This special issue of the Journal of Jewish Languages commemorates the fiftieth yortsayt1 of Uriel Weinreich (1926–1967), a pioneering scholar of language contact, language change, and the Yiddish language. In linguistics, Weinreich is best remembered as the author of the highly influential monograph Languages in Contact and a co-author, together with his doctoral students William Labov and Marvin I. Herzog, of the 1968 essay “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change,” which laid the groundwork for a unified approach to diachronic and synchronic variation. In Yiddish, Weinreich is best remembered as the author of the introductory textbook College Yiddish, the compiler of the Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, the founding editor of the Field of Yiddish, and the initiator and director of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry.
Weinreich’s numerous and varied contributions to scholarship—including articles, monographs, and edited volumes on topics ranging from formal semantics to folklore—are especially impressive considering the brevity of his career: tragically, Weinreich died from cancer at the age of forty, only sixteen years after completing his doctoral dissertation. The enormity of the loss—not only to his family and colleagues, but also to the fields of linguistics and Yiddish studies—is difficult to comprehend without careful consideration of Weinreich’s achievements and the role he played in shaping the priorities and methodologies of his disciplines.
Uriel Weinreich was born on May 23, 1926, in Vilna, Poland (today the capital of Lithuania). Known as Yerusholaim-deLite ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ due to its long association with rabbinic scholarship, Vilna was also an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and later became a hub for Jewish nationalist political activity. Uriel’s maternal grandfather was the celebrity doctor and community leader Tsemakh Shabad, and his father was the philologist Max Weinreich, who was instrumental in founding the
The story of how the Weinreichs came to the United States is the stuff of legend. A renowned scholar in Vilna, Max was invited to deliver a presentation about Yiddish at the Fifth International Congress of Linguists, scheduled to take place in Brussels from August 28 to September 2, 1939. He and his wife Regina decided to bring their thirteen-year-old son Uriel to the conference, who was evidently being groomed to become a linguist. The Weinreichs were en route in Copenhagen when news broke that the Germans and Soviets had signed a pact of nonaggression. Regina returned to Vilna to take care of Uriel’s younger brother Gabriel, who had been left in the care of his grandmother, and Max and Uriel remained in Denmark. The Germans invaded Poland one week later, and the conference in Brussels was cancelled. Max secured permission to stay with Uriel in Denmark for about six months, when the
Uriel Weinreich began his undergraduate studies at City College in February 1943, but he received a scholarship that allowed him to transfer to Columbia University later that year. During his first two years of college, Weinreich also participated in a series of seminars in Jewish social science at the
As a junior, Weinreich enrolled in his first courses in general linguistics with André Martinet and Slavic linguistics with Roman Jakobson. These two figures had a profound influence on the research topics Weinreich would soon pursue as a graduate student; as he himself wrote: “It was from Martinet that I learned the essentials of descriptive analysis of language and the fruitful possibilities of extending structural methods of work in the diachronic dimension. Through Jakobson I became particularly absorbed in the interrelations between language history and culture history” (
Weinreich’s graduate career in Columbia’s Department of Linguistics began immediately after his undergraduate career ended. His Master’s thesis, “Present-Day Approaches to the Study of Bilingualism,” introduced a number of theoretical issues that would become foundational in his dissertation and subsequent monograph Languages in Contact, most notably the formulation of “bilingualism as a problem of the individual” as well as “a problem of a language community.” In these works, Weinreich argued cogently against the then-widespread view that the influence of one language on another (i.e., “linguistic interference”) is determined primarily by the degree of structural similarity between the two languages. In order to thoroughly investigate the effects of language contact, linguists must also consider a variety of social factors that affect the use of the different languages by bilingual individuals and their communities, including the relative social status (or prestige) of each language, the domains in which the languages are used, and speakers’ relative levels of proficiency. He illustrated these principles through carefully selected examples from his dissertation fieldwork in Switzerland, as well as from the multilingual European Jewish milieu in which he was raised. These ideas have since become axiomatic in the study of language contact, and research on various subtopics—including code-switching, language maintenance and shift, and the development of pidgins and creoles—flourished in the ensuing decades (see Kim 2011 and Kim & Labov 2011 for a fuller discussion).
