Language in Erdrich & Yezierska

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about why certain words and phrases are used in literature, and not others. I’ve been particularly considering the inclusion of foreign languages being included into novels.

Two of the authors I’ve chosen to study (Erdrich and Yezierska) make frequent use of another language to imply kinship, to deepen understanding or to remind readers of cultural differences. Erdrich uses Ojibwe, and Yezierska Yiddish, to link the novel to a heritage that exists in the real world, beyond the pages of the book. I find that it enriches the text, although I’m aware the it bothers others when they have to search out the meaning of a word.

Erdrich’s use of Ojibwe is scattered throughout her novels, particularly “n’dawnis” (my daughter), and serves to reinforce the link between family members, between characters and their culture, and between the past and present.

Yezierska makes far more use of Yiddish than Erdrich does of Ojibewe, however, this is likely influenced by the fact that Yerierska’s first language was Yiddish and it was used a great deal on Hester St, New York and in the surrounding Jewish streets of New York in the early 20th Century. As Yezierska portrays relatively common immigrant experiences in her novels and short stories, it is not surprising that she uses a great deal of Yiddish.

Whilst considering the reasons behind this decision to include non-English words, and the practicalities involved in doing so- should there be a glossary, a footnote explanation, or an in-text explanation I came across a two interesting texts online. The first one is rough guide to Erdrich, and the second is an amusing look at Yiddish for the 21st Century.


About livesinliminalspaces

I am a PhD candidate in the School of English, whose research focuses on the effect the urban environment and the cityscape has on the behaviour of marginalised characters in the novels from the Twentieth Century.
This entry was posted in American Literature, Jewish American Literature, Liminality, Native American Literature, Urban and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Language in Erdrich & Yezierska

  1. Em says:

    I often wonder the same thing when I find French in the text. I know it’s not a problem for me, but I always wonder how much of it non-French speakers understand. Some is self-explanatory, I guess….
    I personally don’t like in-text explanations; why say the same thing twice? I guess footnotes could help and you have the choice to read them or not. A glossary would be nice, but not really practical as it would disturb the reading process. Isn’t it in Clockwork Orange that there is a glossary for the slang used in the novel?
    It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? I understand why the author would want to include dialect or foreign language, but it doesn’t always feel natural. It probably depends on how talented the writer is…

    • I’ve never found it to be a problem with either Erdrich or Yezierska, as Erdrich’s texts usually explain the meaning through context. Yezierska’s Yiddish is understandable to non-Yiddish speakers if they are familiar with American culture, or if they have basic German!

      I’ve been reading some novels set in the American South West lately though, and am finding the lack of explanation for Spanish phrases a little frustrating. I agree that a glossary is disruptive, and I really dislike when there is a direct translation of the phrase so that the reader familiar with the language experiences a type of echo, but find that a contextualised explanation helps those unfamiliar with the language.

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