Monday, January 12, 2009

Manaster Ramer on the polygenesis of Western Yiddish and the mono

                                         Manaster Ramer on the polygenesis of Western Yiddish and the monogenesis of Yiddish

    An article, "The Polygenesis of Western Yiddish--and the Monogenesis of Yiddish" is to be found in Indo-European, Nostratic and beyond: festschrift for Vitalij V. Shevoroshkin edited by Iren Hegedus, Peter A. Michalove and Alexis Manaster Ramer (Washington DC, The Institute for the Study of Man, 1997). The article written by Manaster Ramer with the help of Meyer Wolf discusses two important and rather neglected aspects of the history of Yiddish. One is the fact that the customary primary division of Yiddish into an East and a West Yiddish dialects has no real justification. The other is that all the dialects of Yiddish are descended from a common ancestor.

    The first topic, the fact that the dialects that have been traditionally lumped together as West Yiddish have less in common with each other than some of them have with the East Yiddish dialects is not new. In his essay, "Western traits in Transcarpathian YIddish" published in For Max Weinreich (The Hague, Mouton, 1964) Uriel Weinreich already pointed out that chronologically deepest gulf in the Yiddish landscape ran through West Yiddish territory separating the Yiddish of Alsace-Lorraine and Switzerland on the one hand, from the West Transcarpathian dialects of western Slovakia, Burgenland and western Hungary. Uriel Weinreich's observation inspired me to reconstruct the history of vowel splits and mergers in the West Yiddish dialects. The results reinforced the evidence for a very old divergence between the Alsactian and Swiss dialects on the one hand and the rest of Yiddish on the other. Manaster Ramer musters a number of fresh arguments based on lexical features and on the historical development of the Yiddish vowels.

    The second topic is, rather surprisingly quite neglected. The use of a single term, Yiddish, for all Yiddish dialects is now virtually universal. This was not always the case as the West Yiddish dialects were often referrred to as "Judeo-German". The current use of one term for all Yiddish dialects, however, does not imply that that all these dialects are seen as springing from a common ancestor. A good many authors, explicitly postulate separate origins for East and West Yiddish. Others do so implicitly by maintaining that the two branches of Yiddish are descended from different German dialects or different mixtures of German dialects.

    Manaster Ramer addresses this problem by mustering a large set of lexical items, phonological and morphological developments and phrases that are unique to Yiddish and are Pan-Yiddish in that they are either found in all the Yiddish dialects from West to East or in a representative sample of western and eastern locations. These he presents as evidence for a common early stage of Yiddish. His examples are drawn from the linguistic literature but many more could be adduced from the records of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Yiddish as well as from the examination of samples of written Yiddish.

    Manaster Ramer's conclusion written at the end of the 20th century is that "In spite of all the work that has been done, we still have more gaps than filled-in areas in our knowledge of Proto-Yiddish and early history of the dialects descended from it. The results reported here, coming roughly a century after the birth of comparative Yiddish linguistics, are only scratching the surface of what promises to be a major research topic in the next century. As in every area of comparative linguistics, whether on the large scale asi in the case of such hypotheses as Nostratic, Altaic, Na-Dene, tec., or on the smaller scale as in the case before us, more work is called for."

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