Yiddish Language Structures

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But how many of these indigenous Jews were there, and what language did they speak?

Jewish historians have estimated the population of East European Jews to have been between 10, and 55, at the end of the Middle Ages in the year The census of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of , however, reported , Jewish inhabitants. Because the census did not count children under the age of one year, and it is assumed that many tried to deliberately evade the count, the historian Raphael Mahler in estimated that the correct number was closer to , The Russian census of Poland and the Pale of Settlement in counted 1.

Even allowing for an initial population of , Ashkenazim in —that is, twice as high as other estimates—Weinreich expresses discomfort with reporting the work of others who cited unusually high growth rates in order to reach a total Ashkenazi population of 14 million by This is indeed a genuine problem: how to account, demographically, for the millions of Jews who appear on the records in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere by the 19th century. Immigration following the medieval Crusades and expulsions from Western Europe, followed by to years of natural biological growth, are not enough to account for the size of the East European Jewish population.

Two scholars from disparate fields of inquiry have recently tried anew to solve this puzzle, first noted at least a century ago: Paul Wexler from comparative linguistics and David Goldstein from genetics. Weinreich and Wexler agreed that the key to the deep history of the East European Jews—the history stretching back deep into the origins of Yiddish, where documentary evidence becomes scarce—would be found in linguistics. They also agreed that language was the key to understanding the culture of the European Jews over the millennium that followed, but their books disagreed diametrically on what the linguistic evidence meant.

But Wexler had already made a career as a respectable Slavic linguist. Comparative linguistics poses two genuine, and interconnected, problems when its methods are used to make arguments about history.

Teaching Yiddish Through Song | In geveb

The first is that in its most specialized details, the evidence and arguments are inaccessible to outsiders; Wexler will not be able to persuade historians about the origins of the Jews by discussing lexical inventories and phonemeic shifts especially as long as other linguists return fire with equally arcane and scientific-sounding counterarguments about other phonemic shifts. Second, despite its stress on precision and details, comparative historical linguistics is not as scientific or as purely historical as it seems; lost forms must be reconstructed, development must be interpolated, and thus no argument is definitive.

Continue reading: Hebrew roots. Genetics might provide us with an exit to this uncomfortable, and vexingly arcane, linguistic argument. Recent studies of markers on the Y chromosome of Ashkenazi men hold out the possibility of determining, with apparent mathematical precision, how many Ashekenazi men share markers distinctive to the European, Middle Eastern, or other for example, Central Asian Turkic gene pool.

The results are inconclusive, puzzling, and unexpected. David Goldstein, a molecular geneticist at Duke, undertook to trace Y markers among two Ashekenazi subgroups: the Cohanim the class of priests narrowly defined and the Levites liturgical officiants from the tribe of Levi. He found that the Cohanim from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations shared an unusual marker on the Y chromosome that set them apart both from the surrounding non-Jewish populations—and from their own communities.

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He traced the marker to a mutation originating about 3, years ago and suggested in conclusion that this showed both groups had a real and unbroken genetic link with the original priestly Jews of Israel. He received tremendous media coverage as a result. The Ashkenazi Levites, on the other hand, showed a puzzling genetic signature: they did not match particularly well with the Cohanim, nor with the broader population of Ashkenazi Jews.

Comparing this group with the most common Y-chromosome micro-mutations in European and West Eurasian populations i. Weinreich extended the boundary of what can be said about cultural history based on what is preserved in its language.

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Here, Weinreich crossed from the more scientific side of linguistics—the comparison of attested forms, the regular metamorphoses in sounds or structures recorded in a language over centuries—to the mushier, more contestable, and more fascinating realm of sociolingistics, the study of language in its social environment. In reconstructing the world of the Ashkenazi Jews centuries ago, Weinreich appealingly argued that two cultural activities were reflected in Yiddish, although unequally.

To European Christians, Jews were linked with commerce, including what was known in the Middle Ages as usurious money lending and is now called banking. For centuries, Yiddish acted as a lingua franca for merchant Jews, unmatched in Europe for its reach. Yiddish was an international financial tool linking Jews from London to Odessa. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Rothschild banking family—with concerns in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Vienna, and Florence—carried on internal family correspondence in Yiddish.

6 points, SCA Band 1, 0.125 EFTSL

The Rothschilds recapitulated, on a much higher and more powerful plane, the experience of the common Jewish merchant traveling through the string of Jewish settlements the various Judendorfs, Judenburgs, and other villae Judaeorum dating back to the 10th century scattered through Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Poland and on down to the Black Sea and the markets of Constantinople. Jewish merchants carried with them two things that traveled well: money and language. But which meaning of maseumatn —a Yiddish word with a Hebrew root—was more powerful?

