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The Semitic Component in Yiddish and its Ideological Role in Yiddish Philology

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The article discusses the ideological role played by the Semitic component in Yiddish in four major texts of Yiddish philology from the first half of the 20th century: Ysroel Haim Taviov’s “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon” (1904); Ber Borochov’s “The Tasks of Yiddish Philology” (); Nokhem Shtif’s “The Social Differentiation of Yiddish: Hebrew Elements in the Language” (); and Max Weinreich’s “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew?” (). The article explores the ways in which these texts attribute various religious, national, psychological and class values to the Semitic component in Yiddish, while debating its ontological status and making prescriptive suggestions regarding its future. It argues that all four philologists set the Semitic component of Yiddish in service of their own ideological visions of Jewish linguistic, national and ethnic identity (Yiddishism, Hebraism, Soviet Socialism, etc.), thus blurring the boundaries between descriptive linguistics and ideologically engaged philology.

Abstract

The article discusses the ideological role played by the Semitic component in Yiddish in four major texts of Yiddish philology from the first half of the 20th century: Ysroel Haim Taviov’s “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon” (1904); Ber Borochov’s “The Tasks of Yiddish Philology” (1913); Nokhem Shtif’s “The Social Differentiation of Yiddish: Hebrew Elements in the Language” (1929); and Max Weinreich’s “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew?” (1931). The article explores the ways in which these texts attribute various religious, national, psychological and class values to the Semitic component in Yiddish, while debating its ontological status and making prescriptive suggestions regarding its future. It argues that all four philologists set the Semitic component of Yiddish in service of their own ideological visions of Jewish linguistic, national and ethnic identity (Yiddishism, Hebraism, Soviet Socialism, etc.), thus blurring the boundaries between descriptive linguistics and ideologically engaged philology.

* The comments of Yitskhok Niborski, Natalia Krynicka and of the anonymous reviewer have greatly improved this article, and I am deeply indebted to them for their help.

Yiddish, although written in the Hebrew alphabet, is predominantly Germanic in its linguistic structure and vocabulary.* It also possesses substantial Slavic and Semitic elements, and shows some traces of the Romance languages. Its Semitic elements derive from Hebrew and Aramaic, both of which are referred to in Yiddish collectively either as לשון־קודש (loshn-koydesh,1 literally “the language of the Holy [=God],” that is, the language of the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud) or simply as העברעיִש (hebreish), “Hebrew.” Accordingly, expressions such as “the Semitic component” of Yiddish or its “Hebrew-Aramaic component,” “Hebrew elements,” “Hebraisms,” “loshn-koydesh words” etc. appear both in Yiddish and non-Yiddish literature more or less synonymously.2

The Semitic roots, words, expressions, and even whole sentences within Yiddish, pose an ontological problem for linguists. Namely, there is an unresolved ambiguity as to whether these only derive from loshn-koydesh (and are subsequently no longer loshn-koydesh, but rather Yiddish), or whether they remain loshn-koydesh. This is complicated further when one considers that certain loshn-koydesh elements may have been “merged” (i.e., phonologically adapted) into Yiddish more than others.3

In the 19th century, and then more so in the first half of the 20th century, language played a central role in Ashkenazi discourses on Jewish national identity and ideology. As Yiddish and Hebrew came to represent conflicting Jewish movements of secular nationalism, the problem of the Semitic component in Yiddish began to occupy Jewish linguists and non-linguists alike. Jewish philologists of Yiddish who dealt with this problem at the time were greatly influenced by ideologies such as Zionism, Diasporism, Socialism and Soviet Communism,4 which were not always mutually exclusive. Whether they criticized or defended Yiddish, they all saw it as a crucial instrument for any Jewish national project, as it was spoken by millions of Jews, more than any other language at the time.

In this article, key works by four prominent Yiddish philologists who wrote on the Semitic component in Yiddish in the first half of the 20th century will be surveyed, analyzed and compared: Ysroel Haim Taviov’s “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon” (1904); Ber Borochov’s “The Tasks of Yiddish Philology” (1913); Nokhem Shtif’s “The Social Differentiation of Yiddish: Hebrew Elements in the Language” (1929); and Max Weinreich’s “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew?” (1931). It will be argued that these philologists in their linguistic theories set the Semitic component in Yiddish into the service of their often contrasting ideological visions of Jewish linguistic, national and ethnic identity.

The Ontology and Epistemology of the Semitic Component in Yiddish, Illustrated through a Yiddish Joke

Before dealing with th e philological works themselves, the complex problem of the Semitic component in Yiddish calls for another introduction. As we shall observe, the ontological status of the Semitic component in Yiddish was often measured by the epistemological criterion of how much of it (or how much loshn-koydesh) was actually known to the Yiddish speaking masses. The ontological problem of the Semitic component in its epistemological configuration can best be illustrated with the Yiddish joke, “אַ בעל־עגלה אַ למדן” (A balegole a lamdn, “a Coachman-Scholar”). The joke, which has been cited as paradigmatic of oral Yiddish humor,5 was preserved by the Jewish folklorist Immanuel Olsvanger, who published it in Latin transliteration in his 1920 collection of Yiddish jokes and anecdotes Rosinkess mit Mandlen (“Raisins with Almonds”). In the following translation of the joke,6 all words in bold type are of Semitic origin:

An evil decree [גזירה, gzeyre] was declared in town: a priest [גלח, galekh] wanted to hold a disputation [װיכּוח, vikuekh] in Hebrew [לשון־קודש, loshn-koydesh] with the Jews. As the priest said that he understood Hebrew better than any Jew, the nobleman [פּריץ, porets] ordered that a disputation be held: the town’s Jews were to appoint one of them to test the priest [for the meaning of a word or a phrase in Hebrew], and the priest would then test the Jew. As for the one who did not know the meaning of the first word, there would be a soldier standing by who would chop his head off before he might be able to cough. And in case [טאָמער, tomer] the Jews had no one to appoint, then all of the them would be massacred, as many as there are in town. No doubt [מסתּמא, mistome] there was a turmoil [מהומה, mehume] and a commotion in town. Good heavens! Jews! What should we do? The devil knows this priest [and what he is capable of]! And what if [טאָמער, tomer] he really has a good head on his shoulders? And what should we do if he poses a question [קשיא, kashe] that the Jew cannot answer? This is truly a calamity [צרות, tsores]! Mercy [רחמנות, rakhmones] on the Jews! They convened an assembly [אַסיפֿה, asife] in the synagogue [to decide] whom they should send [to represent them in the disputation]. But no one wanted to step forward. Then some coachman [בעל־עגלה, balegole], a simpleton [עם־הארץ, amorets], an ignoramus [בור, bur] stood up and said: “What do you care? I will go. I was never afraid [מורא געהאַט, moyre gehat] of priests [גלחים, galokhim].” “What do you mean, ‘you will go’? But you are a simpleton, an ignoramus!” But the coachman insisted that he should go. In short, they announced to the nobleman that Itzke the coachman will dispute [מתװכּח זײַן, misvakeyekh zayn] with the priest. The next day, all gathered in the nobleman’s house. Many [אַ סך, a sakh] people: priests, noblemen [פּריצים, pritsim] and the Jews. A festival [יום־טובֿ, yontef ]! Here stands the priest, here the coachman, and here stands the soldier with the sword raised high in his hand. The Jew had to begin the disputation. He said to the priest: “So tell me, dear priest, what is the meaning of אינני יודע [eyneni yoydeye, “I do not know”]? The priest said: “I don’t know.” As the soldier heard “I don’t know,” he immediately chopped off the priest’s head. Joy [שׂימחה, simkhe]! Jubilation [שׂשׂון, sosn]! The Jews were saved! The clever Itzke! They assembled in the synagogue, they recited the blessing for being rescued from danger [גומל, goyml]. Afterwards they asked the coachman: “How did you ask it so well? Who told you to ask this question, being the ignoramus that you are?” The coachman answered: “Look, it is a simple [פּשוט, poshet] matter. I had a rabbi [רבי, rebe] and I asked him once: ‘What is the meaning of אינני יודע [eyneni yoydeye, “I do not know”]? And he answered: “I do not know”—now if the rabbi himself did not know, how on earth would the priest know?”7

The joke captures the unclear and often ambiguous borderline between Yiddish and loshn-koydesh. The simple coachman, a symbol for ignorance in Yiddish literature, does not know the meaning of the Hebrew expression eyneni yoydeye. However, he has heard it before and is able to pronounce it correctly. Although he may not know its exact meaning, he knows enough about it to use it to overcome the priest in the disputation. What saves him is a right mixture between ignorance and knowledge.

To fully appreciate the ambiguous ontological status of eyneni yoydeye in Yiddish (although still through an epistemological prism), we should consider not only the joke itself, but also the act of its telling. In the German introduction added to the second edition of Rosinkess mit Mandlen, Olsvanger refers to this joke as a paradigmatic implementation of the “pseudo-punchline” (Pseudopointe), which he considers to be characteristic of Jewish humor. After the decapitation of the priest, the listener, who, from the beginning, had sympathized with the coachman and identified with his side, laughs in relief as he learns that the Jews managed to cleverly escape the deadly ordeal. The “real punchline,” however, comes shortly afterwards and produces a much stronger comic effect:

For although the listener laughed at the pseudo-punchline, he nevertheless secretly felt inferior to the coachman: is this coachman cleverer than he, who would never have come up with such an idea? Now it turns out that it was not at all the coachman’s cleverness, but his ignorance that brought him to ask this question. The listener can breathe a sigh of relief: I am still the smarter one!”8

Part of the joke’s sophisticated humor is in the parallel that it produces between the simple coachman within the joke and the potentially simple listeners of the joke. Applying the epistemological criterion to the listener of the joke can somehow nuance Olsvanger’s analysis. To fully enjoy the first punchline (the “pseudo-punchline”), the Yiddish listener must know the meaning of eyneni yoydeye. If it would have to be explained to them at this point, they may feel all the more inferior to the simple coachman. In that case, the joke’s humor would be shifted to the end, for only then would the listener be able to enjoy their recently gained advantage over the coachman and laugh at his ignorance, which they no longer share.

On the other hand, if the coachman and the listener are to be compared—and I think that this is an essential part of the joke—, then the ambiguity regarding knowing what eyneni yoydeye means should also be applied to the listener: the listener may not fully understand this expression, they may not know how to read or write it, but they may very well have heard it before, or at least parts of it.9 They may have even already heard the joke. According to a Yiddish proverb, “one who knows that he does not know is half a knower” (אַ יודע־שאינו־יודע איז אַ האַלבער יודע, a yedeye-sheyne-yedeye iz a halber yedeye). To that we can add that one who does not know that he knows is half a knower as well.