Weinreich’s habit of undertaking ambitious writing projects while also engaged in university studies—what might today be called academic multitasking—did not end with the publication of College Yiddish. In his (successful) application for a dissertation fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1949, we discover that Weinreich was “engaged in compiling a Yiddish-English and English-Yiddish school dictionary, which will be ready for the press in the summer of 1949” (
During the same period [the Master’s degree from 1948 to 1949] I worked on the compilation of a Yiddish and English school dictionary (about 16,000 words in each part). Unfortunately, the Jewish Teachers’ Committee on Pedagogical Research and Publication, which had commissioned the work, dissolved before it could be published. The manuscript has been ready since 1949, but because of the costs involved in the complex typography, I have not been able to find a publisher for it (
rg552, folder 433).
The final product of his lexicographic efforts, the Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, would not be released until 1968. The
After filing his dissertation in 1951, Dr. Weinreich spent a year working as a multilingual editor for the
At the time of his death on March 30, 1967, Uriel Weinreich was engaged in a number of major research projects (see Herzog 1967 for his bibliography to that point). With financial backing from the National Science Foundation, Weinreich was working on a reader in the history of linguistics from Pāṇini through the early 1800s. He was also working on several articles in semantic theory, which were eventually published as a book-length compilation thanks to the efforts of William Labov and Weinreich’s widow, Beatrice (Bina) Silverman Weinreich, herself a trained Jewish folklorist. Finally, Weinreich devoted considerable time and energy to laying the theoretical foundations for research on dialectology in multilingual areas (see, e.g., Weinreich 1963) and implemented many of those ideas in the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, a major survey of Yiddish dialects supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the
The sociologist of language Joshua A. Fishman has argued that Weinreich’s work in semantic theory deserves to be better known among sociolinguists, in part because “it appeared on the scene when ‘Uriel Weinreich’ was already a name to conjure with and when the basically antisociolinguistic thrust of the Chomskyan revolution was still at full throttle” (Fishman 1997:308). Given these remarks, it is interesting to note that Weinreich himself did not see the dichotomy between sociolinguistics and generative linguistics as necessary, and certainly not fruitful. In one personal statement (ca. 1965) he writes:
The years since 1952, when I joined the faculty of Columbia University, have been very happy ones for me—above all because of the opportunity they have afforded for continuing to learn. The contact with a first-rate faculty and excellent advanced students has been most stimulating, and I have had access to superb libraries and an unending pool of informants. My teaching—in Yiddish as well as in general linguistics—has included a new course almost every year and has been productive of articles and reviews in various fields. My co-editionship [sic.] of Word, the journal of the Linguistic Circle of New York, from 1953 to 1960 gave me valuable training in scholarly editing and criticism. But the greatest single intellectual influence on me in these years has been from Noam Chomsky of
mit. The rejuvenation of linguistics which he has almost single-handedly actuated in a brief period has been profoundly congenial to my previous outlook as well as stimulating for the exploration of new paths ( rg552, folder 433).
Weinreich maintained a close professional relationship with Chomsky throughout his career. He invited Chomsky to teach a seminar and deliver lectures at Columbia. In his introductory remarks to one lecture, Weinreich pronounced, “We have never been the same since Syntactic Structures appeared in 1957, and since Noam Chomsky taught a course here in 1957–1958. Though we cling to legitimate interests other than grammatical theory, there are not many things that any of us are working on which have escaped the influence of those ideas, once colorless and now so green, which have been awakened from their furious sleep by our speaker of this evening.”2 The two linguists solicited each other’s advice on drafts of manuscripts, including one of Weinreich’s papers on semantics and Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Chomsky also agreed to write Weinreich a letter of recommendation for a grant from the
At the same time, Weinreich was keenly aware that language could not be understood outside of its social context—a theme that he emphasized in all of his work on language contact and dialectology (e.g., Weinreich 1954a, Weinreich 1958). “Systematicity in heterogenous language” is listed as Weinreich’s top research interest on his 1965
It still needs a good deal of revising, but it’s something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for some time. I also wanted to do my part in putting Labov’s significant work into the mainstream of linguistic discussion. Not that he needs much help—he is a brilliant, coherent theoretician, a virtuoso practitioner, and an effective, devoted teacher. I hope his book [The Social Stratification of English in New York City], which is due this week, will be immediately appreciated as the epoch-making work that I think it is. In originality and fecundity I rank it on a level with Saussure’s Mémoire, Verner’s “law,” Saussure’s Cours, and with Syntactic Structures. I hope you get to know and appreciate Labov this summer; it’s worth it (
rg552, folder 21; letter dated June 6, 1966).
