Vocal Minority (Forward, November 22, 1996)

Writing with a question about "the origins of the Yiddish language," Leon Hyman of Westport, Conn., asks:
“Why did Yiddish arise? Since people moving from one country to another naturally tend to exchange the language of their old home for that of their new one, why didn't Jews moving to Eastern Europe do the same? Were they banned from speaking Polish or Russian? Who decided? And what was the purpose? Privacy? Clannishness? Secretiveness?"
Mr. Hyman's query may be naively phrased--historically spoken languages, of course, are not "invented" by anyone and are the products of collective linguistic behavior that is almost always spontaneous and unplanned--but this does not mean that it is naive in conception. On the contrary, it raises a good point. Generally, immigrants to a new country do, sooner or later, adopt that country's language; and in the course of history, this has been the experience of most Jews, too.

This is why, in our own age, American Jews speak English and Argentinian Jews speak Spanish; why, in the Middle Ages, Jews who settled in France spoke French and Jews who settled in Germany spoke German; and why, in antiquity, Jews in Italy spoke Latin, Jews in Egypt spoke Greek (the language of Hellenized urban life in that country) and Jews in Persia spoke Persian. And the same thing happened with Jews living in countries where the dominant language changed as a result of linguistic evolution or foreign conquest. When Latin gradually became Italian, the Jews of Italy took part in that development, and when Arabic replaced Greek and Coptic in Egypt, Egyptian Jews went over to speaking Arabic.

True, in many of the countries in which they lived; Jews used distinctively Jewish words and expressions that sometimes led to the creation of Jewish dialects, such as Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic, etc.--and considered as a form of Judeo-German, Eastern European Yiddish might seem to be merely another case of this. But it is precisely here that Mr. Hyman's question has relevance; for if speakers of Judeo-French or Judeo-Italian converted to Judeo-German when they migrated to German-speaking areas in the early Middle Ages from France or Italy, why did not speakers of Judeo-German eventually become speakers of Judeo-Czech, Judeo-Polish, Judeo-Lithuanian, Judeo-Ukrainian or Judeo-Russian when they migrated from Germany, into Eastern Europe? Why, that is, did they go on speaking Yiddish instead of developing dialects of Judeo-Slavic (which, Mr. Hyman can rest assured, no one would have banned them from speaking)? And why, indeed, although Yiddish itself absorbed many Slavic words, has no form of Judeo-Slavic--if, that is, any such thing existed in the first place--managed to survive long enough for us to know anything about it?

Even though this problem has no single clear solution, it should be noted that the case of Yiddish, while relatively rare, is by no means singular; there are other instances of minorities that have gone on speaking the language of the Old Country long after migrating to a new one. In the United States we have the example of Pennsylvania Dutch, the southwest German dialect that is only now dying out 200 years after having been brought to America. In Europe there are the various dialects of Romani or Gypsy, a language related to Hindi that has survived for over 500 years far from its original home. In Southeast Asia there are colonies of overseas Chinese that have gone on speaking Chinese for generations. And closest of all to the case of Yiddish is that of a parallel Jewish language, Ladino or Judeo-Spanish; which was carried by the Spanish exiles of 1492 to various countries in the Ottoman Empire, such as Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, and spoken there as a first language by hundreds of thousands of Jews right up to the Holocaust!

What, if anything, do such cases have in common? Certainly all would seem to partake in the "clannishness" that Mr. Hyman speaks of - that is, in a strong sense on the part of the continuers of the old language of group solidarity and fundamental difference from the people among which they settled, whether by virtue of religion, way of life, ethnicity, physical appearance, prejudice against them or some combination of these things. In all of these communities there was an adamant stress on maintaining a distinct identity and against intermarrying with and assimilating into the local population. Preserving the language they brought with them as immigrants was an effective means of ensuring the separateness that they sought.

And yet this still fails to answer Mr. Hyman's question, because it does not explain the difference in linguistic behavior between Jews who settled An France or Germany and the Jews who settled in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Any such explanation would have to look in greater detail, at the specific circumstances that accompanied Yiddish- and Ladino-speaking Jews on their migrations--and that we will try to do next week.