Sunday, October 12, 2008


                                                              The Purpose of the Gothic Yiddish Blog
     

    The purpose of this blog is to pursue a research program that has engaged me since the mid-1960's when I discovered the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss. This anthropologist concerned himself primarily with kinship systems and myths among small societies in areas that had no great urban concentrations of people. One feature that he noted was that while each society develops its own culture, it does not do so in isolation. What develops in one place is, to some extent, a systemized reaction to the cultures being developed around it. Within areas as large as the Australian or the American continents cultures have developed that can be viewed as variations on common themes built out of elements drawn from a shared inventory.

    These developments depended on networks of short-range communication that wove pre-colonial societies spread over wide areas into structural units. Cultural traits could diffuse efficiently through these networks because the high level of interconnectedness allowed them to bypass any obstacles. Within these vast networks the efficiency of communication precluded the existence of any truly primitive societies. Some societies did however react to cultural developments around them by developing what Levi-Strauss called a style of pseudo-archaicism.  
    A long-time later, in the 1980's, I went to study Yiddish linguistics at Columbia University under Marvin Herzog who was the director of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ), a survey of linguistic variation over the large territory in Europe and Israel where Yiddish was traditionally spoken. The pattern of linguistic variation in Yiddish territory was described by Herzog's mentor Uriel Weinreich as a diasystem, a set of dialects that drew their elements from a common inventory and varied in a highly systematic way among themselves. The interactions within the network of moderate-sized Jewish communities within this territory bore a very close structural resemblance to the dynamic of the networks of small neolithic societies studied by Levi-Strauss. I realized that the vast amount of detailed information found in the archive of the LCAAJ provided an excellent laboratory in which to study this dynamic.

    By my second summer at Columbia, I was working with these materials under the tutelage of Herzog's assistant Vera Baviskar. The first materials I encountered differed from the bulk of those in the Atlas in that they were not collected from speakers who had lived in areas where Yiddish was spoken in 1939. They came from interviews with people who had grown up in mostly German-speaking communities in Germany and surrounding areas where Yiddish had gone out of use by the beginning of the twentieth century. A lot of Yiddish words and expressions survived in these territories along with many traditional Ashkenazic folkways and a special questionnnaire called the Western Questionnaire had been designed by the project's founder, Uriel Weinreich to elicit them, 
    Responses to many parts of this questionnaire had been mapped by Vera Baviskar and Herzog's preceding assistant, Dr. Steven Loewenstein. Vera gave me these maps and asked if I could categorize them in terms of geographic and structural patterns. The prevailing view among Yiddish linguists was that Yiddish originated in Germany. If so, these maps should reveal traces of the original form of Yiddish which subsequently spread into Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and surrounding territories. I was surprised that I could not find any of these. In fact, I saw the remains of a pattern of phonology that had a pattern of sound splits and mergers which would have made it virtually impossible for it to have been the ancestor of the eastern Yiddish sound pattern. Richard Zuckerman who had done fieldwork on the living West Yiddish dialects of Alsace confirmed these facts. I read a paper on this at the 3rd Internal YIVO Conference on Jewish Studies in 1987. As it happened these observations dovetailed with some earlier research by Vera Baviskar that indicated that characteristic features of the eastern Yiddish sound system had effected words borrowed from East Slavic indicating that the system had developed, not in Germany, but much further to the east.

       Further indications that Yiddish did not develop on German soil came from my studies of German phonology. I was guided to the literature of this field by Vera Baviskar and a fellow graduate student, Ulrike Kiefer. It was well known that Yiddish the vowel phonology of Yiddish dialects was quite different from that of Standard German. The Yiddish vowel system is much smaller and Yiddish lacks many prosodically conditioned phonological processes that are found in German.Their are a number of German features and phonological processes to be found in the more western Yiddish dialects but their distribution and mode of incorporation in to Yiddish phonological structure marks them as recent borrowings rather than survivals from the earliest stage of Yiddish. Furthermore, the Yiddish system does not have close parallels in any of the German dialects. It is often suggested that Yiddish represents a mixture of features drawn from several German dialects but the mechanisms that would produce such a mixture occur are not clear. Real examples of such mixtures of German dialects do exist in Standard German and in the colonial German dialects of eastern Europe but each of these mixtures is based on one dominant German dialects. No such dominant German dialect can be found at the base of Yiddish structure.

    The vast amount of new data on Yiddish amassed by the Atlas requires a great deal of  interpretative analysis. I had planned to write a doctoral dissertation on this material but practical problems prevented me from doing this. So I went on to research other subjects beyond the scope of the LCAAJ. 

    For a time, I turned my attention from the geographical distribution of linguistic features in Yiddish to the distribution of linguistic features around the whole world. The field of areal typology studies the distribution of complexes of linguistic features. It began to seem to me that the distributions of these complexes over the whole earh mimic the patterns of feature distribution within a single language such as Yiddish so that one could speak of a world diasystem.

     I also began to work on the relationships between the referential and indexical functions of language particularly in phonology where distinctive features play a referential role while prosodic signals play an indexical one. Looking at German and various Yiddish dialects I found that, within a diasystem, distinctive features and prosodic signals tend to be chosen from a common inventory but that properties which serve as distinctive features in one dialect can serve as prosodic signals in another.

     Another aspect of my reseach has touched on the social aspects of language. I have found a relationship between patterns of dialect variation and which partner tends to move upon marriage. In the majority of world societies, it is the woman who is most likely to move in with her husbands family (patrilocality). There are, however, a number of matrilocal societies in which it is the man who moves. Typically, in these societies men work as nomadic warriors, mercenaries or merchants. Traditional Jewish diaspora societies are matrilocal. Based on the few examples I have been able to look at, it appears that diasystems tend to develop in these matrilocal societies. I am also looking at the development of literary standards in conjunction with the development of new cultural elites. In another domain, I am looking at how the concept of cultural style can be applied to linguistic structures with an eye to finding correlations between preferrred forms of  linguistic structure in a culture and formal style in other branches of culture such as artistic decoration and kinship organization.   
     A little more than a year ago, a friend Leyzer Burko, proposed organizing a weekly group to read older Yiddish literature. Our group has been reading the "Bovo-Bukh" of Elye Bokher. In the last months we have been using Skype to allow the group to include readers based in Europe and Israel.

    Contact with an older form of Yiddish, got me back to thinking about the origins of the language and its relations to other members of the Germanic family. I remembered an observation of Professor Robert Austerlitz that although Yiddish was quite different from German, it was typologically very much a Germanic language. Perhaps, I thought, its origin lay not in a German dialect but in another Germanic language. I starting looking at other Germanic languages with which the early Ashkenazim could have come into contact in Europe. The first possibility I looked at was Old Scandinavian which was spoken by Varangian settlers in Ukraine between about 800 and 1000. The match was not particularly good and I turned to the East Germanic languages, known through Gothic, that were spoken in eastern Europe between about 1 CE and 700. Gothic proved to be a surprisingly good typological match with Yiddish and I eventually concluded that the earliest Yiddish took a Gothic form. My first essay on this blog is a brief introduction to this hypothesis.    


                                                                                                                                                          Charles Nydorf

                                                                                                                                                      October 12, 2008

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