To keep stum - pronunciation and origin

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Jul 2, 2008.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    "To keep stum" is "to remain silent" or "to say nothing", as I understand. I wanted to check:-

    (a) How is "stum" pronounced?
    (b) What the origin of the phrase is, if anyone has any idea.

    A quick look on the web has not been very helpful.


  2. Diablo919

    Diablo919 Senior Member

    Dayton, Ohio
    US / English
    Shtum: from yiddish: silent
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2008
  3. xqby

    xqby Senior Member

    Santa Maria, CA
    English (U.S.)
  4. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    Are you sure you mean "stum", and not "mum"? To keep mum has been a standard expression for centuries.
  5. Trisia

    Trisia mod de viață

    Actually, I knew it as "shtum" (the pronunciation is obvious here), probably Yiddish.

    EDIT: From Wikipedia: Yinglish
  6. bibliolept

    bibliolept Senior Member

    Northern California
    AE, Español
    I've encountered both "stum" and "shtum"; based on the sources, I'd have spelled it "shtum." I always assumed this phrase was more prevalent in BE. I have heard it pronounced "shtum," and found it interesting that it parallels the "shhhh" noise.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2008
  7. El escoces Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    English - UK
    No, it's shtum, I think, but I can't help you on the origin. You hear it portrayed in TV dramas, movies etc set in London's East End.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2008
  8. El escoces Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    English - UK
  9. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I know it in Yiddish pronounced shtum and meaning "mute". I didn't know it had worked its way into English.
  10. gasman Senior Member

    Canada, English
    My father brought the word with him from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, and he pronounced it "shtum". He used the word to mean being quiet, holding your tongue, admitting to nothing. "Sit shtum"
  11. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    OK, so it is a Yiddish word, and the pronunciation would be 'stum' or 'shtum' as in 'sh' (e.g.: 'a share', 'the shape of') followed by /u/ as in 'full' or 'put' or 'too' and not as in 'duck' or 'cut' or 'luck'.

    The connection with the East End of London would make sense, since many East European Jews that arrived in Britain in the late 19th century settled down in the East End, initially - it was the poorer part of London where immigrants would settle down (hence Bangladeshi residents today continuing this tradition).
  12. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    Stumm (pronounced shtumm) is a perfectly good German word meaning silent or mute.

    Since both Yiddish and modern German have common roots, the similarity is not surprising.

    We used it in my family because of the German influence, but obviously that's not the only source.
  13. El escoces Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    English - UK
    It has indeed N-T and as I said earlier it has become, through the popular media, even more widespread. If not in everyday usage, now not far off it.
  14. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I very much agree with Scottie: even BrE speakers who don't use it would almost certainly understand it. The pronunciation is exactly as described by James Brandon in post 11.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2008
  15. mancunienne girl Senior Member

    English - England
    No Yiddish speakers in my family, or indeed any Jewish or German connections. However, my 60+ year old mother uses the expression 'keep stum' all the time, and pronounced it with the 'sh'
  16. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    Well, it's certainly a new one to me. I confess I've never heard it in my life and I did spend a fair amount of it in the UK.
  17. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    As regards the spelling in BrE - the OED gives "schtoom", "shtoom", "shtum(m)", followed by the all-important "etc". The examples given include ones with "stumm".

    In other words: we agree on how we say it, but we don't know how to write it:D
  18. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    If the word is of Yiddish origin, it would have been written in Hebrew characters, and then a lot of transcription issues arise, so that many different spellings would be possible - some closer to the phonetic transcription that would appear more 'natural' to an English-speaker, presumably. This should not come as a surprise - the spelling issue, I mean.

    That Yiddish and German share many roots/words is undeniable, so it is not surprising either that there would be a German word that is very similar. A Yiddish origin sounds more likely to me, though, given the overall context and remarks made by various contributors - and the East End connection.
  19. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    It's very familiar to me; almost certain I've used it.
    My dictionary of slang only gives (somewhat feebly) the spelling shtum.
  20. Mr Punch Member

    Saitama, Japan
    England, British English
    As another Brit, I've heard it a lot too. Of course, it's a separate history and usage to 'keep mum'.

    And as with everyone else I've heard 'shtum' and always assumed the 'stum' spelling, though I would think 'shtum' would be fine.

    Why, what are you doing that's so bad so much?! :D
  21. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I agree with James.

    Also the regional differences in Yiddish mean that when people emigrated, so did their regional pronunciations (shtum/shtim), which probably also played a role in how the word is pronounced in English by English speakers.

    Yiddish is based largely on Middle German, so it is not in the least surprising that the same word is used in modern German and modern Yiddish.

    And now I'll sit stum because I am merrily wandering off the track.
  22. mancunienne girl Senior Member

    English - England

    Now, chance would be a fine thing.......
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 4, 2008
  23. David Senior Member

    The question about spelling might be resolved as follows:

    Some people translate Yiddish words in English using a phonetic English spelling, so שטום becomes shtum, the letter ש having the pronunciation sh.

    Because it is primarily a dialect of German however, some people transliterate Yiddish words into English using phonetic German spelling. In German, the combination st is pronounced sht (e.g. Stelle, place). Either way, the Yiddish word when used in English is pronounced shtum, with the u of put, not the u of cup,

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