History of the Yiddish Language: Volumes 1 and 2

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Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language is a classic of Yiddish scholarship and is the only comprehensive scholarly account of the Yiddish language from its origin to the present. A monumental, definitive work, History of the Yiddish Language demonstrates the integrity of Yiddish as a language, its evolution from other languages, its unique properties, and its versatility and range in both spoken and written form. Originally published in 1973 in Yiddish by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and partially translated in 1980, it is now being published in full in English for the first time. In addition to his text, Weinreich’s copious references and footnotes are also included in this two-volume set.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300108873
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/23/2008
  • Series: Yale Language Series
  • Pages: 1752
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 3.40 (d)

Meet the Author

The late Max Weinreich was cofounder of the YIVO Institute in Vilna and one of the world’s most important scholars of the Yiddish language. He completed History of the Yiddish Language, his magnum opus, shortly before his death. His book Hitler’s Professors, 2nd Edition, is available in paperback from Yale University Press.

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Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10887-3

Chapter One

Yiddish and Ashkenaz: The Object of Study and the Approach

1.1 It has happened more than once in Jewish history that fateful developments have had their beginnings in a tiny area: in the Land of Israel, where the people came into being; in Podolia, where Hassidism was born. Such a genesis also took place over a thousand years ago on the banks of the Rhine and Moselle, in the area designated by the Jews as Loter (6.1-6.9). The most important localities in Loter and vicinity were Cologne, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, and Metz. In these communities (and Regensburg must also be included with them; 6.2.2), over a thousand years ago, the Yiddish language was born in the midst of a small Jewish community. This signaled the beginning of a fundamentally new chapter in Jewish history-the Yiddish era.

A number of contemporary European languages began to emerge around the year 1000-some slightly earlier and some slightly later. Some general thrust in European history must have led to the fateful differentiation that has lasted to date, and universal historians should be in a position to describe this process. Yet each language is an important object of study in itself, and themore specific its structure the more illustrative it is of language in general. Moreover, scholars are interested in the conditions under which a group creates and maintains a language. In the second half of the sixth century the Germanic Langobards invaded northern Italy and established a powerful state there. However, several centuries later they became absorbed in the Romanic majority. The Celts in Gaul never migrated and nonetheless they adopted the language of their conquerors, the Romans. The lean-fleshed cows of the minority ate up the fat cows of the majority, and this led to the emergence of new Romanic languages-French and Provençal. In the case of the Jews, something extraordinary took place. Arriving in areas where variants of German were spoken, the Jews created their own language. This language preserved fragments of Hebrew-frequently in greatly modified form-and also elements of the vernaculars that had been brought along. It incorporated parts of the language of the coterritorial population, but the stock material was so transformed that it became indigenously Jewish. And when the major part of the Yiddish-speaking community moved many hundreds of miles away it took along the language, developed it, and later even transported it overseas. This scattered and dispersed handful was not swallowed by the majority, and thus for over a millennium a language was in the making, which must be considered-the reference here is to language itself, not its literature-among the highest achievements of the Jewish national genius.

Earlier, as far back as Roman times, there were indications of Jews in the territories later known as Loter. There is documentary proof for the existence of a Jewish community in Cologne in the first half of the fourth century, and there is plausibility to the conjectures that there were Jews in several other localities in the Rhineland in Roman times (6.1.1). But from all indications, the language of these Jews had no share in shaping Yiddish. Hence, from the point of view of Yiddish, this early appearance of Jewish life in the Rhineland must be characterized as a prehistorical phenomenon.

The curtain of silence is first rent in 801 and there emerges in Aachen, Charlemagne's capital, the name of a Jew Isaac, a kind of patriarch Isaac of Ashkenaz, who was one of the emperor's emissaries to the caliph Harun ar-Rashid. A new and uninterrupted Jewish settlement in the area of the Middle Rhine may be dated from that year. It may be said that in the ninth century the Jewish community in Loter, Ashkenaz, begins to grow, although that name for this community is found in the sources no earlier than Rashi.

