Sunday, September 18, 2011

New Directions

I last posted on this blog in October, 2009. Since then a number of irresistable new opportunities have appeared which have competed for my time. For one thing, thanks to the initiative of Bob Scott at the Digital Humanities Center of the Columbia University Libraries there is a real possibility that a critical component of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry data base will be published online. I have been part of the effort to accomplish this.
A new research opportunity has also appeared with the development of inexpensive and widely available genomic testing since 2008. The potential for using genomic information as a source for Ashkenazic history has long been recognized but pioneers have had, until recently, to base their research on the limited data provided first by classical markers and later by mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome haplogroups. Extensive newly available autosomal data is now being added to provide a much richer and firmer basis for historical inferences.
My research on the history of Yiddish has also taken on some new directions thanks to hints provided by teachers, Marvin Herzog and Mordtkhe Schaechter.
Herzog called attention to the fact that when groups migrate they tend to lose cultural and linguistic traits. This observation which goes back his mentor Uriel Weinreich is now becoming more widely appreciated as can be seen from a recent article by Quentin D. Atkinson in 'Science' which uses lose of phonetic features to trace the spread of human languages back to Africa.
Uriel discussed the loss of features in small settlements in his article on 'Western Traits of Transcarpathian Yiddish.' The specific example he gave was the development of Northeastern YIddish but in other parts of the same article he describes a much wider pattern of progressive trait loss. He describes a number o features unique to Transcarpathian Yiddish. A smaller set of these can be found in Central Yiddish. A still smaller set are shared by Central and Southeastern Yiddish but not found in the remaining the East Yiddish dialect, Northeastern Yiddish.
The global pattern is then one of maximum richness of traits in Transcarpathian Yiddish with a gradual falling off of traits towards the northeastern part of East Yiddish territory. Uriel does not specifically say as much but this pattern implies that the settlement of East Yiddish territory spread out from the broader Transcarpathian area (this area would include Austria and the Czech lands which are to the west of the Carpathians) to the northeast. We can infer from this that the common root of Transcarpathian and East Yiddish originated in the Transcarpathian area. This is consistent with other evidence that the ancestor of these dialects coalesced in Austria around the the 11th century.
The spread of East and Transcarpathian Yiddish from a focal area in early medieval Austria is also implied by a line of research that was suggested by the work of another of my teachers, Mordtkhe Schaechter. Schaechter identified a specific kind of linguistic borrowing in which a language borrows standards of correctness rather than specific items from another language. The borrowed standard is used to select preferred variants within the internal repertoire of the borrowing language.
As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, early Yiddish was an East Germanic language derived from Gothic. Modern Yiddish is, in comparison, much more similar to German. Yiddish has come to resemble German partly through the mechanism of ordinary linguistic borrowing but the mechanism described by Schaechter has actually played a greater role. Specifically, early Yiddish borrowed standards from a form of literary German. This form was the Middle High German used in Austria.
As to the question of how the original Gothic-derived Yiddish got to Austria, I currently favor the hypothesis that from at least 500 CE on, Gothic was spoken by the Jews of northwestern Balkan Jewry. Medieval Austria was settled by Jews from the Rhineland and East Franconia as well as other areas but I think that early Yiddish was brought there by settlers from the area of the Save River valley.