Olsvanger certainly did not consider this joke to be particularly elitist or to require any special knowledge of Hebrew. Immediately after analyzing it, he claims that such jokes and anecdotes were the “oral literature of the people” (mündliche Volksliteratur): “Besides popular translations of the Bible [into Yiddish],” this oral literature served for generations as “the only intellectual entertainment of the people to the extent that they did not know Hebrew.”10 This last statement particularly highlights the ambiguous ontological and epistemological status of loshn-koydesh in Yiddish. While the narrative of the joke presents eyneni yoydeye as a loshn-koydesh expression that is unknown to Yiddish speakers who are not versed in Hebrew,11 its appearance in the context of a popular Yiddish joke suggests that it was nevertheless part, at least to a certain extent, of the Semitic component that was inherent in the Yiddish of common people. Indeed, it may be worth citing Olsvanger’s short note on the Semitic component in Yiddish:

With regard to the Hebrew elements [in Yiddish], one could say that every Hebrew word can be used in Yiddish. Even neologisms of the modern Hebrew literature find their way into the language. One could rightfully say that the Hebrew lexicon as a whole forms a latent vocabulary of Yiddish.12

We shall bear in mind these ontological and epistemological ambiguities in regard to the Semitic component in Yiddish when discussing the work of four central Yiddish philologists who worked on the topic in the first half of the 20th Century: Ysroel Haim Taviov, Ber Borochov, Nokhem Shtif and Max Weinreich.

A “Marriage Between Shem and Japheth”: Ysroel Haim Taviov and the Hebraist Philology of Yiddish

Ysroel Haim Taviov (1858-1921), a Hebrew philologist, journalist, translator and educator, contributed to the major Hebrew periodicals in Eastern Europe of his time. Already in his lifetime, Taviov’s name came to be associated with relentless and extreme disdain towards his own mother tongue, Yiddish. An ardent Hebraist, that is, a proponent of the dissemination of Hebrew as a spoken national language among Jews, Taviov explicitly and repeatedly rejected the name “Yiddish,” its literal meaning being “Jewish,” writing on one occasion that “there is only one Jewish language—our national Language, Hebrew.”13 Following the tradition of Moses Mendelssohn and of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (haskole), he referred to Yiddish with the pejorative term “Jargon.”14 In 1901 he wrote: “I have always been a complete hater of the Jargonic language and its literature […] never did I dirty my pen with the Jargonic language.”15

Taviov’s hatred of Yiddish did not stop him from being one of the first Jewish philologists of that language. In 1904 he published, in the quarterly literary supplement of the Zionist newspaper Ha-Zeman (Vilnius), a Hebrew article entitled “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” which was the most thorough philological examination of the Semitic component in Yiddish to date.16

At the outset of the article, Taviov tells the history of Yiddish as a series of linguistic corruptions. The first Jews to settle in Germany spoke German, but following their segregation into ghettos, their language “gradually became damaged and ugly.”17 At that point, however, this language still did not deserve the name “jargon,” for it was nevertheless “a German dialect in the spirit of the German language.” For Taviov, this German dialect was transformed into a “jargon” only after it was adopted by Slavic Jews, who were unable to nurture and develop it “according to the way and nature of the German language.” Instead, “they spoiled and deformed it without mercy.”18 Subsequently, he writes, Polish Jews, and especially Polish Jewish teachers (melamdim) who re-immigrated to Germany, contaminated the Jewish dialect spoken there with their “corrupted Jargon,” thus spreading it throughout Ashkenaz.

While Taviov decries the crossing of the geographic, racial and linguistic boundaries of “Germanic” and “Slavic,” his approach towards the Semitic component in Yiddish is surprisingly positive. He attributes to the Slavic Jews not only the worst “deformations” of German, but also the introduction of the Hebrew elements into Yiddish.19 But unlike German, Taviov claims, Hebrew was not corrupted by the Jargon.20 He writes:

As much as German suffered when it fell into the hands of the Jews dwelling outside of the German lands, so has Hebrew profited from it. As much as German spoken by Jews became increasingly ‘jargonized,’ its Hebrew component has strengthened and multiplied. The Jargon was a sort of marriage between “Shem and Japheth”: the marriage did not turn out well for “Japheth,” but it did for “Shem,” who saw a good life in this marriage.”21

In Taviov’s biblical-linguistic allegory, where Japheth stands for the Germanic and Shem for the Semitic components of Yiddish, the characterization of the Semitic or Hebrew component as having “seen a good life” forms part of his argument regarding the revival of Hebrew through Yiddish:

In a certain way, Hebrew became a living and spoken language through the Jargon. […]. While zealots of the German language have a right to resent and feel bitterly about the rise of the Hebrew element in the Jargon, the national Hebrews should only celebrate this. Since the Hebrew elements in the Jargon have increased, the Hebrew language ceased to be dead. Since millions of people speak a language that is mixed with thousands of Hebrew words and idioms, here is Hebrew a language capable of speech! […] Hebrew words became a substantial and necessary element in the Jargon, and the life of these Hebrew words in the Jargon was a natural life, a life of natural evolution.22

Taviov’s linguistic narrative is a striking departure from Hebraist-Zionist narratives of Hebrew as a dead language that was only revived in modern times.23 However, the descriptive historical reconstruction soon gives way to a Hebraist ideological prescription:

The outcome of this is that the Jargon is a vessel that holds a blessing and an exceedingly easy and convenient instrument for the revival of Hebrew in the mouths of the masses of our people. […] We should strive to grant the Jargon, both in writing and in speech, an increasingly Hebrew form, until we gradually deliver the masses of our people from the Jargonic language to Hebrew.”24

Taviov does not fail to notice the irony of relying on Yiddish for its replacement with Hebrew: “in order to eradicate the Jargon from the mouths of our people and to put in their mouths our national language, there is no better stratagem than the Jargon itself.”25 Indeed, the tactic of using Yiddish against the language itself traces its origins back to the practices of the haskole, where its followers, the maskilim, had fought and condemned Yiddish, while at the same time often made use of it to spread their ideas among the masses.26 For Taviov, who blames the Russian maskilim for having failed to revive Hebrew speech,27 this was not enough. Yiddish should be exploited, he suggests, not merely as a means of communication between the maskil and the masses, but its etymological components must be disassembled in order to isolate from it the Semitic component and augment it not only in writing, but also in everyday speech, for “a language can only live a natural life if it is spoken by the whole nation, by the masses.”28

