The Gothic Background of Yiddish
The earliest Germanic elements in Yiddish came, not from High German, but from Gothic or a closely related member of the East Germanic branches. Yiddish in its earliest stage which was probably before the seventh century of the Common Era, must have been very close to Gothic in its form. This very early Yiddish was spoken in southeastern Europe.
All Germanic languages that survive from this early period have undergone great structural transformations and Yiddish would not be expected to be an exception. So little of the original Gothic structure can be expected to be found in modern Yiddish. In its subsequent history, probably from the ninth century on, Yiddish has been heavily influenced by High German. Non-Germanic languages have also played a role in the formation of Yiddish.
These influences have also helped to efface the original Gothic character of Yiddish but substantial traces of Gothic remain.These are largely to be found in the Yiddish sound system. The Yiddish vowel system, particular in East Yiddish, is characterized by mergers that are typically Gothic: the vowels in the modern classes of words typified by 'shney' and 'heym' and 'zeyen' are one example of such a merger. Yiddish also has carried over a number of Gothic phonological process: r-umlaut, kh-umlaut and glide insertion. The Yiddish vowel system is much smaller than the High German one and many phonological processes found in High German are lacking in Yiddish.
Traces of Gothic morphology are also present in Yiddish but are probably less prominent. Perhaps the most striking is the "n" infix in words like 'leyenen.' and the formation of plurals with 's'. Lexical traces of Gothic are harder to identify: Yiddish has borrowed very heavily from High German and the Gothic vocabulary is not very well knowm. One of the clearest lexical examples may be the word 'oyganes.'
Some non-verbal cultural features have probably been inherited by modern Yiddish-speaking communities from the early Gothic world. Notable among these are animal style features of ornamentation in wood, stone and metal work as well as motifs that reproduce runic patterns.
The later history of Yiddish is largely one of High German influence on the original Gothic foundation. The nature of this influence is of great interest for general linguistics. Its specific mechanism of this influence was the development of a network of small Jewish communities between Ukraine and Germany. These communities traded, intermarried and exchanged linguistic materials in a characteriistc pattern where men typically moved when they got married. The result was the development of a diasystem: a series of dialects that are related to each other by sound substitutions made from a common inventory of sounds.
October 12, 2008