Thursday, February 12, 2015


I do a lot of walking, and over the past few years, I've really begun to enjoy listening to podcasts while I walk. There aren't any podcasts dealing with Hebrew linguistics as far as I know (although you download Avshalom Kor's radio bits here). I do listen to a few podcasts about language in English: Lexicon Valley, The Allusionist, The History of English, Grammar Girl, and The World in Words. But perhaps my favorite language podcast isn't officially about language at all.

I first heard about Mike Pesca's The Gist in August 2014 on an episode of  This American Life. The host Ira Glass introduced him as follows:

This new podcast isn't about sports. It's about everything. 20 minutes a day, often about the news, though just as often not. What makes it special is, I think, the sheer joy, the gleeful, articulate energy that Mike Pesca marshals in thinking about and dissecting the world around him.
The theme today on our radio show is magic words. And I thought of Pesca today, because when he is not explaining what poker can tell us about missile defense systems or filling us in the country in Africa that is doing really, really well, Mike Pesca is somebody who seems to take great pleasure in noticing words, how people use words, and especially the misuse of words.

That's really a great description. While Pesca doesn't usually deal with etymology or linguistics per se, the way he talks about words really makes the listener (at least me) appreciate the significance of language.

The Gist always ends with a segment called "The Spiel". So in appreciation of Pesca's love of words, I thought I'd look at the word "spiel". The most obvious question regards pronunciation. It's spelled "spiel", but Pesca pronounces it "shpiel". Why?

The answer goes back to the etymology. There are two proposed origins:

1. a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch.
verb (used without object)
2. to speak extravagantly. 
1890-95; (noun) < German Spiel or Yiddish shpil play, game; (v.) < German spielen or Yiddish shpiln to play, gamble 

Both the German and Yiddish derive from an older German word spil.

Which is more likely the origin of our English word spiel? David L. Gold in his book Studies in Etymology and Etiology discusses the issue (pgs 563-570). On page 567 he points out that of the different meanings of the word spiel, they either date to pre-1859 American English, such as the sense "to gamble" (in which case a Yiddish influence is not possible since there were insignificant numbers of Yiddish speaking Jews in America at the time) or they are a usage of the word not found in Yiddish (such as the sense "to talk"). So Gold is convinced that the origin is German, not Yiddish.

So why does Pesca pronounce the word in the Yiddish form and not the German one? He does have Jewish background, so that could be an influence. But it's not just Pesca - the pronunciation shpiel appears much more prevalent in general.

I think what is happening here is a case of Yiddish (or Jewish) influence on American culture overall. In Yiddish, we find the word meaning "play, skit" and is perhaps most familiar in the Purim-shpiel that entertained Jews on the holiday. Jewish immigrants from Europe would have used that pronunciation, And since they had significant influence in the entertainment industry (Vaudeville, radio, etc), that is the way many people began to hear the word spoken (even if they continued to write it the traditional German way.)

A similar phenomenon can be found with the word "smear". Smear is a perfectly respectable and understandable English word, and when pronounced as such can either mean "to spread or rub something on something else" or "defame, slander". But the Yiddish "schmear" has a more specific meaning - to spread something on bread, or as a noun, something spread on food- like cream cheese on a bagel. As discussed in this Philologos column, this has become the more "authentic" way of pronouncing the word when talking about food, even if the spelling hasn't always been changed.

The Yiddish shpil also entered modern Hebrew slang as שפיל meaning "breathing space, latitude", Rosenthal writes that it can either refer to a more general sense of flexibility or freedom (as in a politician's wiggle room as to what choices he makes, or the forecast of a meteorologist), or it can be more physical and refer to loose parts of a car moving around undesirably. I suppose the connection here to shpil is a sense of "room to play". While I've found that usage by politicians such as Yair Lapid here, he felt the need to define the term after using it, and of Israelis I asked, the younger ones aren't familiar with the term at all. So it seems that shpil in Hebrew is on its way out.

That said, I would love for there to be an Israeli version of The Gist (HaIkar העיקר? BeEtzem בעצם?), and maybe that would return shpil to its rightful place in our language.

Due to comments from my readers about the fact that spiel is pronounced shpiel in German as well, I've written the following post.

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