When I heard that Arvind Mahankali won the National Spelling Bee on Thursday night with the word knaidel, I first relished the fact that I live in a country where an Indian-American can win a national competition by spelling a Yiddish word.
Then I started wondering about the spelling of knaidel. Turns out I’m not the only one; The New York Times has an article debating the correct spelling of the word.
Yiddish is traditionally written using the Hebrew alphabet, so any English spelling is a transliteration from the original writing system. In addition, while there have been attempts for a long time to standardize Yiddish, it was spoken by a dispersed population across Europe and into other countries. Pronunciations and spellings in Yiddish vary across the many areas where it has been spoken.
That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to standardize Yiddish. The Times recognizes the most influential of these, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which has published guidelines for the transliteration of Standard Yiddish into English. Like many language academies, they haven’t been totally successful in getting everyone to follow their rules – how often have you seen the Jewish festival of lights & latkes spelled Khanike?
Why is it important to have standardized spellings? It can’t just be about understanding, because I can read knaidal, kneydel, and knaidle and know that they all mean the same thing. For YIVO, it seems to be partly about “the purity of the language” and controlling the pronunciation, since they worry that people will mispronounce the word if they see it spelled knaidel. It also seems from the Times examples that YIVO spelling look very different from English and German, perhaps to emphasize that Yiddish is a separate language.
As for the publishers of Webster’s dictionary, the standard for the Spelling Bee, they need one standard so that they can crown a champion every year.