It seems I didn’t get the story completely right last week when I wrote about the sex of chickens. I identified the German Hahn and Huhn with the Yiddish hon and hoon (rooster and hen). This is not quite right. Unlike the Yiddish hoon which is always a lady chicken, the German Huhn can be a man. If they want to specify the egg-laying gender, the German can speak of the Henne.
It is odd that the German rooster, the Yiddish rooster, and the German hen, representing three distinct vowel sounds, all take the identical vowel upon pluralization: die Hähne, die Hennen, and di henner. As you can see they are differentiated only by the trailing consonant.
So absent the German Henne, is Yiddish therefore lacking in a generic term for chicken, without specifiying male or female? Not quite. We have the option of referring to the bird as an oph, meaning fowl. No, it’s not from the French oeuf (egg) but rather from the Hebrew. This ought to be a helpful word because in the diminutive it becomes eyphallach, meaning literally “little chickens”. But that too would be a mistake. When we speak of a mother with her kléine eyphallach, we are referring not to a mother hen but to a human mother with a brood of infants. The metaphoric meaning has entirely displaced the literal one. I have not found a Yiddish word for baby chicks; hendelach un hindelach convey to me merely the idea of small roosters and hens. The Germans, however, have Küken, which almost rhymes (allowing some leeway for the umlaut) with our chicken. In this case the German word, like Henne, didn’t seem to find its way into Yiddish.
Getting back to roosters, the German Hahn is different from our hon one one other respect: in addition to being a rooster a Hahn is also a water faucet. But then again, in English we sometimes call a faucet a water cock. And what is a cock but another word for rooster? So it comes full circle.
I remember when I visited Germany ten years ago we stopped in a small café, the kind operated by Turkish immigrants, where I was met with blank stares when I tried to order a gläsel Tee. Fortunately I happened to have my own tea bag, so I asked if they could just bring me some hot water? The waitress was still puzzled: “Hahnwasser?” she asked me hopefully. I regretfully declined. No, she wasn’t offering to have a rooster pee in a cup for me, but that’s just about as good a cup of tea as you can make with tap water.