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 for decades.)

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.