LINGUIST List 5.454

Wed 20 Apr 1994

Sum: Eggs and yolks in German (5.406)

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  1. Hartmut Haberland, Summary: Eggs and yolks in German (5.406)

Message 1: Summary: Eggs and yolks in German (5.406)

Date: Wed, 20 Apr 1994 09:06:52 Summary: Eggs and yolks in German (5.406)
From: Hartmut Haberland <>
Subject: Summary: Eggs and yolks in German (5.406)

In Linguist 5.406 I posted a query regarding German regional and
dialectal expressions for eggwhite and yolk.
I was interested in geographically locating the variants
'Weissei' and 'Gelbei' (for more common 'Eiweiss' and
'Eigelb/Dotter', and for those speakers who know both variants,
to find out if any semantic differentiation has taken place.
The potential semantic differentiation I was thinking of is most
obvious for the first pair: 'Eiweiss' also means 'protein'; I
suspected that those speakers who know 'Weissei' never use it in
the sense of 'protein', but only in the sense of 'the white part
of the egg'. It is less obvious for the other pair; eggyolk is
not a chemical substance in the sense eggwhite/protein is, but a
mixture of several; still one could imagine that those speakers
who use both 'Eigelb' and 'Gelbei' use the first as {-count}
('You've got Eigelb all over your beard') and the second as
{+count} ('Man nehme ein Gelbei ...'). (But this is not even
borne out by my own usage.)
One should also mention that 'Weissei' is attested in literary
German while 'Gelbei' is not.
I got a surprisingly large number of replies within very few
days. Most respondents told me, though, that they never had heard
neither 'Weissei' nor 'Gelbei'; some of them even asserted that
they wouldn't even know what those words were supposed to mean.
This result is, of course, inconclusive for my main concern, viz.
the question if a semantic differentiation has occurred for those
who use both variants.
One respondent remarked, though, that he had heard 'Gelbei' from
his mother as a {+count} term for the yolk of a boiled egg. This
respondent's mother is from Silesia; so is mine; and this, of
course was an interesting hint.
(He had never heard 'Weissei' though, although one of the sources
for Weissei in the Grimms' Woerterbuch is Lohenstein, who was
from Silesia.)
I investigated the question if there is any evidence for 'Gelbei'
in Silesian dialects, and there is; I don't have a Deutscher
Wortatlas here but I found a reference that the map for
Eigelb/Dotter in vol. 19 shows the 'inverted form' 'Gelbei' for
Silesia. I found no parallel evidence for 'Weissei', but maybe
'Eiweiss' didn't occur in the DWA questionnaires, since the
questionnaire for 'Eigelb' certainly wasn't motivated by a search
for 'Gelbei', but for (far more widespread) 'Dotter'. There is no
such parallel form for 'Eiweiss'.
But since Silesia, especially the Eastern part, is a
German/Slavic language contact area, I looked up what eggwhite
and yolk are in Czech and Polish, and found bilek/zloutek and
bialko/zoltko, resp. (Apologies for omitting diacritics, which I
otherwise consider a major crime.) That is, words for eggwhite
and yolk starting with the adjectives for white and yellow, plus
a drivational suffix. The same turned out to be the case for
Yiddish: vajsl and gelkl.
Finally, I consulted a Danish semi-speaker of Yiddish (with third
generation Russian background) who has no knowledge of German
except as a foreign language he lerned in school (where he hardly
would have heard anything but 'Eiweiss' and 'Eigelb'. He
immediately told me that he had heard gelbaj from his grandmother
(born in Russia).
So the geographical source of the terms seems to be clear. As to
the semantic differentiation, evidence is still lacking, but at
least it sounds plausible that since 'Weissei' is a non-standard
term and 'Eiweiss' is standard, it is rather unlikely that the
non-standard term should crop up in discussions of nutritional
chemistry or cellular biology.
Thanks to Kay Behnke, Arkady Borkovsky, Christoph Eyrich, Udo
Fries, Achim Grabowski, Rolf Grosserhode, Joachim Mugdan, Adi
Palm, David Powers, Bernhard Rohrbacher, Geoff Simmons, Harald
Trost and Werner Wegstein, as well as (off-line) Bent Rosenbaum
and Klaus Schulte.

Hartmut Haberland
Department of Languages and Culture
University of Roskilde
Roskilde, Denmark
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