It is rather widely known that Bob Dylan’s birth name was Robert Zimmerman. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota and grew up in Hibbing, a nearby town founded in 1893 by Frank Hibbing, who had been born in Walsrode, Lower Saxony in the Low Saxon dialect area of northern Germany.
Zimmerman is a German-language name; it is the German word for “carpenter” when spelt with two n’s. Zimmer is related to English timber. Danish tømmer and Swedish timmer also translated as “timber” or “lumber”. But the German word Zimmer actually means “room”.
In 1905, Robert Zimmerman’s Jewish paternal grandparents emigrated to North America from Odesa, now in Ukraine and today mainly Ukrainian and Russian speaking.
In 1897, Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian were spoken as mother tongues by 59% of Odesa’s population, with the remaining 41% speaking one of 50 other languages. The city was at that time less than two-thirds Slavic in its ethnic composition, even if Polish speakers (4%) are included.
More relevant to the Dylan story, 28% of Odesa’s inhabitants in 1897 had the Jewish language Yiddish as their native tongue.
On the other side of his family, Bob Dylan’s maternal grandparents were also Jews who had their origins in Lithuania. So it is rather likely that all four of his grandparents spoke Yiddish, and we can now see that Zimmerman was strictly speaking a Yiddish-language rather than a German-language name.
To make things even more interesting linguistically, in his autobiography published in 2004, Dylan wrote that his paternal grandmother’s family, prior to living in Odesa, had originally come from the Kağızman district of Kars Province, which now lies in northeastern Turkey, close to the border with Armenia. This was a rather multilingual area at that time, with Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian, Yiddish, Turkish and Russian-speaking communities, among others, nearby.
As a young man, Bob Zimmerman changed his surname to Dylan, apparently out of admiration for the famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Dylan Thomas himself came from Pantygwydr, Swansea, South Wales, and also had an interesting language background. His father was a schoolteacher, and his mother came from a Welsh farming family. His parents were both Welsh-speaking, and his father claimed that Dylan and his sister Nancy were also bilingual. It is true that Dylan had very many Welsh-speaking relatives, and he certainly had some understanding of the Welsh language, even if by his own admission he could not read it – but he was not, it seems, a fluent speaker.
An interesting question is whether we can say that these interesting linguistic backgrounds had anything to do with the brilliant way with words both these writers have demonstrated, in Thomas’s verses and in Dylan’s songs (which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016).
Quite possibly there is no connection. But I do like to think that growing up in a multilingual milieu, and having come from a polyglot family background may well increase a young person’s sensibility and sensitivity towards language, and therefore their ability to use language in novel and creative ways.
One of Thomas’s best-known verses is Fern Hill, which begins:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…
The change of meaning as between timber and Zimmer “room” is an example of metonymy – a change in the meaning of a word so it comes to include additional senses not originally present but closely associated with the word’s original meaning: “timber”, led by close association to “wooden building” and thence to “dwelling” and so to “room”.