~PP~right ) } ~
left [~sub 2~ Vtns~right ] rest~of~proposition} right ]
This construction can be contrasted with the English Yiddish-movement
.EQ :English
size 12 {
left [ left [~Non-subj~NP right ]~ rest~of~proposition right ]
To account for the differences between these two constructions,
notice that Yiddish also has two independent constructions which are
relevant here:
the first construction captures the well-known
constraint on Yiddish grammar that assures that
the finite verb be in second position.
This construction is schematically characterized as
Yiddish verb second construction:
size 12 {
left [ left [~ sub 1~ right ] left [ ~sub 2 ~Vtns right ] ~rest~of~proposition right ]
The second independent construction insures that if an
object of a prepositional phrase is fronted, the
preposition will be fronted with it; that is, this
construction disallows stranded prepositions:
Prep. Fronting3
size 12 {
left [ {
left [ if~obj~of~PP~->~Prep~right ] left [ rest~of~proposition~ right ] }
right ]
The two constructions, A and B, taken together and
superimposed on the English Yiddish-movement
construction result in an exact replication of
the Yiddish construction. That is, the
Yiddish construction “modulo” the verb second
construction and the preposition fronting construction
is identical to the English construction.
This suggests the possibility that borrowers
factored out from Yiddish examples, the two
independent constructions (verb-secondness, and preposition
fronting), before adopting the Yiddish construction.
That is, what we have been calling the Yiddish
could be considered to be the
result of an integration of three independent
Yiddish constructions.
The Yiddish non-subject NP construction in its
minimal form is exactly identical to the
English Yiddish-movement construction; and
it is this which can be said to be borrowed.
As this constraint is much more typologically common
than the possibility for stranding found in English,
we may want to ultimately attribute this construction
to a universal syntactic tendency and state
the English possibility as a construction of English.
This reanalysis would require one difference
in the argument presented here, and that is that only
the verb second construction of Yiddish would need
to be factored out. The English stranding construction
as one of the repertoire of English constructions, would
be optionally
unified with the Yiddish-movement construction to produce
English sentences such as ex. 1.
This account of Yiddish movement might be countered
by the argument that the syntactic part of the construction
already existed in English, as the focus movement construction4,
and that therefore no borrowing of syntax was necessary, the
borrowed pragmatics being simply tacked onto what was
viewed as an “analogous” native syntax.
This is in fact the
proposal that Prince puts forward.
Informally, Prince goes farther and
suggests an account of what counts as "analogous" syntax;
this informal account, in fact, involves the idea of
(In the following, Prince
is referring to a borrowing
from Slavic to Yiddish. To make the statement more
general, I have substituted "donor language" for
"Slavic" and "recipient language" for "Yiddish".)
"...bilinguals appear to have
been aiming
at producing in [the recipient language] a certain
left-to-right string order found in [the donor language]
in order to make use of its [donor] discourse function
in [the recipient language]. The best they could do, given
the existing [recipient] syntax, was to use
a structure, which...produced a string which
differed only in the order
of the finite verb and subject. “This
could be factored out as irrelevant,
since there was independent evidence for its existence”
[italics added]." (Prince, 1986:6)
However, the syntactic theory Prince adopts, Government and Binding Theory, prevents
An example of Focus Movement is, "They bought a dog. Fido, they
named it." Here the fronted element acts as an attribute
of an entity which is already saliently in the
discourse. (The attribute in the above ex is “to be named X”.)
The open proposition (i.e. the proposition minus the
NP) must represent old or given information.
This differs from Yiddish movement in that the fronted
element in a Yiddish movement expression may
be either an entity or an attribute and the
open proposition need not represent old or given information.
(Prince 1981)
her from making this intuitive account rigorous.
There is no place in GB for the notions of "construction,"
"factorization," or "analogous syntax," as she herself notes.
Using the framework of Construction Grammar, crucial elements of
Prince's informal account become the basis of our formal account.
The process of factoring out of constructions allows
us to make precise just what is meant by "analogous syntax."
The Yiddish and English syntaxes are analogous in
that they share an identical construction. They
differ insofar as they have each inherited independent
constructions from their native repertoire of constructions.
There is an importance difference between
Prince's informal account and the account
suggested here, however, and that is that
on Prince's account, the analogous syntax must already
exist in the recipient language.
She draws this conclusion, since, as mentioned before,
she has ruled out the possibility that there is
any actual
syntactic borrowing between the two languages.
The alternative account
proposed here, on the other hand,
does not presuppose the
existence of a particular native syntax.
Instead, the borrowing is understood to involve
both syntax and semantics/pragmatics.
In view of this difference,
we need to find cases where no
"analogous" native construction exists, and still some
factoring out has been performed in order to defend
the idea that factoring out before borrowing ever occurs.
The following is such a case. It involves the
borrowing of a construction after a factoring out
process has been performed, where no "analogous"
native syntax previously existed:
II.A What a crazy! Revisited
We noted earlier that the non-Standard English construction: det________(adj)
was borrowed from the Yiddish construction: det________
(inflected adj.).
The English and Yiddish constructions differ in that the adjective
of the Yiddish construction is inflected as an adjective, agreeing
in gender with the noun it refers to.
The Yiddish inflection of adjectives is
not restricted to this construction, but is a general
constraint on adjectives, and can be attributed
to an independent construction of the language.
The inflection was not borrowed
into English, and
so appears to have been factored out from the Yiddish examples as
One might raise an objection at this point that the inflection
may not have been factored out as “non-essential”, but
rather as “impossible”, since English does not
the means for adjectival inflection; however, it would not
have been impossible for the English construction to transfer
the Yiddish morphological inflection
endings along with the construction. (Just this
seems to have been done in the case of the "milk, shmilk!"
construction described earlier: English, lacking a
native derogatory morpheme, simply borrowed
the Yiddish "shm-" morpheme for the purpose.)
Alternatively, if the inflection were viewed as
essential and non-transferable, it should have prevented
the borrowing altogether, but in fact it did not.
Crucially, I would argue, there was no already existing
analogous construction in English. This construction is
unique in having the internal syntax of : det+adj, and
the external syntax of N+ (i.e. N||).
Therefore, I propose this as a case of a constructional borrowing
which involved the factorization process.
IV Conclusion
Evidence of factoring out
processes in constructional borrowing lends
support for
an assumption made by
all unification-based theories in general and by
the theory of Construction Grammar in particular.
These theories posit inventories of rules or
constructions which
are said to combine with
each other (or "unify"), integrating to produce
actual sentences.
The existence of a factorization process lends
support for the claim that descriptively independent
rules or constructions are cognitively independent as well,
insofar as the constructions are separable
by the language user.
Construction Grammar provides the additional advantage
of allowing associated semantics and pragmatics to
be considered as integral to the description of constructions.
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