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How do you tell the sex of a chicken?
It’s not that easy. No, I’m not talking about those people in the hatchery that have to sort the males from the females; they’ve got it easy. I’m talking about Yiddish. This is something that has confused our people since time immemorial, and today I’m going to try and lay out the problem so you can see what’s going on.
My first problem was to figure out the whole business of roosters and chickens. We know a hen is a female chicken, but is there such a thing as a female rooster? Or is a rooster simply a male chicken? Inquiring minds want to know. To make a long story short, Wikipedia tells us that chickens come in both genders; and that a rooster is just a male chicken.
In a perfectly logical world, then, we would say that the neutral term is chicken, and the gender-specific words are hen and rooster. Technically this is correct, but in popular usage I feel that the word chicken leans towarde the female of the species. For example, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear about a rooster humping a chicken, but it sounds a bit off if we say a chicken was doing it with a hen. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
In Yiddish we at least can dispense with this small discrepancy: we seem to have no word at all for the species at large, but only gender-specific words for the male and female. Does that make things easier? Hardly.
The situation is most readily understood if we begin with the Modern German cognates: Hahn (the rooster) and Huhn (the hen). In going from German to Yiddish, the “ah” vowel commonly shifts to a short “o” like the o in “corn”. So, according to the phonetic YIVO spelling system, we have hon (HO(r)N) for rooster and hun (HOON) for hen. It’s a little close for comfort, but still obviously two
The problems begin when we go into dialect.. There are two great branches of Eastern Yiddish, the northern and southern, known familiarly as Litvish and Galitzianer. The YIVO standard pronunciation generally follows the Litvish system; for us Galitizianers, however, the rooster is a HOON and the hen is a HIN. These are systemic vowel shifts that you find everywhere…the same ones that turn kugel into kigel and neshomah into neshumah. But as a result, the Litvak’s hen is our rooster.
Things straighten out a bit when we go to the plural. Again, the German serves as a useful guide: the vowel shifts on pluralization are given by the umlaut, so we have Hahn/Hähne and Huhn/Hühner. The Yiddish follows similarly…the roosters are hener in both the North and South, and the hens are hinner.
So in short, all Yiddish speakers have a HOON; they just don’t agree if it is male or female. The genders re-appear on pluralization, with Litvaks and Galitzianers in accord that henner are the roosters and hinner the hens.
Except for one more complication. There seem to be a fair number of southerners who call a rooster a HOON but pluralize it as HINNER. This cannot be authentically correct. It’s inconsistent with the way all other similar nouns are pluralized. For example, the German Zahn (tooth) becomes the Litvish tson, which becomes the Galitzianer tsoon, which is pluralized by both of them as tseyn. (Compare the German Zähne.)
I can only speculate that when the Galitzianer children went to Peretz School they were taught that the plural of hoon (Litvish hen) was hinner; and that they inadvertently applied this same paradigm to their Galitzianer hoon (rooster).
I hope that sets the record straight. The final word on the topic goes to the old adage, a bit of wordplay on the Yiddish terms for hither and thither. It goes like this: what do you get when you cross a chicken with a rabbit? Answer: Nischt ahin un nischt aher.