The Extraordinary Complexity
of the History of Yiddish

History of the Yiddish Language

by Max Weinreich, Edited by Paul Glasser, translated by Shlomo Noble with the assistance of Joshua Fishman, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, published in cooperation with YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2008 (first published in Yiddish as Geshikhte fun der yidishe shprakh, 1973; first English edition, without notes, published by the University of Chicago Press, 1980), 2 vols., xiv + 732 pp. + notes, pp. A1 - A988.

Studying the history of Yiddish means studying Jewish languages, migrations, sociology, anthropology and religion, among other subjects. Jews have often been called the People of the Book, but before Max Weinreich wrote his History there was no book that told the long and complicated story of Yiddish. Jews are commanded to remember, but there was no memory in Eastern Europe of why Jews were speaking a language obviously related to German while their neighbors were speaking Slavic languages or Hungarian or Romanian or Lithuanian. How did it all happen?

Weinreich begins the history of Yiddish in a place that was called Loter in Yiddish many centuries ago. The name comes from the Latin name Lotharingia, an area in Europe including parts of France and Germany. The province of Lorraine in France derives its name from Lotharingia. We know that Jews lived in Cologne in the first half of the fourth century C.E. (p. 2) and probably lived in other cities in the Rhineland as well at that time. However, we don't know whether Jews remained there when the Romans withdrew in 414. Weinreich believes they left the Rhineland and returned 500 years later. As evidence, he cites the Jewish word for the Rhine River, which was rinus. The Latin -us ending had long since disappeared from all Romance languages. He writes that "the form rinus could have come into Loter only through Jews that have come under the influence of Latin" (p. 329). It seems to me that his example suggests the opposite point: Jews who were out of touch with the Roman Empire and its descendants could much more easily have preserved an archaic form, whereas living in a Romance-speaking area would lead to adopt the same linguistic changes as their neighbors.

Loter, or Lotharingia, was established by the Treaty of Verdun, which was concluded in 843 and divided the empire of Charlemagne into three areas, each to be ruled by one of his grandsons. Lothar, the eldest grandson, got an area in the middle of the empire, straddling what is now France and Germany, and extending into Italy. As Weinreich tells us, "This border territory without boundaries, without linguistic unity, born out of a dynastic caprice of autocrats, became a crucial position both in general and Jewish history" (p. 336). It was the birthplace of Ashkenaz and of Yiddish.

Knowing where Jews lived doesn't necessarily tell us how they spoke. We know very little about what German was like 1700 years ago. We don't know to what extent Latin was spoken in Cologne. The oldest sentence in Yiddish—one sentence—was found in 1963 "in the Worms mahazor of 1272, now in Jerusalem" (p. 6). Even when we have a sentence, we may not know how the letters are pronounced, nor do we know how accurately the text represents the speech of the time.

We also don't know exactly how Jews spoke before great numbers of them moved to Loter. They arrived there from France and Italy, which Weinreich refers to as Loez, based on the Hebrew words me`am lo`ez meaning "from a people of strange language" that occur in Psalm 114:1 (When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language). The strange language, in this case, is not ancient Egyptian but Vulgar Latin or early forms of French and Italian.

Before that, a great many Jews spoke Greek, or Judeo-Greek. Weinreich defines Judeo-Greek, or Yavanic, as "A fusion language, the stock of which was mostly Greek, but in which the 'mistakes' vis-à-vis standard Greek are not individual, but characteristic of Jews" (p. 62). There were enough Greek-speaking Jews to inspire the translation of the Old Testament into Greek in the third century BCE. There are tombstones in the city of Venosa in southern Italy dating from the Roman Empire written in Greek, often in the Greek alphabet but sometimes in the Hebrew alphabet.1 The Yiddish words apikoyres (free thinker, heretic) and gematria (computation of the numerical value of letters in a word) are or Greek or Yavanic origin. Yavanic survived in western Greece until the Holocaust.

And before there was Greek, there was Aramaic. Aramaic may even have antedated Hebrew. Genesis 11:28 tells us that Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees. There is no date, but since we are specifically told ”of the Chaldees,“ it has to be later than when Ur was a Sumerian-speaking city. Sumerian, a language that may possibly be related to the pre-Indo-European Dravidian languages of southern India, has been extinct for at least 4000 years. Chaldean is a Semitic language. Abraham, however, did not come to the Holy Land from Ur but from Haran, which seems to be the same place as Padan-Aram, and is where Abraham's relatives lived (Gen. 25:20). Today, Haran is in Turkey, just north of the Syrian border, and is in a Kurdish-speaking area. Kurdish is an Indo-Iranian language. But in Biblical times, it almost certainly was Aramaic-speaking. Genesis 31:47 seems to tell us that Laban, Jacob‘s uncle and father-in-law, spoke Aramaic. Did Abraham come to the Holy Land speaking Aramaic and then learn Hebrew from the Canaanites? Since there are no non-Biblical independent sources about Abraham, we can never know.

We can and do know, however, that Jews learned Aramaic during the Babylonian captivity, and to an extent spoke it after they returned to the land of Israel in the days of the Persian Empire. We certainly know that the Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic. We know that Kurdish Jews spoke a Jewish language which is a modern descendant of Aramaic before they moved to Israel. They called it Targum (p. 69).

In modern Yiddish, sometimes there are Hebrew and Aramaic versions of the same word. The very familiar Yiddish word for Bar Mitzvah is of course bar mitsve, which comes from Aramaic, but there coexists a Yiddish word of Hebrew origin, bal mitsve, with the same meaning. I heard bal mitsve all the time as a child, but I had forgotten it until I rediscovered in it Weinreich‘s History (p. 71).