Weinreich expressed his enthusiasm for Labov’s research in similar terms two years earlier, in a letter of recommendation for a Columbia dissertation prize. Like the letter to Chomsky, the recommendation is highly revelatory of Weinreich’s prophetic vision for the future of the discipline:
Homogeneity of the language under analysis has been a fundamental requirement of all scientific linguistics; where this condition was not empirically met, it had to be adopted as an operational fiction. Consequently, our understanding of language as an ordered structure has been achieved at the expense of a completely atomistic, anti-structural conception of the speech community. The objects of linguistic description progressively lost in significance as they narrowed down from languages to dialects to “idiolects” and even lower, to “styles.” Dr. Labov has now turned the whole enterprise on its head by demonstrating that the greater order is found not in the speech of an individual, but in the differentiated language system of a community … Dr. Labov’s work ends an epoch of about ninety years of abortive pursuit and arbitrary stipulation of homogeneity.
The program of empirical research which becomes urgently necessary in response to Dr. Labov’s challenge is still difficult to foresee, but there is little doubt that a whole spate of studies will follow in his tracks. The theoretical implications for the theory of linguistic structure and language change are of a revolutionary character. In sum, I believe that this is one of those rare cases where the [a]ward would be more honored by being granted to a particular dissertation than the dissertation would gain by receiving the award (
rg552, folder 52, letter dated May 28, 1964).
The praise that Weinreich offered for the contributions of his less senior colleagues did not go unreciprocated, as linguist Yakov Malkiel correctly predicted in an obituary published in Romance Philology:
Many talented students of [Weinreich’s], who feel beholden to his research, teaching, and personal guidance, will in years to come reach the pinnacles of their careers and will undoubtedly, through the dedication of their books and through other appropriate acknowledgements, publicly and privately affirm their continued allegiance to him (Malkiel 1968:128).
Indeed, William Labov dedicated Sociolinguistic Patterns (1972) as well as all three volumes of his Principles of Linguistic Change (1994–2010) to his advisor. In the preface to the 2006 edition of his Social Stratification of English in NYC, Labov acknowledges Weinreich’s influence as follows:
Reading over his unpublished papers, I found an outline for the study of the New York City speech community that anticipated my earliest notes for the project. I find it very hard to say where his influence is to be found, since it has merged so deeply with my own approach to language, so I must assume that it is everywhere (Labov 2006:xii).
As this article has shown, Weinreich was unusually sensitive to the developments taking place within the discipline during some of its most turbulent and exciting times. He had a clear vision for the future of his field—one in which he had every intention of participating. A complete assessment of his impact on the development of linguistics and Yiddish studies would require a more detailed analysis than could be presented here. Absent here is a discussion of the professional and/or personal relationships that Weinreich maintained with other key linguists and Yiddishists, including Morris Halle, Joshua Fishman, Dell Hymes, Einar Haugen, Mordkhe Schaechter, Khone Shmeruk, Benjamin Harshav, and of course, his father, Max Weinreich. Also absent is a discussion of Weinreich’s fraught relationship with German scholars, whose written requests for advice or collaboration were met with a form letter requesting that they reply with “a summary of [their] political activities in the years 1933–1945, with special reference to membership in Nazi organizations and to participation in the German war against the Jews” (see also Peltz 2013; M. Weinreich 1946). For Weinreich, scholarship always needed to be socially informed as well as socially responsible and, like language, was always to be seen as embedded in a social structure.