The attempt to revive Hebrew by increasing the Semitic component in Yiddish rests, of course, on the ontological assumption that there is no difference between the Hebrew elements in Yiddish and Hebrew itself. Just as crucial for Taviov’s case is the assumption that the Hebrew elements in Yiddish are “an asset of the entire people, including the common men and women.”29

To substantiate his theses empirically, Taviov composed a list of Hebraisms in Yiddish to be published as an appendix to his article in a following issue of Ha-Zeman’s literary supplement. Due to the discontinuation of this quarterly, the list was only published posthumously in 1923.30 In this list of 1800 words, Taviov claims to have included “only those words and expressions which are common in the speech of the majority of the people” while leaving out “those words and expressions which are spoken only by the learned, whose artistry is Torah study, and which were not so much vernacularized in the spoken language.”31

Taviov’s insistence that the Semitic component in Yiddish was known to the masses was not an argument in favor of its importance for Yiddish. According to Taviov, neither the Semitic nor the Slavic components of Yiddish were ever organic parts of Yiddish, which was never a true language, but rather a corrupted “jargon.”

“The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology”: Ber Borochov’s Rehabilitation of Yiddish as an Organic Language

A much different perspective on the Semitic component in Yiddish and on Yiddish in general is provided by Ber Borochov (1881-1917). Outside of Yiddishist circles, Borochov is mostly known for his active role as a theoretician and activist of Labor Zionism. His political theory, a synthesis of Socialism and Zionism, greatly influenced the leadership of the Zionist movement and the socio-economic policies during the first decades of Jewish statehood in Palestine. However, during the last decade of his short life, Borochov undertook intensive research on Yiddish philology, bibliography and literary history. Despite the common association of Zionism with Hebraism, Borochov saw in Yiddish a language most compatible with Jewish nationalism and with Zionism.

Borochov’s “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology” was the opening article in Der pinkes (“the Record Book”), a groundbreaking Yiddish scholarly volume published in 1913 in Vilnius.32 Borochov begins his article with the following definition of philology:

Of all sciences, philology plays the biggest role in the national revival of oppressed peoples. Philology is more than linguistics, it is not just a hollow theory for scholars […], but a practical guide for the people.33

Borochov stresses the distinction, as he sees it, between philology and linguistics: “linguistics is a general science, philology—a national one.” While linguistics may deal with “dead” or “wild” languages, philology postulates that the language to which it is devoted has not only a cultural-historical value in its past, but also a national value in its future.34 Borochov refers to scholars such as Taviov when he claims that “a person who does not believe in the existence of Yiddish may still be a Yiddish linguist, but not a Yiddish philologist.”35 The “belief in the existence of Yiddish” should be understood in this context both as the belief in the ontological existence of Yiddish as a full-fledged language (and not as “jargon”), and as the belief in the rightful importance of its existence.

According to Borochov, one of the challenges of Yiddish philology lies in the fact that it is a “mixed language.” This is of course not to say that Yiddish is a “jargon”, a “lingual mixture” (שפּראַך־געמיש, shprakh-gemish) or “mishmash.”36 Yiddish may be mixed of several etymological components, but it is nevertheless a language in its own right. In fact, there are no “pure” languages, Borochov claims, reminding the reader that even Hebrew contains Aramaic, Greek and Persian elements.37 Furthermore, Borochov maintains that the relation between the various etymological components in Yiddish is an organic one. The different components complement each other “just as the functions of a living organism.”38 In contrast to Taviov, Borochov shows that the Semitic component in Yiddish consists not only of Hebrew and Aramaic words and expressions, but is also present in Yiddish syntax and style. Unlike Taviov, who claimed that Yiddish did not “mutilate” its “Hebrew words,” Borochov demonstrates that the Hebrew words in Yiddish differ both in pronunciation and in meaning from their cognates in Ashkenazi Hebrew.39 In that respect, Borochov also points to the large vocabulary of words whose morphology is of mixed origin, such as the Germanic conjugation of Hebrew roots with the frequent addition of a Germanic converb, Slavic suffixes on top of Hebrew nouns, etc.40

The quintessential argument in Borochov’s understanding of Yiddish is that “as soon as the German, Hebrew and Slavic elements enter the folkshprakh (“the vernacular, popular language”), they stop being German, Hebrew or Slavic [and] become Yiddish.”41 Moreover, Borochov was the first to have recognized that the efforts of Taviov and others to isolate any one of the etymological components of Yiddish serves precisely to dispute its ontological integrity. Borochov’s claim that the various etymological components of Yiddish have merged into one organic linguistic entity will greatly influence future Yiddish philologists.

“The Hebrew Occupation of Yiddish”: Nokhem Shtif and the Soviet Rejection of the Semitic Component in Yiddish

A completely different scholarly and ideological approach regarding the Semitic component in Yiddish philology emerged in the Soviet Union,42 where, since the early 1920s, the Jewish section of the Communist Party (the Evsektsiia) combatted traditional Jewish life, Zionism and Hebrew, all of which were deemed “bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionary” aspects of Judaism. While, for the time being, Yiddish was supported and even financed by the Soviet state, a campaign of “dehebraization” was pursued in order to decrease its Semitic component.43 This policy was already underway soon after the 1917 Revolution with a reform of Yiddish orthography, in which the traditional spelling of words deriving from Hebrew or Aramaic was abolished in favor of a phonetic spelling,44 thus obscuring their etymological origin. “Dehebraization” took a step further in the late 1920s when Yiddish philologist Nokhem Shtif published an article that targeted the lexical Semitic elements in Yiddish as well.