Weinreich claimed that commerce left relatively little mark on Yiddish; the dominant cultural stamp came from scholarship and study. Perhaps, as a scholar himself, he was predisposed to this view. Hebrew was the language of the holy texts, but Yiddish was the language of discourse and debate, community law and community meetings, preaching, popular literature, and storytelling.

Weinreich pointed out that the verb lernen , though close to its German counterpart, had acquired a different meaning in Yiddish: it meant not just to study but study as a way of life, a pursuit that had no finite end. The social world of Yiddish emphasized by Weinreich was one of lifelong students of Ashkenaz, a culture of debate and dispute. Dispute gave rise to tension, tension provoked a release through humor, and humor eased the frictions of Jewish society and opened the door to tolerance.

He promised to elaborate more on this point in the notes, but this is one thing—perhaps the only thing—that he left out. By writing in Yiddish, perhaps Weinreich not only demonstrated his commitment and fulfilled his love but also felt freer. However, changes to European Jewish life at the end of the nineteenth century fundamentally changed the sociolinguistic situation of Yiddish, and saw Yiddish become a symbol of Jewish nationalism and thus subject to language planning efforts and normative demands.

Yiddish also provides a case study of language shift, loss and maintenance as a language that has often been pronounced dead but is still very much alive! Areas of study may include the following: i the origins of Yiddish, ii Proto-Yiddish, iii structural and lexical aspects of Yiddish as a language in contact, iv Yiddish dialectology, v external and internal Jewish multilingualism, vi Yiddish standardisation and vii Yiddish language maintenance.

While candidates need not be fully competent in Yiddish, the paper will require prior knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet which is easily learned! Examination of this paper is by three-hour examination. At graduate level, it is possible to read for an M.


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The programme provides a one-year course in the fields of Yiddish literary and linguistic study. Candidates take three paper options, ranging from Old and Modern Yiddish Literature to Yiddish Sociolinguistics, and write a dissertation of no more than 10, words on a subject proposed by the candidate in consultation with the supervisor and approved by the Board of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

For further information about the M. Yiddish also forms part of the programme of study for the M.

For further information please contact Dr Kerstin Hoge kerstin. B The requirements for Yiddish Linguistics are as follows: This papers offers the opportunity to study the linguistic structure and sociolinguistic context of Yiddish — a language related to German but unique in its own right.

Introductory reading i indispensable and accessible introductory reading: Katz, Dovid Words on fire: the unfinished history of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books. In my Yiddish classes, I frequently teach with songs, which are authentic Yiddish texts that serve a variety of purposes in the language classroom. Songs are an easy way to introduce students to different dialects and pronunciations, and in class we often have conversations about the pronunciations students are hearing especially as they often affect the rhymes present in the songs! They are also important as social currency in the Yiddishist world in which I hope my students will take part: many summer Yiddish programs, as well as Yiddish camps and clubs, ascribe social importance to participants who are able to suggest and lead songs in zingerayen , singing programs, and many Yiddish students may go on to perform or consume Yiddish culture through song.

With such a musical treasure trove, the difficulty is not in finding songs to teach, but in figuring out which songs are the best to use at which moments in the Yiddish curriculum, and how to get the most out of them in a language learning context. Below is a sampling of Yiddish songs I have introduced to my beginner students, along with an explanation for where they appear in the curriculum and the activities I use to teach with the songs.

I have included them here in order of where they appear in the curriculum. I have introduced each of these songs independently of the textbook, which also has songs and other authentic materials embedded in it.

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

This is a counting song, using numbers between 10 and You must take me. I was introduced to this song through the brilliant soon-to-be-published textbook of the Yiddish Book Center, In eynem.

What follows is an expansion of the activity suggested in that textbook that includes a game that gets students moving and makes the song and its lyrics more memorable for them. The lesson takes place after the students have already learned their numbers up to I go over the new numbers and have the students repeat them after me, simultaneously projecting the numbers on the board so that students have something to look at and associate with the words they are speaking.

Then I ask students to explain what they notice about the structure of the words, in English. When it comes time to sing the song, I explain that it has a game component. I briefly introduce the cultural context in English: we know from memoirs and literature that it was common for Jewish young people in small towns in Eastern Europe to get together on shabes afternoons, after prayers and lunch, to hang out, chat, and play flirtatious parlor games, kind of like truth-or-dare. Then I introduce the song in Yiddish, speaking the words and having the students repeat them back to me as a group, and I explain the game in Yiddish.

We all sing a verse, and while we do that, one person chooses a partner, dances with the partner in a circle, and then the partner escorts the person from the middle back to their spot, goes to the middle, and we begin again with the person in the middle selecting a partner for a dance. Then students sing the song and we play. I have found that when playing the game, because they are being silly and having fun, students are less self-conscious and this makes it easier for them to produce the target language.

Also, the rhythm of the song makes them less hesitant about producing the numbers.

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