Redrawing the Yiddish Map, Forward, December 6, 1996
Some of you may have seen an article last month in The New York Times,
by a journalist named George Johnson, about recent trends in Yiddish historical
linguistics. Like many popular writers on scientific subjects, Mr. Johnson
oversimplified, and his statement that until recently Yiddish linguistics
was a field "in which rational analysis was overwhelmed by emotion" is an
insult to such eminent Yiddishists of earlier generations as Ber Borochov,
Matisyahu Mieses, Max Weinreich and many others.
Still, the article was correct in asserting that contemporary Yiddish scholars
are now thinking differently about the history of the language and its place
of origin, which they tend to locate not in the Rhineland or western Germany
as was once the common view, but further to the east - in Bavaria, Bohemia
or Saxony. (Actually, Mieses proposed such a view as far back as 1924, but
it was rejected by Weinreich, whose paradigm of Rhineland origins, going
back to a Jewish migration into Germany from France, was widely accepted
The Yiddish scholar most prominently cited in Mr. Johnson's article is Robert
King, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Texas. A leading
proponent of the "further to the east" theory along with colleagues like
Dovid Katz of Oxford University's Yiddish Centre, James Marchand of the University
of Illinois and Paul Wexler of Tel Aviv University, Mr. King advances two
main arguments, one linguistic and one demographic.
The linguistic argument, as summarized by Mr. King's paper "Migration and
Linguistics as Illustrated by Yiddish," published in 1992, is that a careful
comparison of Yiddish grammar and morphology with various regional dialects
of German shows that Yiddish is closest to "Bavarian with a small admixture
of East Central German," and that "the Rhineland bequeathed nothing to the
structure of Yiddish." Looking at nine different features that Yiddish and
Bavarian German have in common, such as their loss of final vowels and of
the simple past tense, and their formation of diminutives, he concludes that
"It is perfectly clear, linguistically speaking, that [proto-Yiddish-speaking]
Jews spent a lot of time on Bavarian-speaking soil."
As for the demography, says Mr. King, "the dilemma [for the Rhineland-origins
school] is that the population numbers do not add up. There were not enough
Jews in western Europe to populate eastern Europe. It is that simple."
Citing guesswork estimates of a very small Jewish population (somewhere between
10,000 and 50,000) in Central and Eastern Europe as late as 1500 and more
reliable indicators of a far higher one (150,000 to 500,000) by 1650, Mr.
King claims that such an increase could not possibly have taken place through
either immigration from the West or purely internal growth, and reasons that
the indigenous Eastern European population at the start of the period must
therefore have been much larger. "It is clear," he writes, "that sources
other than the Rhineland must be found to account for the origins of the
Polish [i.e., Eastern European] Jewish population." Among such possible sources
he suggests, "migration from Babylonia and Persia from the beginning of the
common era"; "migration from Greece and the Byzantine Empire"; "migration
from the Caucasus"; "the Khazar hypothesis" (i.e., the theory that survivors
of the Judaizing kingdom of Khazaria on the Volga fled west after Khazaria's
downfall in the 12th century and mingled on Polish soil with other Jews);
"a Slavic origin for early Polish/Russian Jews"; and "Jewish settlement along
trade routes between Western Europe and the Black Sea."
Mr. King stresses that these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; all
could explain why more Jews than was previously thought were living in Eastern
Europe at an early date; and if we know almost nothing about such Jews, this
is because, although "We have to assume that Jewish institutions of some
sort were in place" among them, theirs was "a poor and exiguous culture"
that left behind "few remains other than the bones of its dead." This poverty
would help explain why such Jews assimilated to the language of culturally
superior Judeo-German speakers coming from Bavaria and the Danube Valley.
But if, despite their cultural superiority, these newcomers were a small
minority among the Jews in whose midst they settled is it conceivable that
their language would have displaced whatever it was that Jews spoke before
their coming? This is the weak link in Mr. King's argument, to which he fails
to address himself.
Perhaps an answer should be sought in the fact that, as mentioned last week,
German itself as once spoken further east an it is now, especially by the,
burgher class in many Polish cities. Could it be that Eastern European Jews
spoke, or at least understood, some form of German even before the arrival
of proto-Yiddish, so that German served as a means of communication between
indigenous and immigrant Jews from the start?' It's not impossible.