The original research articles that appear in this special issue highlight the ways that Weinreich’s influence is still felt today, especially in research on Jewish language varieties. Burdin applies the quantitative methodology of variationist sociolinguistics to the study of a Yiddish intonational contour, the so-called “rise-fall”—a feature initially described by Weinreich in 1956. While Weinreich predicted that the rise-fall was in decline in Yiddish but on the rise in colloquial American English, Burdin demonstrates that Yiddish-English bilinguals living in Ohio are still sensitive to the distinctive Yiddish “flavor” of the contour: the rise-fall is not only more pronounced in Yiddish than in English, but it is also used more frequently in “culturally intimate” social contexts (e.g., Yiddish club meetings) than in other kinds of interactions. Turning to a different culturally intimate context—the Yiddish classroom—Avineri applies the tools of discourse analysis to demonstrate that the process of language learning is deeply connected to socialization into a system of language ideologies: the classroom is a site where students and instructors express “contested stance” towards Hebrew, German, and Standard Yiddish, and the circulation of these ideologies helps to define membership in a secular “metalinguistic community” of students and language enthusiasts.
This special issue also includes two research articles on historical linguistics, with an emphasis on Jewish language contact and bilingual dialectology. Glasser analyzes the development of Southeastern Yiddish phonology, addressing questions that Uriel Weinreich posed in his own dialectological research on mergers and sound shifts. Focusing on the loss of phonemic vowel length and the rise of a contrast between /i/ and /ɪ/, Glasser contends that some of the sound changes most debated in the field of Yiddish historical linguistics are best understood as language-internal developments, rather than interference effects from coterritorial languages. This finding is, of course, not intended to diminish the role of external factors in explaining other diverse language change phenomena. Bunis presents an in-depth study of the South Slavic influence on the lexicon of Judezmo (Ottoman Judeo-Spanish) between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period when the influence of Turkish on Judezmo was considerably greater (as was the influence of Slavic on Yiddish, in other parts of Europe). In his analysis of South Slavic-Judezmo contact, Bunis responds directly to the challenge Weinreich poses in Languages in Contact, namely, that linguists consider the full variety and intensity of social factors in shaping the linguistic outcomes of contact.
In addition to the research articles described above, this special issue also includes a new personal reflection by William Labov on the diverse contributions of his advisor, mentor, and colleague, Uriel Weinreich. Labov offers a unique glimpse into the origins of the influential essay “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change” (Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968), as well as an update on how sociolinguists have responded to the essential problems of linguistic change outlined in that essay.
Uriel Weinreich’s work transcended national, linguistic, and historical boundaries. We hope that now, fifty years after Weinreich’s passing, this special issue of the Journal of Jewish Languages will inspire linguists to return to his publications (and those of his students and students’ students) and consider the ways that we are indebted to him for articulating so many of the problems still at the core of both general and Jewish linguistic inquiry.
Fishman, Joshua A. 1997. “Uriel Weinreich (1926–1967): A Sociolinguistic Appreciation.” In The Early Days of Sociolinguistics: Memories and Reflections, eds. Christina Bratt Paulston & G. Richard Tucker. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 307–313.
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Fishman, Joshua A. . 1997 “Uriel Weinreich (1926–1967): A Sociolinguistic Appreciation.”In The Early Days of Sociolinguistics: Memories and Reflections, eds. . & Christina Bratt Paulston G. Richard Tucker Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 307– 313.
Herzog, Marvin I., Vera Baviskar, Ulrike Kiefer, Robert Neumann, Wolfgang Putschke, Andrew Sunshine, & Uriel Weinreich, eds. 1992. The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, vol. 1: Historical and Theoretical Foundations. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
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, eds. , Herzog, Marvin I. , Vera Baviskar , Ulrike Kiefer , Robert Neumann , Wolfgang Putschke , & Andrew Sunshine Uriel Weinreich . The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, 1992 vol. 1: Historical and Theoretical Foundations. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Kim, Ronald I. 2011. “Uriel Weinreich and the Birth of Modern Contact Linguistics.” In Languages in Contact 2010, eds. Piotr P. Chruszczewski & Zdzisław Wąsik. Wrocław: Philological School of Higher Education in Wrocław, 99–111.
