The Ori­gins of Yid­dish: Part Tsvey

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In last week’s col­umn deal­ing with two re­cent ar­ti­cles about the ori­gins of Eastern Euro­pean Yid­dish, I dwelled more on the first — Cherie Wood­worth’s ac­count of the “stan­dard the­ory” most sys­tem­at­i­cally worked out by the great Yid­dish lin­guist Max Wein­re­ich (1894– 1969) and of some of its prob­lem­atic as­pects that have led to the adop­tion of al­ter­nate hy­pothe­ses. This week I turn to the se­cond ar­ti­cle, Batya Un­garSar­gon’s, which deals with two of these hy­pothe­ses while pro­fil­ing a prom­i­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of each, plus a third lead­ing Yid­dish lin­guist who de­fends Wein­re­ich’s po­si­tion.

Un­gar-Sar­gon writes about these three fig­ures en­ter­tain­ingly — too much so in the opin­ion of one of them, Dovid Katz, who has just posted, in Yid­dish, an In­ter­net protest against her ar­ti­cle’s sen­sa­tion­al­iza­tion, as he sees it, of a se­ri­ous schol­arly dis­pute. Yet Katz, the Brook­lyn-born son of a Yid­dish poet who now heads the Yid­dish depart­ment founded by him at the Univer­sity of Vilna, is, if any­thing, more flam­boy­ant than Un­gar-Sar­gon makes him out to be. (I my­self met him once, some 20 years ago, when he and I held, in the of­fices of the For­ward, a de­bate about the his­tor­i­cal “lan­guage war” be­tween He­brew and Yid­dish that was pub­lished in the pages of this pa­per.) A man of many ac­com­plish­ments whose long hair and beard give him the look of a 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean rev­o­lu­tion­ary, he has a com­bat­ive per­son­al­ity, a solid train­ing in his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics, a prodi­gious knowl­edge (and love) of Yid­dish and its his­tory and a sharply honed an­a­lyt­i­cal mind.

Katz has chal­lenged Wein­re­ich (whom he al­ways refers to with great re­spect) on two main is­sues. The first is the view that Eastern Euro­pean Yid­dish orig­i­nated in south­west­ern Ger­many, in or near the Rhine Val­ley, where towns like Mainz, Worms and Speyer, first pop­u­lated by Jews com­ing from eastern France, were im­por­tant cen­ters of Jewish com­merce and learn­ing by the late 10th and 11th cen­turies. Build­ing on the work of Robert King, a pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Texas, Katz ar­gued that the Yid­dish of Eastern Europe could not pos­si­bly have de­vel­oped from Jewish speech in the Rhineland; that it must have ini­tially crys­tal­lized in Bavaria, in south­east­ern Ger­many, and that the most likely place for this to have hap­pened was in the vicin­ity of Re­gens­burg, a trad­ing hub on the Danube whose Jewish com­mu­nity, only slightly younger than the Rhineland’s, had be­come the home of il­lus­tri­ous rab­bis by the end of the 12th cen­tury.

The co­pi­ous lin­guis­tic ev­i­dence cited by King and Katz on be­half of this hy­poth­e­sis tes­ti­fies to the far greater affini­ties of Eastern Euro­pean Yid­dish with me­dieval Bavar­ian and Aus­trian di­alects than with those spo­ken in the Rhineland. I gave as an ex­am­ple of this last week the Yid­dish diminu­tive “l” end­ing, which is Bavar­ian but not Rhen­ish. An­other of the many cases that could be cited is the Ger­man tense sys­tem, in which, in Bavar­ian as in Yid­dish, the preterite, or sim­ple past (for ex­am­ple, ich sah, “I saw”;

ich schrieb, “I wrote”), dis­ap­peared in the Mid­dle Ages and was re­placed by the present per­fect ( ich habe gese­hen, Yid­dish ikh hob gezen, “I have seen”; ich habe geschrieben, Yid­dish ikh hob geshribn, “I have writ­ten”), which came to func­tion as a sim­ple past, too. This did not hap­pen in western Ger­many.

Katz’s se­cond chal­lenge to Wein­re­ich was more orig­i­nal. First put for­ward in his 1982 doc­toral the­sis, “Ex­plo­rations in the His­tory of the Semitic Com­po­nent of Yid­dish,” it put forth what he called a “con­tin­ual trans­mis­sion the­ory” of Yid­dish as op­posed to Wein­re­ich’s “text the­ory” — that is, the propo­si­tion that Yid­dish’s very large He­brew and Ara­maic vo­cab­u­lary (far larger than that of any other Jewish lan­guage) is due not to the grad­ual effect of rab­bini­cal schol­ar­ship on a Ger­man sub­stra­tum but to Yid­dish’s ear­li­est speak­ers be­ing Semitic-speak­ing Jews mi­grat­ing di­rectly to the Re­gens­burg area from Baby­lo­nia and Pales­tine rather than from France, Italy or other parts of Ger­many. Katz sought to prove this in a num­ber of ways, among them the ar­gu­ment that He­brew and Ara­maic’s gut­tural “ch” sound, which had van­ished from the speech of French and Ital­ian Jews whose lan­guages lacked it, would not have reap­peared in Eastern Euro­pean Yid­dish solely be­cause of the in­flu­ence of Ger­man (which does have it), and must have been brought from else­where by Jews whose He­brew pro­nun­ci­a­tion had re­tained it all along.

In re­cent years, Katz has de-em­pha­sized his “con­tin­ual trans­mis­sion the­ory” (his 2004 his­tory of Yid­dish, “Words on Fire,” fails to men­tion it), per­haps be­cause Mid­dle Eastern Jews set­tling in Re­gens­burg in the 11th or 12th cen­turies would have spo­ken Ara­bic, not Ara­maic or He­brew. Yet while the is­sues it raises are in­trigu­ing, it is hardly a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of the Re­gens­burg hy­poth­e­sis. The con­tentions that Eastern Euro­pean Yid­dish orig­i­nated along the Danube rather than along the Rhine, that it was from the out­set a dif­fer­ent lan­guage from Western Euro­pean Yid­dish; that it did not move slowly across Ger­many, from west to east, be­fore reach­ing Slavic-speak­ing Poland, and that it ab­sorbed its ini­tial Slavic vo­cab­u­lary from nearby Czech­s­peak­ing Bo­hemia de­serve to stand on their own mer­its.

Next week I’ll get to the other two main pro­tag­o­nists of Un­gar-Sar­gon’s ar­ti­cle: Paul Wexler and Alexis Manaster Ramer.


Mainz Event: Some ar­gue that Yid­dish started in the Rhine Val­ley.

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