1.2 The Yiddish language was not the only new thing that began in Loter. The entire system of Jewishness of the new community embarked on a new path. This did not happen at once. The yeshivas in Babylonia and Palestine continued for a long time to be the sources of authority. As late as the eleventh century they were consulted, for instance, on the proper hand in which to hold the etrog and the lulav when the benediction is pronounced over them, and the authorities in the East formulated their responses with assurance: such and such is the Jewish custom everywhere. Even when such questions were finally answered locally, they were intended only for home consumption. Local authorities appeared with the appellation "the Old" or "the Great" (6.8). Finally there came a declaration of independence. This declaration of independence of Ashkenaz was the so-called herem (ban) of Rabbi Gershom-the regulation that terminated polygamy also de jure and severed Jewish Europe from the East. The profound symbolic significance of this act can be gauged from the fact that Rabbi Gershom, an unassuming head of a yeshiva (d. 1028 or 1040), entered history under the proud name of "Luminary of the Exile."

As in their rise, so the Jews of Ashkenaz were also bound together in their subsequent history. Loter is the nucleus, but as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Jews of Loter began to spread to the east, the southeast, and the south, and their language went along and grew with them. In the middle of the thirteenth century the group expanded to territories where the language of the coterritorial population was not German, but Slavic. The Ashkenazic settlement in the old German-speaking territory-we shall call it Ashkenaz I-remained, but beside it rose Ashkenaz II to the east. Let us fix the terms Ashkenaz I and Ashkenaz II; they are clear and handy. The name Ashkenaz divested itself of territory; geography was transformed into history.

Ashkenaz I remained and expanded in the course of the centuries (10.3, 10.4), but the center of gravity of Ashkenazic Jewry gradually moved from central to eastern Europe (10.2.1). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the centers of Ashkenazic Jewry were no longer Mainz, Worms, Regensburg, nor even Prague, but Cracow, Lublin, Brest Litovsk, Vilna, and Miedzyborz. And again there loomed a towering personality, a symbol. Just as Rabbi Gershom symbolized the fathers of Loter, so on the threshold of eastern Ashkenaz stood another great scholar, Rabbi Jacob, the founder of the school of pilpul, and the shift in the center of gravity found expression in the fact that around 1500-the exact year is unknown-Rabbi Jacob left Prague for Cracow where he became the renowned Rabbi Jacob Pollack.

Every transplantation is a crisis, bearing the danger of a catastrophe. But the nation endured as it had endured even during the First Exile, and through the Diaspora on the eve of and after the Destruction of the Second Temple. Ashkenaz came out strengthened by the transplantation to eastern Europe. For several hundred years Ashkenaz I attempted to keep in step, until in the generation of the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna there came the dramatic secession associated with the name of Moses Mendelssohn. But even this upheaval did not halt the social-cultural development and the geographic expansion of Ashkenaz. The Jewish communities of North and South America, South Africa, and Australia are entirely or in their predominant majority Ashkenazic. The same was true of the new settlement in Palestine in its formative years, up to the recent waves of Oriental immigration. In the course of a thousand years Ashkenaz spread from Loter everywhere and became the dominant power in world Jewry.

1.2.1 All this is to say that the history of Yiddish and the history of Ashkenaz are identical-and far more than merely chronologically. Language reflects life. The world is large, the phenomena endless in number; a group (like an individual) names only those material and spiritual facts that have some significance for it. Up to the time when the Yiddish school in eastern Europe made amends for it, Yiddish had had few names for flowers; however, as substantives to the verb ask Yiddish had not only di frage (or der freg, as found in Mendele, in Zunser), but also kashe (to designate a matter requiring a solution on an intellectual basis), and shayle (a juridical matter calling for an answer by a person in authority). Languages-to put the matter more generally-divide the sum total of their treasures unevenly. This applies not only to phones, forms, word formation, and sentence structure, but also to meaning. The language of an African tribe may be richer than English in the description of changes in weather or of the footprints of an antelope. Language, as was confirmed long ago, is the product of a community, and Yiddish reflects the creativity of Ashkenaz.

