The Hobbit in Esperanto, Chapter 6: Out of the Shtetl and Into the Goblin Army

The goblins in The Hobbit are smarter — or at least wittier — than their counterparts in The Lord of the Rings. They even improvise rhyming songs1:

But, funny little birds, they have no wings!
O what shall we do with the funny little things?

The Esperanto-speaking goblins freestyle too:

Sed strangaj birdetoj senflugilaj!
Kion ni faru pri ĉi ŝlemilaj!

At first glance ŝlemilaj seems to have something to do with tools. The -il- suffix forms words for tools and instruments, so tranĉi means "to cut", and a tranĉilo is "a knife"2. Senflugilaj, the rhyming word, does come from -il- — the derivation is sen + flug- + -il- + -aj, "without" + "to fly" + "instrument" + a plural adjective ending, and describes "those without wings".

But ŝlemilaj comes from the Yiddish שלעמיל, "schlemiel", for which Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish offers seven definitions ranging from "a foolish person" to "a born loser; a submissive and uncomplaining victim" to "a clumsy, butterfingered, all-thumbs, gauche type". (The Esperanto isn't much different: La Plena Ilustrita Vortaro defines a ŝlemilo as Homo sen sprito k ruzo, kiu pacience suferas sian misfortunon, "a person lacking wit or shrewdness who suffers misfortune with patience".) As with Tolkien's original insult, the goblins taunt the heroes by calling them laughable.

In English, "schlemiel" has a distinctly Yiddish feel. Unlike "bagel" or "lox", which also come from Yiddish but are just the neutral names for those particular things, it evokes specific places and times — the late-1800s Ukraine, say, or 20th century Brooklyn. It's strange to hear it in the mouth of a goblin3.

But ... I'm not reading The Hobbit in English. I'm reading it in Esperanto. And if that happens to be the Esperanto word for a type of laughable person, are those connotations misleading? Ŝinko, the Esperanto word for "ham", comes from the German "Schinken", but it's as everyday a word as "ham" (or "bagel", or "lox").

There are only a couple of thousand native Esperanto speakers. The vast majority of Esperantists learn it as a second language. Do many of us bring first-language associations to uncommon words — associations that may not be shared by other Esperantists? How many Japanese Esperantists think of ŝlemilo as a Yiddish borrowing, rather than one more root to memorize?

1. Tolkien calls it a "horrible song"; I think it's not bad myself (back to article)

2. Lest you think that Esperanto is perfectly predictable in such matters, forki means "to spear and lift with a fork", but "fork" is forko, not forkilo. In one case, the noun is formed from the verb; in the other, the verb is formed from the noun. If you ever meet a Lojban speaker, mention these Esperanto asymmetries, and you'll get an earful. Then again, you'll never meet a Lojban speaker (back to article)

3. Strange to me — but how about a speaker fluent enough to read the whole book in its Yiddish translation? (back to article)

Written on May 15, 2016