Yiddish has always been in contact with Hebrew and Aramaic, and so a Hebrew or an Aramaic word could enter Yiddish at any time in history. The same is not true for Latin, Old French, or Old Italian. Weinreich calls the Jewish analogs of these languages western Loez, southern Loez, and Romanic Loez respectively. He offers evidence of a continuing tradition of Judeo-Romance languages dating back to Latin, which evolved during the same periods that the Romance languages were developing. An example is a word of Greek origin, meletan, which was borrowed by Latin and survives in various Judeo-Romance languages (but not in other Romance languages) meaning "study" or “read.’ It became meltar in southern Loez (Judeo-Italian), meldar Dzhudezmo (Weinreich‘s way of spelling Judezmo, nowadays often called Ladino), and miauder in western Loez (Judeo-French). All these forms reflect typical changes that occurred between Latin and its daughter languages. Since there is no French word miauder, the Judeo-French word necessarily goes back to Romanic Loez (p. 107).

Another example offered by Weinreich is a transliteration into Latin characters of a Hebrew manuscript of the tenth century, written in Chartres, in northern France. It includes the Hebrew word yiplu (fall) is transcribed gippolu. Together with this example, Weinreich mentions that the name Hayim is spelled Hagin in an Old French document (p. 107). These spellings strongly suggest that the Hebrew letter yud had turned into the voiced affricate pronounced like the letter j in English. That would be parallel to the sound changes that turned Latin Iulius into English Julius. Weinreich doesn't consider the possibility that Jewish languages preserved the older sound. However, there is a Judeo-Italian kinah (dirge) that was part of the services for the 9th of Av in which the word for "people" is ienti rather than gente.2 The spelling might, of course, show that the i sounded like j. But perhaps we should think of the Yiddish given name Yentl, from the Italian word gentile meaning “noble.” It could be that Judeo-Romance languages preserved an archaism that eventually found its way into Yiddish. If so, it would be even stronger support for Weinreich's view that the Romance component of Jewish languages developed independently and was not borrowed from the more modern languages. As he says, “Western Loez developed from Roman-Loez roughly parallel with the development of French from Latin” (p. 108). Jewish languages have a life of their own.

There were several expulsions of Jews from France during the 14th century. Western Loez died out some time after the last of these expulsions in 1394. Weinreich writes, “From time immemorial Ashkenazic Jews had a tradition that they stemmed from Zarfat [France], which, from the point of view of culture areas, included the British Isles” (p. 342). He goes on to cite a writer, Elijah Levita, who lived from 1469 to 1549 and who explained the presence of a Loez component in Yiddish by saying “It is well known that we Ashkenazim came from the stock of the men of Zarfat ... and many of the words of their language remained in our speech.” Perhaps this was well known in 1549, but Ashkenazim today are not likely to be aware of this. There are words of Romance origin in Yiddish, including bentshn (to say the blessing after meals), cholnt (stew heated overnight for the Sabbath), and others found only in western Yiddish, such as orn (to pray). Most Yiddish speakers are not aware of their etymologies. What is striking is that Ashkenazim do not look upon themselves as having been expelled from France, unlike Sephardim, who typically are quite aware of the expulsion of their ancestors from Spain.

Loter is a name that Jews used for the area that overlaps the border between France and Germany. As I mentioned above, it comes from Lothar, the name of a grandson of Charlemagne. The name eventually went out of use after Jews no longer lived on the French side of the line and had already become less current. The name of its successor, Ashkenaz, is a place mentioned in the Bible that was nowhere near Germany but was simply chosen as the Jewish name for the area. Similarly, the biblical country Sepharad was chosen for Spain; Zarfat (Tsarfat), for France; and Knaan (Canaan) for Eastern Europe. The name Knaan is now forgotten; it became part of Ashkenaz when Yiddish-speaking Jews moved east. Whatever Judeo-Slavic languages were spoken are now lost—totally lost, unlike Yavanic, which survived in a small part of western Greece after the arrival of Ladino-speaking Jews. Weinreich refers to post-Yiddish Eastern Europe as Ashkenaz II.

The Jews who went to Loter came from France and Italy. As for Knaan, “the first Jews appeared in Kievan Russ and they did not come from the West” (p. 85). They were from Greek-speaking or Persian-speaking areas. However, Knaan may have played a crucial role in the development of the pronunciation of vowels in Ashkenazic Hebrew. Before the thirteenth century, all European Jews used the five-vowel system of southern Palestine and not the seven-vowel system of Tiberias. Then things changed. As Weinreich writes, “When the Babylonian yeshivas declined in the thirteenth century, scholars from Babylonia scattered throughout central Europe. Their number could not have been large, but their importance was outstanding” (pp. 376-77). This Babylonian renaissance changed Ashkenazic pronunciation. The change included not only separate vowels for kamets and tsere, but a shift in accent from the final syllable to the other syllables, most frequently the next to the last.

Rome, Greece, Babylonia, France, Germany, Eastern Europe—to write about Yiddish one must know an enormous amount. Max Weinreich included a vast amount of information in his book. A preliminary translation appeared in 1980, without the notes, which are longer and perhaps more informative than the text itself. Now the complete work is available in English, a reason to rejoice.

Total disclosure: Max Weinreich's son, Uriel Weinreich (1926-67) was my dissertation advisor. He approved my dissertation, set a date for the defense, and died ten days before the defense took place. Since he had approved, I defended it successfully.

My review of the preliminary translation appeared in Language, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1981). It is quite different from this review.

1. "In Italian Dust, Signs of Past Jewish Life," The New York Times, May 15, 2003.

2. Levi, Joseph Abraham, "La Ienti de Sion: Linguistic and Cultural Legacy of an Early Thirteenth-Century Judeo-Italian Kinah," Italica 75.1 Spring (1998): 1-21.

This review appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Midstream.