Erika Timm's monumental Historische Jiddische Semantik: The language of bible translation as a factor in the progressive divergence between Yiddish and German vocabulary (Max Niemeyer, Tűbingen, 2005) deals with the vocabulary of Yiddish Tanakh translations written between about 1400 and 1750. The bulk of the book contains detailed histories of many Yiddish words that appear in these translations. There are also special studies of words used to translate the names of gems, musical instruments, plants and animals mentioned in Tanakh. There are also valuable discussions of morphology and word formation.
The author began the work many years ago by compiling a vocabulary from an edition of Mirkeves haMishne. Eventually working with a team of scholars and employing computers the list was extended to include words from many other texts. The massive compilation of detailed word histories makes this book an indispensable reference work for anyone interested in the history of Yiddish or simply interested in reading pre-19th century Yiddish literature. It is also endless fascinating for the browser.
The book begins with some essays that provide a fresh prospective on the field. Dr. Timm considers Yiddish to be one language, old and new, east and west, written and spoken. This perspective is refreshing because it is actually quite unusual. A surprising number of scholars think of the eastern and western dialects of Yiddish as having independent origins. Many do not use written sources in their reconstruction of the history of the language because, for a variety of reasons, they overestimate the difference between written and spoken forms the language. The neglect of written forms is expecially serious when it comes to medieval writings which some scholars dismiss as being not Yiddish at all but German in Hebrew characters. Erika Timm will have none of this. In particular, she rebuts the common opinion that the language of Bible translation special dialect far from ordinary spoken Yiddish.
The year 1349, plays an especially important part in the author's thinking. In that year, Jewish communities from northern Spain to northern Germany were the victims of numerous state-sponsored massacres. Erika Timm believes that these pogroms had extensive effects on the history of Yiddish.
For one thing, by about 1400, Jewish education in Germany was reformed so that Tanakh was taught through Yiddish translations. Previously, the language of translation in Yiddish speaking communities had been Loez (Judeo-French). One consequence of the persecutions of 1349, the author believes was to throw the community back on its own resources and this included developing teaching aides in the communities' own mother language. The old Loez translations did not, however, disappear without trace. Dr. Timm demonstrates that they influenced the newer Yiddish translations.
The new isolation of the community also affected the nature of the German component of written Yiddish. Up to the 1300's, Dr. Timm, along with Manfred Gernot Heide, find that the few scraps of Yiddish texts that survive tend to have German components that mirror the specific regional varieties of German used in the places they were composed. By 1400, the German component in Yiddish sources from all different places tends to rather uniform. Yiddish writers, regardless of where they live, use a standard mixture of forms borrowed from a number of regional varieties of German.
A related development is that until the 1300's changes in German are reflected in changes in the German component of Yiddish. After 1400, this is no longer case. Yiddish follows its own course of internal development changing some features that remain the same in German while preserving other features that are lost in German. German and the German component of Yiddish exhibit increasing divergence over time.
A word about the origins of the German words used in Yiddish Tanakh translations is apropos. Max Weinreich wished to refute the very common idea that Yiddish is descended from Middle High German. In doing this, he was correct but he overstated his case in one way. He noted that the Middle High German as we know it from the texts that have come down to us is a literary language used in learned circles. This, Max Weinreich maintained made it different from the kind of German that was borrowed into Yiddish. Yiddish speakers he thought had little contact with learned non-Jewish circles. They obtained their Yiddish words from peasants, workers and merchants of little education.
A glance at the Tanakh translations shows that this cannot be true. The original Tanakh is the product of a highly sophisticated urban civilization. To translate it requires specialized vocabulary having to do with such things as nature, government administration, architecture, religious rites, and other civilized arts and sciences. In order to translate Tanakh, Yiddish speakers had to draw on the highly developed vocabulary of medieval literary German.
The fact that before the 1300's Yiddish borrowed from regional varieties of German may be partly responsible for the appearance of different German dialect forms in the modern Yiddish dialects. A special study of this is the Ph. D. dissertation of Ulrike Kiefer at Columbia University which is slated to be published in book form.
If we accept as a fact, the related observation that most of the divergence between German and the German component of Yiddish dates from after 1349, this has special consequences for the way the history of Yiddish is reconstructed. If the view is taken, that the German component of Yiddish is the essential core of the language then it would have to be conceded that Yiddish did not have an existence independent of German before 1349.
Nevertheless, the identification of Yiddish, with its German component has to be rejected because of many phonological, morphological, lexical, and phraseological features that are found in all Yiddish dialects or widely distributed among dialects spoken from the west to the east. Some of these forms and features are from Semitic, Romance or Slavic languages. Others are Germanic but may come from a Germanic language other than German. Such Germanic features include the position of the verb in second syntactica position in the Yiddish sentence and the tendency to stress words, regardless of origin, on the first syllable. The fact that this common Yiddish heritage is spread among all the dialects indicates that it is of great age, certainly dating back before 1349.
These two sets of facts; the tendency of Yiddish to avoid diverging from German before about 1349 with the much older existence of common Yiddish forms and features, often Germanic, can be reconciled if we reconstruct early Yiddish as being having been a Germanic language that was not originally derived from German but which subsequently borrowed heavily from it. This is consistent with the derivation of the earliest Yiddish from an East Germanic system akin to or identical with Gothic.
As has been the case with her earlier work on the spelling system and pronunciation of older Yiddish, Graphische un phonemische Struktur des Westjiddischen unter besonderer Berűcksichtung des Zeit um 1600 (Max Niemeyer, Tűbingen, 1987), Historische jiddische Semantik will shape the field of Yiddish studies for many years to come.