The Missing Syllable

I’ve been thinking of my grandmother a lot lately. Or rather, I’ve been hearing her a lot lately, in my head.

She had a particularly Brooklyn way of speaking. By that I don’t just mean she had the requisite accent, but she also had certain phrases she employed that I think were native to her specific community, one that doesn’t exist anymore. She lived most of her life in Ridgewood, which was either in Brooklyn or Queens depending on what year it was; the border shifted several times over the years without any seeming rhyme or reason. (How times have changed: Regardless of the truth at any given time, my grandfather used to tell coworkers he lived in Queens because it sounded “classier” than Brooklyn.) Ridgewood is definitely still there. Her Ridgewood is not. (Her Ridgewood, for instance, probably wouldn’t have had write-ups in the New York Times Real Estate section.)

In her day, it was a primarily German neighborhood, and had been going all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when Hessian troops were stationed there. (Her family was of much more recent vintage.) Whether due to generations away from the Old Country or the anti-Hun fervor of World War I, the populace was well assimilated by the time she arrived on the scene. Ridgewood had plenty of German pork stores and bakeries and tons of breweries (before Prohibition, anyway), but it was a fairly “Americanized” place at the time, I’d say.

And yet, there are things she used to say that still resonate with me, things that I always attribute to this very specific place and time. There’s one phrase in particular that I always come back to: Boy, he really thinks who he is. It’s meant to be a judgment on someone who’s full of himself. I find the phrasing fascinating, as it implies that thinking who you are is a character fault. Contained within it is a very German concept of how a person should behave, combined with an Old World/Depression Era mentality. It essentially means, shut up, do your work, and don’t act like you’re so special. It is completely antithetical to how people are raised to think of themselves these days. It’s a time capsule in seven words.

My grandmother did not really speak German, but she had certain German phrases she liked to use. If you came into her house and were just sort of hovering without sitting, she’d tell you Setz dich! It’s just a command and a very German one (literally, “Sit, you!”), but there was something wonderfully Brooklyn-y about the way she said it. The accent and intonation made it sound vaguely like Yiddish, or at least a goy’s idea of what Yiddish should sound like, and yet it sounded like something entirely its own, not even German, but some silly nonsense language a grandparent might make up to amuse their grandkids.

The same went for another go-to phrase, Schlafen in die glauben. Very loosely, it means “sleeping in the ditch,” which I take to mean “sleeping on the job,” though, ironically, this phrase was most often used in response to someone passing out on her couch mid-party.

But the thing she said that was the most emblematic of her, the thing I miss hearing the most, was something I can’t quite write down. It was one exasperated syllable that sounded vaguely like the “oy” in “oy vey,” and had similar meaning, but is not quite the same. If you know French, it sounded a little like the proper pronunciation of oeil (eye), but that still doesn’t mimic it closely enough. If you took the syllables ugh and yee and squished them together into one brief sound, you’re getting close.

When my grandmother made this sound, it was shorthand for Can you believe this?! It could stand for, Look at this terrible story in the newspaper. Or You paid how much for that? Or That one’s in trouble again. Or What am I gonna do with all these leftovers? And it was often followed by the conclusion This too shall pass, which was her very Catholic judgment on everything. She expressed her scorn with The Syllable, then reminded herself that, in the grand scheme of things, it probably didn’t mean all that much.

I have never heard anyone other than my grandmother make this noise, not when she was alive and not since she passed away. But I’ve always assumed that it was an intonation particular to her neighborhood, to her slice of Brooklyn, that is now gone. I wish someone had made a field recording of her, so it could be preserved for future generations. Now, her odd turns of phrase and aphorisms might as well be Latin. We can still see them written down, but we have no idea how they were spoken.

With regionalism itself on the ropes, thanks to the flattening influences of TV and the internet, I feel that a lot of this has happened: the extinction of dialects. When people think of a neighborhood changing, they think mostly of stores closing, of older people moving out and younger, different people taking their place. I think of that one little syllable that I will never hear again, and I wonder how many other sounds have been lost forever.