Reapplying the Language Tree Model to the History of Yiddish

in Journal of Jewish Languages
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Abstract

The article discusses several definitions of the notion of Yiddish that exist in linguistic studies. The Germanistic approach emphasizes differences between various German and Yiddish dialects. The Judeo-Centric approach, developed during the second half of the 20th century as an alternative method to that used by the Germanistic school, puts the uninterrupted chain of languages spoken by Jews in the center of its linguistic analysis. For the representatives of this school, Yiddish is a fusion language from its inception, the process they generally posit to the period when the first Jewish communities appeared in German-speaking territories. As suggested in this article, for the adequate understanding of the development of Yiddish, several notions used by the two approaches should be combined. Only the Germanistic approach provides appropriate frames for analyzing the genesis of Yiddish according to the Language Tree model. Its (re)application shows the inadequacy of certain basic positions of the Judeo-Centric Approach. Yet, several notions introduced by the proponents of the latter method still represent a major contribution in Yiddish studies. The notion of “fusion” creates an appropriate theoretical tool for studying the development of Yiddish varieties. The consideration of the uninterrupted chain of languages spoken by Jews sheds light on factors that were invisible within the Germanistic approach. The article also suggests a classification of languages spoken by Jews useful for the analysis of their historical development.

Reapplying the Language Tree Model to the History of Yiddish

in Journal of Jewish Languages

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References

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  • 8)

    On this topic see also Benor 2008:1066–1067. A humorous expression of this concept cited by Max Weinreich states that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

  • 12)

    See Weinreich 1973.2:261–320 for detailed discussion of the notions of Selectivity and Fusion when applied to Yiddish.

  • 16)

    Vershik (2007) discusses cases of a stronger influence of Yiddish in Russian spoken by Jews. In comparison to the milieu briefly described above (known to the author of this article personally) she deals with previous generations and/or other places and social groups. See also Brzezina (1986:323–410) for a list of specifically Jewish words found in Polish texts written by Jews.

  • 24)

    See Weinreich 1967:2201–2203.

  • 28)

    This extrapolation is done in Benor 2008:1071.

  • 33)

    But see Beider 2012:44 about the discontinuity of certain elements of the Jewish linguistic and onomastic heritage.

  • 35)

    See for example Weinreich 1973.2:303–310 with numerous examples from the domain of given names (some of them are—as discussed in Beider 2001:24 594—incorrect or at least doubtful).

  • 37)

    See details in Banitt 1963which argues against the concept of “Judeo-Romance languages” (of which Weinreich was one of the most influential promoters). As discussed by Banitt nothing suggests the existence of any phonological or morphological peculiarity of the language spoken by Jews in medieval northern France while (a) many thousands of glosses correspond to Old French; (b) less than one hundred glosses reveal items unknown in sources available for Old French; (c) about fifty of them can be assigned to Old Provençal language spoken by Jews in southern France. The last point is of particular importance in Jewish interlinguistics. Banitt (1963:260–267) shows that a number of specifically Jewish words used in medieval communities of various Romance-speaking countries could take their roots in the tradition of biblical translations and other religious literature created by Jewish scholars from Narbonne in southern France. His conclusions show the theoretical inadequacy of the approach suggested in Blondheim 1925 (and endorsed in Weinreich 1973.1:110) about the putative “Judeo-Latin” lexical pool from which all Romance-speaking Jewish communities drew a significant portion of their lexical peculiarities. We should not confuse links in the Language tree model and relations that can exist between Jewish languages. If French is derived from Latin it does not necessarily mean that a specifically Jewish repertoire that was found in the language of medieval French Jews was due to their ancestors who spoke Latin. In the case of French Jews the contribution was (at least partly) not vertical (from Latin) but horizontal (from Old Provençal). For additional information concerning non-systemic peculiarities of French used by Jews in medieval France see Kiwitt 2003:266–271 and Fudeman 2010:45–59.

  • 39)

    Compare Benor 2010:175–176.

  • 50)

    Benor (2008:1070 2009:236) proposes similar considerations. She suggests distinguishing between two qualitatively different categories of languages spoken by Jews: “co-territorial” and “post-co-territorial.” The former are used in the same geographic area as their non-Jewish correlates. The latter category covers cases in which a “Jewish community maintains a language for many generations after migrating to a new language territory or continues to speak a language after local non-Jews have shifted to a different language.” She stresses that representatives of the second category are rather exceptional in Jewish history and calls for “slightly different tools of analysis” than those of the first category. Weinreich (1973.1:177) also suggests distinguishing two basic types of Jewish languages according to the territory (old or new) where the inception of a new idiom takes shape. Yet despite the purely descriptive purposes in the framework of his particular approach it is unclear why this dichotomy is important.

  • 52)

    See the above discussion of Timm 2005.

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