Friday, May 24, 2013

A sketch of the history of the Yiddish dialects

I want to give a quick overview of how I see the Yiddish dialects emerging from a Gothic system. Early Yiddish developed out of Gothic in parts of Ukraine. Until about 1200, Early Yiddish remained in eastern Europe. The spread of Yiddish into Central Europe began in the 1200's reaching Austria first. There speakers of Bavarian German learned Yiddish. The Yiddish they learned was essentially a Gothic system but in the course of acquiring it they incorporated many Bavarian features. For example, the vowels in the words inherited from Gothic were redistributed to approximate the Bavarian vowel distribution. The resulting Bavarianized Yiddish constituted the ancestral form of modern West Transcarpathian Yiddish.
This Bavarianized Yiddish spread into Germany where it was learned by speakers of Central German dialects who modified it by incorporating  material from Central German. The German Jews of the Rhineland also incorporated their unique and very old Hebrew vocabulary.  This was the origin of the family of West Yiddish dialects that came to be spoken in Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, Luxemburg, Holland and Switzerland.
In all these dialects the incorporated German material was modified owing to its integration into the basically Gothic system of Early Yiddish. The nature of these transformations is a rich source of information about the structure of Early Yiddish. This particularly valuable as we have no texts in Early Yiddish.
A migration of West Yiddish speakers into eastern Europe began in about 1400. There these West Yiddish speakers came into contact with resident speakers of Early Yiddish. The newcomers acquired  the Early Yiddish system while adding West Yiddish elements. The new forms of Yiddish that developed out of this process were the ancestral East Yiddish dialects.
This process had interesting parallels to the earlier development of West Yiddish. In that case a vowel  distribution approximating that of a German dialect replaced the Gothic vowel distribution of  Early Yiddish. In this case, the Gothic vowel distribution was replaced by one from West Yiddish.
Just as the transformations undergone by German elements integrated into West Yiddish testify to the structure of Early Yiddish, the incorporation of West Yiddish elements into East Yiddish gives
additional testimony about Early Yiddish structure. In both cases the transformations reflect structural processes that Early Yiddish inherited from Gothic.

















Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yiddish from 400 to 1400 C E

Yiddish is well represented by written texts starting at about 1400. There are some earlier traces of written Yiddish that go back about 1000. It would seem that the trail goes cold at that time. However, if we accept the evidence presented on this blog that Yiddish is descended from Gothic we can venture further into the past, as far back as somewhat before 400 when Gothic is documented by Wulfila's translation.
Around 400 Yiddish would not have been very different from Gothic as represented by Wulfila. By 1400, Yiddish shows very strong influences of German. What can be said about the intervening period?
Let's look first at geography. Around 400 Yiddish speaking territory would have coincided with at least a part of Gothic territory. This territory embraced the northern shore of the Black Sea, including Crimea, and extended into the Balkans. By the 800's Ashkenazic Jews, presumably Yiddish speakers were living in the Carolingian Empire, in Austrian and Bavarian territory, notably in Regensburg. If this community was an extension of the Gothic Jewish community it mostly likely spread there from the Balkans.
In the course of the following two centuries, Jewish communities spread into East Central German towns like Magdeburg, Halle, and Erfurt and in the central Rhineland around Speyer, Worms and Mainz.
Next let's look at social conditions. During the late Roman and early Medieval period up to about 800, Jews were generally well integrated into European society and Judaism even attracted many converts. Later conditions deteriorated, particularly after the late 11th century.
These changes very likely had linguistic consequences. During the early period up to 800, Yiddish may have served the role of a missionary language designed to recruit converts. Traces of this early function still survive in Yiddish as I plsn to demonstrate in a later post. When Jews came in contact with German-speakers, chiefly after 800, Yiddish which was then based on Gothic would have been close enough to early German for Jews to be able to communicate with their neighbors by making small modifications in their speech. This would have chiefly meant that Geman sounds would be substituted for Gothic based sounds. Among themselves. Jews would have continued to use the Gothic based pronunciation.
This state of affairs where a community uses one system internally and communicates with neighboring communities through sound substitutions is called a diasystem. It is likely that this diasystem persisted until about 1100. Around this time the social status of Jews began to fall and the German sounds came to be used all the time, even in inter-Jewish communication. This collapse of the old diasystem left a very strong mark on later Yiddish, something that I plan to make the subject of future posts.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

