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I'm unsure whether Yiddish is within the purview of this site; I'm hoping it is, and apologies in advance if it isn't.

I've been curious about this for a fairly long time. A classic Klezmer instrumental song is titled "Wie bist die gewesen vor Prohibition?", which is obviously in Yiddish. This title is taunting because it almost, vaguely, makes sense in German, except that the direct reading of "What are you the being before prohibition?" is only slightly better than jibberish.

So: can someone explain what the phrase means, what makes it tick, and what differences between Yiddish and German make it look weird to a speaker of the latter? Some online sources place the translation as "Where were you before prohibition?", but I'm not entirely sure to what extent to trust them, and, I'd like to go a bit deeper into how that translation works.

  • Hi and welcome to German Language Stack Exchange. Being a 41k user on Physics, you won’t need a point to the tour or the help center, but for tradition’s sake you’re getting one ;). Also our latest meta-discussion says yes to on-topicness of Yiddish. – Jan Sep 22 '16 at 21:41
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    I think it will help to know that bist gewesen means have been and wie means how. A stab at the translation without knowing Yiddish would be: How have you been before prohibition. That would be word by word, but the meaning would be more like: What were you like before the prohibition? – Ralph M. Rickenbach Sep 23 '16 at 5:27
  • I think you need a Yiddish speaker to translate this. According to yiddishdictionaryonline.com vor means reality. Thus, maybe it means Wie ist es Dir während der Prohibition ergangen? / How did you fare during prohibition?, which seems more plausible than before prohibition. – Roland Sep 23 '16 at 9:07
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    @Roland For me "vor" as "before" makes more sense, because the song seems to be from 1922, i.e. during the prohibition. I would interpret it as "do you remember the fun times when we are all drunk?" (basically a klezmer version of superjeile zick ;) ) (re reality: i think thats just "wahr" with eastern pronunciation) Re the translation as "where": Google finds some results with "Wo/Vo bist die ...". It might have some history of misspelling from people only roughly familiar with german/yiddish. On a general note theres a general tendence towards "i" (as seen here in du -> die) – Bort Sep 23 '16 at 9:34
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    @Roland That is irrelevant, questions about or in Yiddish are also on-topic on this site (until meta consensus changes). – Jan Sep 23 '16 at 22:40
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It's mostly Yiddish written in a Germanized orthography, which only serves to obscure the meaning.

Wie -- this is the word װוּ "where", cognate with German 'wo'
bist -- ביסט, same meaning as German
die -- דו "you", cognate with German 'du'
gewesen -- געװעזן, same as German
vor -- this is not a word in Yiddish. In Yiddish "before" would be פֿאַר 'far'.
Prohibition -- German or English word

The first and third words exhibit a vowel shift [u] → [i] that is characteristic of certain dialects of Yiddish (Southeastern Yiddish).

The full translation, as far as I can tell, would indeed be "Where were you before Prohibition?" 'Far' in certain contexts can have the meaning of "during/at the time of". That would be an unlikely translation in this context, but maybe it makes more sense as a question.

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