Nokhem Shtif (1879-1933), who had been an ardent Zionist since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, gradually moved away from Zionism and towards Socialism and Yiddishism. Unlike Borochov, who tried to reconcile Zionism with Socialism and Yiddishism, Shtif’s Yiddishism eventually led him to anti-Hebraism and a complete rejection of Zionism in favor of a socialist, yiddishist and diasporist agenda. In 1925, Shtif, by then an already well-known Yiddish philologist residing in Berlin, initiated the founding of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (yivo), which soon became the world center for Yiddish research. In 1926, however, Shtif left Berlin and moved to the Soviet Union to become the leading figure in the state-funded Yiddish philological research center in Kiev. In November 1929, he published an article on the Semitic component in Yiddish in Di yidishe shprakh, a journal for Yiddish linguistics that he edited in Kiev. The title of the article was “The Social Differentiation in Yiddish: The Hebrew Elements in the Language.”45

Based on a thorough lexical analysis of the Semitic component in Yiddish, Shtif argues in his article that the Semitic-derived vocabulary in Yiddish were mainly used for religious and spiritual matters, rarely relating to the “real world of things and deeds,”46 or to the world of the working man.47 More significantly, Shtif claims that the Hebrew elements were intentionally introduced into Yiddish from the 15th century on by “the higher classes” in Jewish society. This process of “hebraization,” as he calls it, was carried out “not by the ‘masses,’ and most certainly not by the working man—the shoemaker, the tailor, the domestic worker, the maidservant,”48 but rather by “the economically and culturally dominant social strata: the middle class, the rich merchants, the religious functionaries, the scholars.”49

According to Shtif, the “hebraization” of Yiddish was part of a class struggle,50 in which the Semitic component was an instrument of what he terms “the aristocratic class.” Shtif goes so far as to call this historical process an “invasion of the scholarly Hebrew” into Yiddish51 or “the Hebrew occupation of Yiddish.”52

This, however, was bound to change: “with the advent of the Jewish working class and of the Jewish workers movement, the Hebrew vocabulary [in Yiddish] declines both in number and in weight, [together with other archaic expressions] which do not accord with the life and struggle of the working class.”53 While large parts of the old Hebrew vocabulary in Yiddish has become superfluous, he writes, “the working class has created a new language, with a minimum of Hebrew elements.” This time, Shtif claims, this process takes place without any conscious language policy: “that which is foreign to the life and struggle of the new class has declined by itself.”54

While Shtif considered the reduction of the Semitic component in Yiddish in the Soviet Union to be the necessary outcome of an historical process, his claim that Yiddish could do with no more than “several hundred Hebrew words and expressions”55 can be taken as an implicit demand for dehebraization.

Similarly to Taviov, Shtif conceptualized the Semitic component of Yiddish in isolation and saw it as a non-organic part of the language. Unlike Taviov, who sought to expand it until it might replace the other etymological components in Yiddish (namely, the Germanic and the Slavic components), Shtif portrayed its inevitable decrease in light of the new economic order in the Soviet Union.

“What Would Yiddish Have Been Without Hebrew?”: Max Weinreich’s Understanding of the Semitic Component as the Heart and Soul of Yiddish

Yiddish linguist Moshe Altbauer summarized in 1957 the role of ideology in the research of the Semitic component in Yiddish during the first half of the 20th century:

With a few exceptions, the research of the Hebrew elements in Yiddish until recent times has been influenced by political factors—on the one hand, by the negative attitude towards Yiddish as a national language (for Y. H. Taviov, Yiddish and its Hebrew elements was an instrument to revive the Hebrew language among the masses), and on the other hand, by the blind hatred of the Evsektsiia in the Soviet Union, for whom Hebrew and Hebrew orthography of Hebraisms in Yiddish were a symbol of reaction and counterrevolution.56

In a list of Yiddish scholars who “have liberated the research of the Hebrew elements in Yiddish from non-scientific factors,” Altabauer lists, among others, Max Weinreich (1894-1969), a most prominent linguist and historian of Yiddish. It should be mentioned, however, that, in addition to his scientific and literary achievements, Weinreich was also active in the Bund, the Secular Jewish Socialist Party, which was the largest Jewish political party in Eastern Europe in the beginning of the 20th century. The extent to which Weinreich’s philological work was influenced by ideological considerations is open to interpretation.57

In the preparatory meeting held in Berlin in 1925 to create the Yiddish Scientific Institute (yivo), Weinreich was chosen to head its philological section in Vilnius. Soon thereafter, he became the driving-force and most dominant scholar of yivo, and it was under his leadership that it became the world center for Yiddish research. When Weinreich emigrated to the United States following the outbreak of the Second World War, yivo, so to speak, transferred with him from Vilnius to New York.

In 1931, when still in Vilnius, Weinreich published in the New York journal Di tsukunft a response to Shtif’s article from 1929 entitled “What Would Yiddish Have Been Without Hebrew? Hebrew Elements in the Yiddish.”58 In this article he does not dispute Shtif’s argument that the Semitic component in Yiddish stems from the Jewish religion,59 but he does contest Shtif’s interpretation of the facts. The Jewish religion did not “invade” or “occupy” Yiddish, Weinreich argued, it created Yiddish in the first place.

