The Weirdnesses of Yiddish Indirect Questions

From FireSpeakerWiki

An overview of Indirect questions in Yiddish

Examples taken from a handout provided by Ellen Kellman, originally written up in 1996

Direct questions begin with the question word. The verb comes second. (Note that these examples are going to be turned into indirect questions for later examples.)

  • Vu iz moyshe gevoynen? (Where did Moyshe live?)
  • Ven iz zi ongekumen? (When did she arrive?)
  • Vos hot ir geton? (What did you do?)
  • Vuhin geyt er? (Where is he going?)
  • Ver redt? (Who's talking?)
  • Vos vet geshen? (What's going to happen?)
  • Vos vilstu? (What do you want?)
  • Vemen zol ix rufn? (Who(m) should I call?)


In Yiddish, indirect questions take normal sentence word order, and not the above-described question word order.

  • Ix veys nit vu moyshe iz gevoynen. (I don't know where Moyshe lived.)
  • Mir veysn nit ven zi iz ongekumen. (We don't know when she arrived.)
  • Ix freg ayx vos ir hot geton. (I'm asking you what you did.)
  • Ix ze nit vuhin er geyt. (I don't see where he's going.)


When there's a subject of the indirect question, it becomes es (it).

  • Ix her nit ver es redt. (I don't hear who's talking.)
  • Men veyst nit vos es vet geshen. (One doesn't know (no one knows) what's going to happen.)

Compare to when vos (what) or ver (who) are objects (ver as vemen (whom)).

  • Du megst nemen vos du vilst. (You can take what you want.)
  • Ix veys vemen ir zolt rufn. (I know who(m) you should call.)


Problems had by English-speaking L2-learners

It has been noted that English-speaking learners of Yiddish have significant problems learning not to invert verb and question word in indirect questions, even though this aspect of Yiddish syntax is at least superficially identical to English syntax.

There could be any number of ways to explain why English speakers have this problem. I don't really want to deal with the syntax now, because transformational syntax has been on my list for the last few years (I'm not saying I think it's completely inherently wrong; I'm just not a big fan); however, I do see a potential implication for theories of in late-in-life language learning. That is, it's generally assumed that when people study a language later in life, they never are able to get the fine points of the syntax, phonology, &c, because a certain part of their brain has turned itself off or stopped working. In this particular situation, English speakers' mistakes in Yiddish don't appear to reflect their native syntax, but rather an unconscious over-generalisation of question phrases. I would like to say that this implies that at least a certain part of the so-called "language-learning mechanism" in their brains is still turned on.


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