New Directions

I last posted on this blog in October, 2009. Since then a number of irresistable new opportunities have appeared which have competed for my time. For one thing, thanks to the initiative of Bob Scott at the Digital Humanities Center of the Columbia University Libraries there is a real possibility that a critical component of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry data base will be published online. I have been part of the effort to accomplish this.
A new research opportunity has also appeared with the development of inexpensive and widely available genomic testing since 2008. The potential for using genomic information as a source for Ashkenazic history has long been recognized but pioneers have had, until recently, to base their research on the limited data provided first by classical markers and later by mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome haplogroups. Extensive newly available autosomal data is now being added to provide a much richer and firmer basis for historical inferences.
My research on the history of Yiddish has also taken on some new directions thanks to hints provided by teachers, Marvin Herzog and Mordtkhe Schaechter.
Herzog called attention to the fact that when groups migrate they tend to lose cultural and linguistic traits. This observation which goes back his mentor Uriel Weinreich is now becoming more widely appreciated as can be seen from a recent article by Quentin D. Atkinson in 'Science' which uses lose of phonetic features to trace the spread of human languages back to Africa.
Uriel discussed the loss of features in small settlements in his article on 'Western Traits of Transcarpathian Yiddish.' The specific example he gave was the development of Northeastern YIddish but in other parts of the same article he describes a much wider pattern of progressive trait loss. He describes a number o features unique to Transcarpathian Yiddish. A smaller set of these can be found in Central Yiddish. A still smaller set are shared by Central and Southeastern Yiddish but not found in the remaining the East Yiddish dialect, Northeastern Yiddish.
The global pattern is then one of maximum richness of traits in Transcarpathian Yiddish with a gradual falling off of traits towards the northeastern part of East Yiddish territory. Uriel does not specifically say as much but this pattern implies that the settlement of East Yiddish territory spread out from the broader Transcarpathian area (this area would include Austria and the Czech lands which are to the west of the Carpathians) to the northeast. We can infer from this that the common root of Transcarpathian and East Yiddish originated in the Transcarpathian area. This is consistent with other evidence that the ancestor of these dialects coalesced in Austria around the the 11th century.
The spread of East and Transcarpathian Yiddish from a focal area in early medieval Austria is also implied by a line of research that was suggested by the work of another of my teachers, Mordtkhe Schaechter. Schaechter identified a specific kind of linguistic borrowing in which a language borrows standards of correctness rather than specific items from another language. The borrowed standard is used to select preferred variants within the internal repertoire of the borrowing language.
As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, early Yiddish was an East Germanic language derived from Gothic. Modern Yiddish is, in comparison, much more similar to German. Yiddish has come to resemble German partly through the mechanism of ordinary linguistic borrowing but the mechanism described by Schaechter has actually played a greater role. Specifically, early Yiddish borrowed standards from a form of literary German. This form was the Middle High German used in Austria.
As to the question of how the original Gothic-derived Yiddish got to Austria, I currently favor the hypothesis that from at least 500 CE on, Gothic was spoken by the Jews of northwestern Balkan Jewry. Medieval Austria was settled by Jews from the Rhineland and East Franconia as well as other areas but I think that early Yiddish was brought there by settlers from the area of the Save River valley.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Fourth Century Crimean Origin of the Ashkenazim

As is argued in other essays, on this blog, the Germanic component of Yiddish goes back to an East Germanic, probably Gothic, root. This raises the question of how Gothic material came to be found in a language, Yiddish, which is first attested in medieval Germany.


One school of historians (e. g. Simon Schwarzfuchs "L'opposition Tsarfat-Provence" in "Hommage a Georges Vajda" edited by Gerard Nahon and Charles Touati, Louvain, Peeter, 1980 and Israel M. Ta-Shma "Creativity and Diversity" Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 2006 ) maintains that Ashkenazic Jews migrated to Germany largely from northern Italy between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Historical records of Jews in northern Italy are sparse for the eighth and ninth centuries when northern Italy was under the domination of the Lombard but Jewish communities are mentioned in Lucca and Pavia. Jews were well-treated under Lombard rule.



This Lombard Jewish community can perhaps be derived from a significant Jewish community that lived in Ravenna in the sixth century (see Thomas Hodgkin "Theodoric the Goth" New York, G. P. Putnam, 1891 and Bernard S. Bachrach "Early medieval Jewish policy in western Europe", Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1977) This community lived under the Ostrogothic conquerors of Italy and enjoyed very close relations with them.


It is not known from whence the Jewish community of sixth century Ravenna came from but their closeness to the Ostrogothic elite suggests that they migrated with the Ostrogoths from their previous settlement around the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. It is not known if the Danubian homeland of the Ostrogoths had a significant Jewish population but another Gothic settlement further east on the Black Sea, the Crimean Bosporus, had an old Jewish community which came under Gothic rule in about 362. (see Gibson, E. Leigh "The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom" Tubingen, Germany, Mohr Siebeck, 1999 for Jews on the Crimean Bosporus and Alexander Alexanderovich Vasiliev "The Goths in Crimea" Cambridge, Mass., Medieval Academy of America, 1936) for Goths in Crimea).


The Crimean Gothic community was separated from the Ostrogothic community from the late fourth century until the mid-fifth century by the Huns who dominated the intermediate area along the Black Sea. But the Huns lost control of this region after the death of Attila in 454 and Goths and Jews from Crimea were free to join the increasingly powerful and prosperous Danubian Ostrogoths on their march to the west.