According to Weinreich, the Semitic component is not only essential to and inseparable from Yiddish—as Borochov had already claimed—but also a decisive factor in its genesis. Weinreich writes: “without the Hebrew-Aramaic elements, the Yiddish language would not have existed.”60 It is “thanks to elements from Torah, from prayer and from [Talmudic] study, [that] the Yiddish language became what it is.”61 For Weinreich, the Semitic component was always the heart and soul of Yiddish.62 However, this view does not bring him, as it did bring Taviov, to prefer Hebrew over Yiddish. He emphasizes that the title of his article—“What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew”—should not suggest that he takes part in the quarrel between Yiddishism and Hebraism.63 For Weinreich, the Semitic component in Yiddish perhaps owes its existence to Hebrew, but has now become an inseparable component of Yiddish.

It is worth noting Weinreich’s position on the comprehensibility of the Semitic component in Yiddish among the less-educated parts of Jewish society. Shtif had claimed that most of the Hebrew words introduced into Yiddish by the elite were not understood by the masses. In his response, Weinreich calls to our attention that while Jewish law permits one to pray in whatever language one understands, Jews insisted on praying in Hebrew. He writes: “the mental purification that a prayer can give was found to exist more in the incomprehensible Hebrew text, than in the comprehensible translation. […] Maybe the fact that people did not understand well the Hebrew text only elevated the mystical contents of the prayer.” It is the “incomprehensibility” or the quality of being “barely comprehensible” which won over the masses.

Weinreich, thus offers a more complex view of the Semitic component in Yiddish. Even the parts of it that are not understood by everyone can be seen as integral parts of the language. The proposition is quite radical: the comprehensibility of the Semitic component is not a necessary condition for its status as part of the language.

Weinreich’s nuanced theories offer a more sophisticated approach to the ontological and epistemological ambiguities of the Semitic component in Yiddish that were demonstrated with the Yiddish joke presented in the beginning of this article. While Weinreich’s Yiddishism can certainly be considered an ideology, his lucid exposition of the ontological problem of the Semitic component and his non-dogmatic approach to the question of its epistemology set him apart from the previous Yiddish philologists, whose prescriptive philology was in constant contrast with scientific rigor.

The philological writings of Taviov, Borochov, Shtif and Weinreich offer a glance at the intertwinement of Yiddish philology with various ideologies in the first half of the 20th century. Their pioneering philological work on the Semitic component in Yiddish shows how far-reaching ideological questions centered on a specific linguistic problem. Their writings on the Semitic component mirrored their often-conflicting ideological visions of Jewish linguistic and national identities. As much as they moved back and forth between descriptive linguistics and ideologically engaged philology (to adopt Borochov’s distinction), they constantly measured the ontological status of the Semitic component in Yiddish using epistemological criteria.

Taviov, who created a racial mythologization of Yiddish as an unequal “marriage between Shem and Japhet,” used his philological analysis to promote a radical linguistic vision: a gradual transformation of Yiddish into Hebrew. His questioning of the ontological integrity of Yiddish is closely connected to the epistemological proposition according to which Yiddish speakers know much more Hebrew than one would think. For him, the Semitic component in Yiddish is basically Hebrew.

Borochov, whose article can be considered a political manifesto of Yiddish philology, sought to refute the very philological prejudices promoted by scholars such as Taviov. By differentiating between scientific linguistics and national philology, Borochov stands out as a philologist who fully acknowledges the ideological underpinnings of his own work. Affirming the ontological integrity of Yiddish as a fully-fledged language was his single most important argument. Accordingly, the Semitic component in Yiddish is an integral and organic part of Yiddish.

Shtif’s work marks the ideological shift of Yiddish philology in the Soviet Union. Conforming with the Soviet policy of dehebraization, he constructs a historical narrative that portrays the Semitic component in Yiddish as an invasive and oppressive agent in a historical class struggle within Yiddish. The refutation of the ontological necessity of the Semitic component rests upon the epistemological argument that it is simply not known to the Yiddish working masses. For Shtif, the Semitic component is not an integral part of Yiddish and can therefore be easily removed. Thus, Shtif’s presumably descriptive account of the Semitic component fading away by itself hardly succeeds in concealing the prescriptive character of the Soviet language planning policy that actively sought to reduce the Semitic component in Yiddish to a minimum.

Weinreich presents the ontological question of the Semitic component in Yiddish already in the title of his article: “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew?” It is a direct response to Shtif, but also a general commentary on a question that has clearly become central for Yiddish philologists. According to Weinreich, there is a distinction between the Semitic component of Yiddish and Hebrew, although this line is often blurred. At any rate, without its Semitic component, Weinreich argues, Yiddish would not have existed. The ontological question, which is also considered through an historical lens, is complicated through an innovative epistemological theory, according to which knowing loshn-koydesh is often ambiguous. Therefore, Weinreich argues, the ontological status of the Semitic component is not to be measured through a simple epistemological dichotomy of knowing versus not knowing, as was attempted by Taviov and Shtif.

1 Transliteration of Yiddish and Hebrew in Yiddish contexts follows yivo standards. Transliteration of Hebrew in non-Yiddish contexts follows the transliteration scheme of the Library of Congress.

2 Following Max Weinreich, Yiddish linguistics uses the term “component” to express a distinction between “stock languages” (i.e. Hebrew, German, etc.) and their corresponding etymological components which have been “fused” into Yiddish. See Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, trans. Shlomo Noble, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 29. For the usage of the term “Semitic component” see Dovid Katz, Explorations in the History of the Semitic Component in Yiddish, vol. 1, PhD Thesis (London: University College, 1982), 31.