Kim, Ronald I. & William Labov. 2011. “Introduction: Uriel Weinreich and the Study of Language Contact in Switzerland, 1951–2011.” In Languages in Contact: French, German and Romansh in Twentieth-Century Switzerland, ed. Uriel Weinreich. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, xix–xxviii.
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. & Kim, Ronald I. William Labov . 2011 “Introduction: Uriel Weinreich and the Study of Language Contact in Switzerland, 1951–2011.”In Languages in Contact: French, German and Romansh in Twentieth-Century Switzerland, ed. . Uriel Weinreich Amsterdam: John Benjamins, xix– xxviii.
King, Robert D. 1988. “The Weinreich Legacy.” The Fifth Annual Avrom-Nokhem Stencl Lecture in Yiddish Studies. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies.
Labov, William. 2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (first edition published in 1966).
Peltz, Rakhmiel. 2013. “Forging a Field: Recovering Uriel Weinreich’s Research on Yiddish Culture in Eastern Europe.” Lecture at the Max Weinreich Center, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, New York. https://yivo.org/Recovering-Uriel-Weinreichs-Research-on-Yiddish-Culture-in-Eastern-Europe.
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. Peltz, Rakhmiel . 2013 “Forging a Field: Recovering Uriel Weinreich’s Research on Yiddish Culture in Eastern Europe.” Lecture at the Max Weinreich Center, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, New York. . https://yivo.org/Recovering-Uriel-Weinreichs-Research-on-Yiddish-Culture-in-Eastern-Europe
Weinreich, Max. 1946. Hitlers profesorn: der kheylek fun der daytsher visnshaft in daytshlands farbrekhns kegn yidishn folk. New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute – YIVO. (Translated into English in 1999, Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes against the Jewish People. New Haven: Yale University Press.)
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. Weinreich, Max . Hitlers profesorn: der kheylek fun der daytsher visnshaft in daytshlands farbrekhns kegn yidishn folk. 1946 New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute – YIVO. (Translated into English in 1999, Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes against the Jewish People. New Haven: Yale University Press.)
Weinreich, Max. 1973. Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh: bagrifn, faktn, metodn. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Fully translated into English in 2008, History of the Yiddish Language, Paul Glasser, ed. & Shlomo Noble, trans. New Haven: Yale University Press/yivo Institute for Jewish Research.)
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. Weinreich, Max . Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh: bagrifn, faktn, metodn. 1973 New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Fully translated into English in 2008, History of the Yiddish Language, Paul Glasser, ed. & Shlomo Noble, trans. New Haven: Yale University Press/ yivoInstitute for Jewish Research.)
Weinreich, Uriel. 1949. College Yiddish: An Introduction to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture. New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute– YIVO.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1949-1967. Uriel Weinreich Collection, RG 552. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, New York.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York. Sixth reprint, 1968. The Hague: Mouton.
Weinreich, Uriel, ed. 1954b. The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore, and Literature. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1958. “Yiddish and Colonial German in Eastern Europe: The Differential Impact of Slavic.” In American Contributions to the Fourth International Congress of Slavicists, Moscow, 1958. The Hague: Mouton, 369–421.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1963. “Four Riddles in Bilingual Dialectology.” In American Contributions to the Fifth International Congress of Slavists, Sofia, September 1963, vol. 1: Linguistic Contributions. The Hague: Mouton, 335–359.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1968. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research & McGraw-Hill.
Weinreich, Uriel. 1980. On Semantics. William Labov & Beatrice S. Weinreich, eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov, & Marvin I. Herzog 1968. “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change.” In Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium, eds. W. P. Lehmann & Yakov Malkiel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 95–195.
Weiser, Kalman. 2013. “Coming to America: Max Weinreich and the Emergence of YIVO’s American Center.” In Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture, eds. Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, & Hannah S. Pressman. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 233–252.
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. Weiser, Kalman . 2013 “Coming to America: Max Weinreich and the Emergence of YIVO’s American Center.”In Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture, eds. . , Lara Rabinovitch , & Shiri Goren Hannah S. Pressman Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 233– 252.
is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at New York University. His research focuses on sociolinguistic variation in contemporary American Yiddish.