To flesh out this hypothetical reconstruction; the Ashkenazim began as Jews of the Crimean Bosporus who allied themselves with the Goths who got control of the Bosporus in about 262 CE. These Gothicized Jews joined the Ostrogoths of the lower Danube on their migration to Italy under the leadership of Theodoric the Great in 493. They settled in northern Italy, particularly in Ravenna and remained in northern Italy after the Lombards, a West Germanic people, conquered Italy in 568.


Jewish life in northern Italy is sparsely documented but by about 800 Jews are reported at least as traders to the north of the Alps in Regensburg under the rule of Charlemagne. After the death of Charlemagne in 841, the German lands did not thrive. An economic revival began under the Saxon Empire between 919 and 1024 associated with the rise of eastern German cities like Erfurt, Merseburg, Halle and Magdeburg, all of which are thought to have had significant Jewish populations. This period was followed by that of the Salian Empire from 1024-1125 when Jews, some of whom moved from northern France, settled in Speyer, Worms and Mainz (SHUM).


The first written products of Ashkenaz come from the central Rhineland communities of SHUM in the eleventh century. From these earliest surviving writings, scholars like Abraham Grossman and Israel M. Ta-Shma have been able to build up a picture of medieval Ashkenazic culture. From this one gets the sense of a proud culture with a sense of great antiquity. It is a culture that adheres strongly to local customs which are seen as variants of a tradition directly passed from ancient Israel. Naturally, this culture puts a very high value on Hebrew literacy.














































Sunday, July 5, 2009

The development of Germanic short 'o'

Proto-Germanic is commonly reconstructed as lacking a short 'o' phoneme. The subsequent development of short 'o' can be looked at by tracing developments in Gothic, German and Yiddish.
Biblical Gothic, attested from the 5th century, is close to the Proto-Germanic state. There is no 'o' phoneme in the native Germanic word stock although 'o' is found in loanwords.
Within the Germanic component, 'o' occurs as an allophone of short 'u' before the consonants 'r', 'kh' and 'khw'. This is part of a more general short vowel lowering rule that also lowers short 'i' to short 'e'.
German by comparison has a short 'o' phoneme which mostly developed from PG short 'u' and which is found in many contexts. Notable are occurences of 'o' derived from 'u' before nasal vowels, e. g. fromm, Sommer, Sonne, kommen, besonderer, gesponnen, geschwommen, genommen. (examples from Bin-Nun). This shift began in Old High German and continued through Middle High German and Early New High German.
The short vowel lowering rule survives in the German dialects but it is quite restricted geographically.
Yiddish occupies an intermediate position between Gothic and German. The short vowel lowering rule survives except in the Northeastern dialect (Litvish) which has lost the distinction between short and long vowels.
Words like vortsl, dorsht, shtorem, vorem, gorgl, vokher, etc. are universal in Yiddish and show that this rule operated at the earliest period in the history of the language.
On the other hand, there is well-established short 'o' phoneme in found in many word from the Germanic component such as groshn, holts, honik, shlos. gebot. etc. But 'u' before nasals was rarely lowered so that the listed German words above are represented in by Yiddish words that, historically, have short 'u' e. g. zumer, zun, kumen, etc.
I say 'historically' because in almost all the Yiddish dialects, the short 'u' has been transformed into another vowel. The excpeion is Alsation Yiddish. Alsation Yiddish is also exceptional in that while it has zumer, zun, kumen, etc. these are in free variation with forms that have 'o'
The picture that one gets is of an early Yiddish that had the short vowel lowering rule and lacked an 'o' phoneme but subsequently acquired it through contact with German, Hebrew and other languages that have it.
A particularly interesting set of words are fun, duner, and ful. The German cognates of these words have had 'o' since Old High Germanic times. It is possible that Yiddish preserves Old High German forms that are not attested in the literature. Alternately these forms may go back to an earlier Gemanic language such as Gothic or an earlier stage of the West Germanic language that developed into Old High German. Either way we are looking at a date for the origin of Yiddish that is earlier than 800 C E.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yiddish gayes Gothic gauja

The Yiddish word 'gayes' was used in western Germany and Poland to mean 'people of the countryside, particularly non-Jewish'. It is commonly spelled as if it were of Semitic origin 'gimel-yod-vov-sof' but it is not a Semitic world. Meyer Wolf and Alexis Manaster Ramer have suggested that it is of ancient Germanic origin.
The word frequently appears in the form 's'gayes' where the 's' is a contraction of the neutral definite article 'dos' the word can also be masculine or feminine.
Related forms in Gothic and Old High German refer to a district or region but the closest form is Gothic 'gauja' (masculine) defined in Lehmann's Gothic dictionary as 'people of a land'.