3 The categories “Merged Hebrew” and “Whole Hebrew” in Yiddish were introduced by Max Weinreich to distinguish the Semitic elements that were fully integrated into Yiddish speech (Merged Hebrew) from Ashkenazi Hebrew proper that may appear within a Yiddish context as a citation or in official speech (Whole Hebrew). The difference can be observed above all phonetically: the vowels of non-accented syllables are often reduced in Merged Hebrew, whereas Whole Hebrew maintains them (for example, the word ברכה [“blessing”] is pronounced /’broxe/ in Merged Hebrew, but /’broxo/ in Whole Hebrew). Weinreich is well aware that the border between “Merged Hebrew” and “Whole Hebrew” is not always clear: Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, vol. 2, 351ff.

4 Moshe Altbauer, “Metanalysis of Hebrew Borrowings in Yiddish” [in Yiddish], Di goldene keyt 29 (1957): 224; Avraham Ya‘ari, “A Story to Prove the Abundance of Hebrew Elements in the Yiddish Language” [in Hebrew], Ḳiryat sefer: Bibliographical Quarterly of the Jewish National and University Library 40 (1964): 286.

5 See below, and cf. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Wex Michael, “Humor: Oral Tradition,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2010, http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Humor/Oral_Tradition.

6 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are mine.

7 Immanuel Olsvanger, Rosinkess mit Mandlen. Aus der Volksliteratur der Ostjuden. Schwänke, Erzählungen, Sprichwörter und Rätsel, 2. völlig veränderte und vermehrte Auflage (Basel: Verlag der Schweizerischer Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, 1931), 121f. (Joke no. 207: “A balegole a lamdn”).

8 Ibid., xliii-xliv.

9 The word יודע (yedeye in its “merged” pronunciation; see note 3 below and note 11 above) exists in Yiddish as a noun in the periphrastic verb יודע זײַן (yedeye zayn, “to know”), in the compound nouns יודע־הכּל (yedeye-hakl, “know-it-all”), יודע־חן (yedeye-kheyn, “kabbalist”), יודע־נגן (yedeye-nagn, “musical expert”), יודע־ספֿר (yedeye-seyfer, “learned man”), יודע־שאינו־יודע (yedeye-sheyne-yedeye, “a person who knows that he doesn’t know”), שאינו־יודע־לשאול (sheyne-yedeye-lishoyl, “he who does not know how to ask”; the fourth son of the Haggadah) and in the expressions מי־יודע (mi-yedeye, “who knows?”) and לבֿ יודע (lev yedeye, “the heart knows”): Yitskhok Niborski, Dictionnaire des mots d’origine hébraïque et araméenne en usage dans la langue yiddish [in Yiddish], Troisième édition revue et augmentée (Paris: Bibliothèque Medem, 2012), 189f., 273.

10 Olsvanger, Rosinkess mit Mandlen, xliv (my emphasis): “Abgesehen von den populären Bibelübersetzungen (Tajtsch chumesch), die mit Parabeln und Gleichnissen durchsetzt sind, bildete diese mündliche Volksliteratur bis zur letzten Zeit die einzige geistige Unterhaltung des Volkes, inwiefern es des Hebräischen unkundig war.”

11 Olsvanger’s transcription, “ejneni jêjdeja,” suggests that it is pronounced à la Whole Hebrew (see note 3 below). This, of course, is necessitated by the context (i.e. an official disputation with the priest). The diphthong marked as “êj” is the Northeastern (Lithuanian) Yiddish/Ashkenazi realization of the khoylem vov vowel in Hebrew; in Merged Hebrew (i.e. the Semitic component), this would be reduced to “yedeye.”

12 Olsvanger, Rosinkess mit Mandlen, liv.

13 Yisroel Haim Taviov, “To the Reader” [in Hebrew], in The Jewish-German Language and Its Literature, by El‘azar Schulman (Riga, 1913), iv.

14 Ibid. “Jargon” stands here for “a hybrid speech arising from a mixture of languages” (Oxford English Dictionary).

15 Yisroel Haim Taviov, “On the History of ‘Folk Songs’ (Memoirs)” [in Hebrew], Ha-Melits, June 26, 1901, 2.

16 Y. H. Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon” [in Hebrew], in The Writings of Y. H. Taviov (Berlin and Jerusalem: Moriah-Devir, 1923), 214-278. First published in Ha-Zeman 3 (1904): 126-144.

17 Ibid., 215.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 216. For an excellent overview of the various theories regarding the origin of the Semitic component in Yiddish, see Dovid Katz, Explorations in the History of the Semitic Component in Yiddish, 32-39.

20 Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 227. For a criticism of this claim, see text accompanying note 39 below and cf. note 40.

21 Ibid., 216 (my emphasis).

22 Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 216.

23 See Ya‘ar Hever, “Modern Hebrew: The Uncanny Story of the Life and Death of an Undead Language.” Paper presented at the conference Semitic Philology within European Intellectual History: Constructions of Race, Religion and Language in Scholarly Practice. Berlin, June 19, 2013.

24 Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 216.

25 Ibid., 217.

26 Shmuel Werses, “The Right Hand Pushes Aside While the Left One Brings Closer: On the Attitudes of Haskole Writers Towards the Yiddish Language” [in Hebrew], Ḥulyot 5 (1999): 15-22.

27 Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 226.

28 Ibid., 217.

29 Ibid., 216.

30 Ibid., 230-278; cf. Ya‘ari, “A Story to Prove the Abundance of Hebrew Elements,” 286.

31 Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 230.

32 Ber Borochov, “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology” [in Yiddish], in Der pinkes [the Record Book]: Yearbook for the History of the Yiddish Literature and Language, for Folklore, Criticism and Bibliography, ed. Shmuel Niger (Vilnius: B. A. Kletskin, 1913), 1-22.

