Aug 23, 2017


Fun passage from a recent EconTalk (a):

Russ Roberts: So, there is a word in Yiddish, which I'm sure you know, which is 'nu' ... Yiddish speakers, or people like myself who have a cultural Yiddish flavor-experience, know somebody who speaks Yiddish or loves Yiddish – we always like to say, 'Oh, that word's untranslatable.' And, one of the worries, since it's untranslatable, is that it has many meanings, and depending on context. But I realized, because of your pragmatics discussion, the other reason it's untranslatable is that it does a lot of things that are not definitional – that aren't things you look up. It conveys emotion. It conveys sympathy. It conveys skepticism. And that's why it's untranslatable. Not because 'It means whatever you want,' or 'It depends on the context.' It's an emotion word.

John McWhorter: Oh yeah, definitely. 'Nu' is one of these pragmatic markers. And so, somebody says, 'So, I came home. Everything's okay.' So, 'nu,' when that person says, 'nu?' they are looking into your soul. What that means is, 'We're on the same page, right? You understand, right?' And that subsumes a lot of the ways that a person speaking Yiddish or Yiddish-inflected English would use 'nu.' And so, it's your first clue when somebody says, 'Oh, it has no meaning.' That means that: Yeah, it doesn't have a meaning. It has a function.

[rereads: 1, edits: cleaned up the quotes]