Yiddish Language - History

History

In the 10th century, a distinctive Jewish culture formed in Central Europe. The culture came to be called Ashkenazi, deriving its name from Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3), the medieval Hebrew name for the territory centred on what is now the westernmost part of Germany. Its geographic extent did not coincide with the German Christian principalities; Ashkenaz included Northern France. It also bordered on the area inhabited by the Sephardim, or Spanish Jews, which ranged into Southern France. Ashkenazi culture later spread into Eastern Europe.

The first language of European Jews may have been Aramaic, the vernacular of the Jews in Roman-era Judea and ancient and early medieval Mesopotamia. The widespread use of Aramaic among the large non-Jewish Syrian trading population of the Roman provinces, including those in Europe, would have reinforced the use of Aramaic among Jews engaged in trade. In Roman times, many of the Jews living in Rome and Southern Italy appear to have been Greek-speakers, and this is reflected in some Ashkenazi personal names (e.g., Kalonymus). Much work needs to be done, though, to fully analyze the contributions of those languages to Yiddish.

Nothing is known about the vernacular of the earliest Jews in Germany, but several theories have been put forward. It is generally accepted that it was likely to have contained elements from other languages of the Near East and Europe, absorbed through dispersion. Since many settlers came via France and Italy, it is also likely that the Romance-based Jewish languages of those regions were represented. Traces remain in the contemporary Yiddish vocabulary: for example, בענטשן (bentshn, to bless), from the Latin benedicere; לייענען (leyenen, to read), from the Latin legere; and the personal names Anshl, cognate to Angel or Angelo; Bunim (probably from "bon homme"). Western Yiddish includes additional words of Latin derivation (but still very few): for example, orn (to pray), cf. Latin and Italian "orare".

The Jewish community in the Rhineland would have encountered the myriad dialects from which standard German would in time emerge many centuries later. They would have been speaking their own versions of these German dialects, mixed with linguistic elements that they themselves brought into the region. Perhaps the main point of difference was the use of the Hebrew alphabet for the recording of the Germanic vernacular, which may have been adopted either because of the community's familiarity with the alphabet or to prevent the non-Jewish population understanding the correspondence. In addition, there was probably widespread illiteracy in the non-Hebrew script, and the level of illiteracy in the non-Jewish communities was much higher. Another point of difference was the use of Hebrew and Aramaic words. These words and terms were used because of their familiarity, but more so because in most cases there were no equivalent terms in the vernacular which could express the Jewish concepts or describe the objects of cultural significance.

Apart from the obvious use of Hebrew words for specifically Jewish artifacts, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which the Yiddish spoken in any earlier period differed from the contemporary German. There is a rough consensus that by the 15th century Yiddish would have sounded distinctive to the average German ear, even when restricted to the Germanic component of its vocabulary.

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