But the link between language and community is even closer. Given a language, it affects the behavior of the group, it becomes a cocreator of behavior and of values. Any Jewish community could partake of honey on the eve of the New Year to portend a sweet year. A similar custom could be found also among non Jews (3.4.1). But the consumption on Rosh Hashanah of carrots (mern) in allusion to the verb zikh mern (to increase) and its combination with a prayer to the effect that "may our merits increase"-this could be only an invention of Ashkenazic Jews. Kol mevaser (a voice proclaiming) is recited by Jews on Hoshanah Rabbah everywhere, but only speakers of western Yiddish have the custom of eating cabbage soup on that day in allusion to the German Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage and water). In a township near Rovno, Volhynia, water carriers used to celebrate on the Sabbath of the weekly lection of Emor (speak) in allusion to the emer (bucket, in Yiddish).

These few instances were chosen at random as examples. Language is a cofashioner of life, a cocreator of values. In a world where Torah is the best of wares, the entire social scale is constructed around this principle (3.7). Even wit and sarcasm are conditioned by the positive values which must of necessity exist before they can be parodied or negated. Vu toyre, dort iz krokhml (wherever there is Torah, there is grit) can arise associatively only in a group whose norm is vu toyre, dort iz khokhme (wherever there is Torah, there is wit). Where the custom of bowing during the recital of the prayer Modim is unknown, the universal trait of hypocrisy could not be described as moydim biz der erd, shmad-shtik bizn himl (moydim [that is, bowing] all the way to the ground, villainy [reaching] up to the sky). Why a grober yung (boor)? One meaning of grob is 'corpulent, bulging'; then grob is in contrast to dar (skinny), as in the phrase grob vi a khazer (like a pig) (cf. balguf [corpulent]). But grob may transcend material limits, and then it contrasts not with dar, but with eydl (refined, delicate; conversely eydl may assume the meaning of 'skinny, pale, fragile'), and an eydler inyen (a delicate matter) requires intellectual concentration.

It can be said that the existence of a word and expression stimulates their usage and introduces a nuance in our world view. Again and again we shall come across the reciprocal relations of language and culture. Perhaps we may be helped by the metaphor that language is not a reflection of life, but the mirror itself; it refracts the rays and they therefore reach our psyche in an altered form.

1.3 How does one fathom the history of Yiddish? The first thing that comes to mind is the linguistic monuments of old: the history of language, as well as general history, speaks-and rightly so-of going to the "sources." An aged informant may relate details of the speech of old people in his young days, but all this will cover no more than roughly a century. We may attempt to learn about the past from present conditions or we may arrive at certain conclusions about Yiddish by studying other languages, but writings of early years are highly desirable. Generally very old sources are most desirable, particularly those that are dated. Before Solomon Birnbaum found and researched the medical manuscript Of 1396 in the Cologne municipal archives, Steinschneider's designation of the translation of Psalms, of 1490, in the Berlin state library as the oldest dated Yiddish manuscript had been generally accepted. After the publication by Fuks of the Cambridge Ms. Of 1382 we have moved up another fourteen years. In 1963 another discovery was made: a Yiddish sentence in the Worms mahazor of 1272, now in Jerusalem. A Yiddish sentence from 1272! But neither this piquant and for the time being oldest evidence of Yiddish (1.8) nor the fairly large Cambridge Ms., however important from the standpoint of linguistics and literature, has the honor of being the "birth certificate" of Yiddish. Assuredly, the Cambridge Ms. is not an original; it was copied from models many decades older, and scattered Yiddish words occur in Hebrew manuscripts that, although undated, can safely be assigned to the thirteenth century. Disregarding the fact that Rashi's commentary came down to us in relatively late copies, it is nevertheless worth mentioning that several Yiddish glosses are found in Rashi, that is, dating from ca. 1100.