33 Ibid., 1.

34 Ibid., 2n1.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 8.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 10 (my emphasis).

39 Borochov, “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology,” 9.

40 Taviov noticed these constructions as well, and while he advised to abandon them, their existence did not alter his judgment of the Semitic component in Yiddish as being “pure Hebrew” (Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 229).

41 Borochov, “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology,” 9.

42 See Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

43 Rakhmiel Peltz, “The Dehebraization Controversy in Soviet Yiddish Language Planning: Standard or Symbol?,” in Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, ed. Joshua A. Fishman (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 128.

44 Avraham Greenbaum, “Yiddish Language Politics in the Ukraine (1930-1936),” in The Politics of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Literature and Society, ed. Dov-Ber Kerler (Walnut Creek, ca: Altamira Press, 1998), 24. Note that Soviet Yiddish also adopted a phonetic orthography of a very small number of frequently used words deriving from the German component. See Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish, 125.

45 Nokhem Shtif, “The Social Differentiation in Yiddish: The Hebrew Elements in the Language” [in Yiddish], Di yidishe shprakh 4-5 (17-18) (1929): 1-22.

46 Shtif, “The Social Differentiation in Yiddish,” 16.

47 Ibid., 21.

48 Ibid., 12.

49 Ibid., 21.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid., 17.

52 Ibid., 16.

53 Ibid., 22.

54 Ibid., 20.

55 Ibid.

56 Altbauer, “Metanalysis of Hebrew Borrowings in Yiddish,” 224.

57 See, for example, Kamil Kijek, “Max Weinreich, Assimilation and the Social Politics of Jewish Nation-Building.” East European Jewish Affairs 41:1-2 (2011): 25-55.

58 Max Weinreich, “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew? Hebrew Elements in the Yiddish Language” [in Yiddish], Di tsukunft 36, no. 3 (1931): 194-205.

59 Ibid., 194.

60 Ibid., 198.

61 Ibid., 197.

62 Ibid. Similarly, for the Zionist thinker A. D. Gordon, the Semitic vocabulary in Yiddish was much more about expressing the “Jewish soul” than fulfilling “religious purposes,” or a result of the “persecutions which forced [Jews] to use words that others could not understand.” To illustrate this, Gordon points out that the Yiddish word for “soul” is the Hebrew neshome, and not the Russian dusha, the German Seele or the French âme. Aharon David Gordon, “The Hebrew Speech” [1913; in Hebrew], in Selected Writings (Jerusalem: The Zionist Library, 1982), 224f.

63 Weinreich, “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew? Hebrew Elements in the Yiddish Language,” 194.

Bibliography

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  • 7

    Immanuel Olsvanger, Rosinkess mit Mandlen. Aus der Volksliteratur der Ostjuden. Schwänke, Erzählungen, Sprichwörter und Rätsel, 2. völlig veränderte und vermehrte Auflage (Basel: Verlag der Schweizerischer Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, 1931), 121f. (Joke no. 207: “A balegole a lamdn”).

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  • 17

    Ibid., 215.

  • 19

    Ibid., 216. For an excellent overview of the various theories regarding the origin of the Semitic component in Yiddish, see Dovid Katz, Explorations in the History of the Semitic Component in Yiddish, 32-39.

  • 20

    Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 227. For a criticism of this claim, see text accompanying note 39 below and cf. note 40.

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  • 21

    Ibid., 216 (my emphasis).

  • 22

    Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 216.

  • 24

    Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 216.

  • 25

    Ibid., 217.

  • 27

    Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 226.

  • 28

    Ibid., 217.

  • 29

    Ibid., 216.

  • 30

    Ibid., 230-278; cf. Ya‘ari, “A Story to Prove the Abundance of Hebrew Elements,” 286.

  • 31

    Taviov, “The Hebrew Elements of the Jargon,” 230.

  • 33

    Ibid., 1.

  • 36

    Ibid., 8.

  • 38

    Ibid., 10 (my emphasis).

  • 39

    Borochov, “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology,” 9.

  • 41

    Borochov, “The Tasks of the Yiddish Philology,” 9.

  • 42

    See Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

  • 43

    Rakhmiel Peltz, “The Dehebraization Controversy in Soviet Yiddish Language Planning: Standard or Symbol?,” in Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, ed. Joshua A. Fishman (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 128.

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    • Export Citation
  • 44

    Avraham Greenbaum, “Yiddish Language Politics in the Ukraine (1930-1936),” in The Politics of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Literature and Society, ed. Dov-Ber Kerler (Walnut Creek, ca: Altamira Press, 1998), 24. Note that Soviet Yiddish also adopted a phonetic orthography of a very small number of frequently used words deriving from the German component. See Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish, 125.

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    • Export Citation
  • 46

    Shtif, “The Social Differentiation in Yiddish,” 16.

  • 47

    Ibid., 21.

  • 48

    Ibid., 12.

  • 49

    Ibid., 21.

  • 51

    Ibid., 17.

  • 52

    Ibid., 16.

  • 53

    Ibid., 22.

  • 54

    Ibid., 20.

  • 56

    Altbauer, “Metanalysis of Hebrew Borrowings in Yiddish,” 224.

  • 57

    See, for example, Kamil Kijek, “Max Weinreich, Assimilation and the Social Politics of Jewish Nation-Building.” East European Jewish Affairs 41:1-2 (2011): 25-55.

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    • Export Citation
  • 59

    Ibid., 194.

  • 60

    Ibid., 198.

  • 61

    Ibid., 197.

  • 63

    Weinreich, “What Would Yiddish Have Been without Hebrew? Hebrew Elements in the Yiddish Language,” 194.

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