On reflection it becomes clear that there can be no document on birth, for there was no one-time manifest act of birth. The metaphor may be employed, but it must be borne in mind that we know of no language that came into being ex nihilo. There was always a previous stage and it cannot be determined precisely when the elements of the new language ceased being part of the previous language or languages. A language grows slowly and not under spotlights; for some time, ostensibly, the speakers themselves are not aware of the fact that they speak a new language. Hence the impossibility of pointing exactly at the beginning of a language; "the beginnings" is more correct, precisely because less definite.

Faute de mieux we must operate in the history of language with the oldest sources extant. Compared to the size of the language historian's justified ambition, their number is small. At all times only a relatively small part of linguistic activity is preserved in writing. Generally, people talk, and that's that; no record is made. In the Middle Ages far less was recorded than today-there was no print and there were no recording instruments. Therefore, even if all records of earlier days had been preserved our data would still be fragmentary; all the more so since only fragments of fragments have been preserved. To rely only on them would mean enslavement to evidence that was preserved at random.

But this is not the main reason that the study of the history of a language cannot begin with the study of the oldest records. No matter what the language, the oldest extant writings say little to the linguist. The oldest evidences of Yiddish are glosses-single words scattered over Hebrew manuscripts-or Yiddish personal names. When in the lists of the Worms' victims of the First Crusade there figure women named brvn? or yyntl, we may surmise that these are basically the names that sound today like Brayne and Yentl; but how can we tell what their pronunciation was toward the end of the eleventh century? In Rashi's glosses (Gitin 55b) there occurs the word rytvg"? and we may assume that the present Yiddish raytvogn (chariot) is meant. But how was the word pronounced? Even in later days, when consecutive Yiddish texts became available (such as the above-mentioned writings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), they remain at first, linguistically, a riddle. As long as there is no verified material for purposes of comparison, we don't know whether a given document reflects general Yiddish language traits of that time (what time, if the document is not dated; and, if dated, was it the date of the author or of a later copyist?) or regional peculiarities, or even individual mannerisms of the writer. Nor can we tell, in dealing with isolated documents, whether they reflect everyday speech or a specific literary style. There is no certainty about the phonic value of the graphic symbols. The writing yvd appears consistently for centuries, and the first impulse is to interpret the word as /jud/, until it dawns on us that even in our day we still find the spelling yvd, although no one pronounced it /jud/ in Yiddish in our own day or in the recent past. This means that orthography, and even consistent orthography for centuries, can be misleading. A methodical analysis actually leads to the conclusion that yvd is only a fact of writing and that probably there was no time that Jews in their own language referred to themselves as /judn/.


Excerpted from HISTORY OF THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE VOLUME 1 by MAX WEINREICH Copyright © 2008 by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


VOLUME 1 Editor's Preface....................vii
Translators' Foreword....................xi
1. Yiddish and Ashkenaz: The Object of Study and the Approach....................1
2. Yiddish in the Framework of Other Jewish Languages; Ashkenaz in the Framework of Jewish Communities....................45
3. The Language of the Way of the SHaS....................175
4. Internal Jewish Bilingualism....................247
5. The Name Yiddish....................315
6. The Historical-Geographic Determinants: Loter, the Cradle of Yiddish....................328
Notes to Chapters 1-6....................A1
Appendix: Parallel Paragraph Numbering of Max Weinreich (1973): Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh and Max Weinreich (2008): History of the Yiddish Language....................A347
Select Bibliography of Max Weinreich's Works....................A355
VOLUME 2 7. The Linguistic Determinants....................349
8. Selectivity and Fusion....................599
9. The Ideal Early Scheme of Yiddish Protovowels....................658
10. Criteria for the Periodization of Yiddish....................719
Notes to Chapters 7-10....................A359
Appendix: Parallel Paragraph Numbering of Max Weinreich (1973): Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh and Max Weinreich (22008): History of the Yiddish Language....................A717
Select Bibliography of Max Weinreich's Works....................A725
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