Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yiddish from 400 to 1400 C E

Yiddish is well represented by written texts starting at about 1400. There are some earlier traces of written Yiddish that go back about 1000. It would seem that the trail goes cold at that time. However, if we accept the evidence presented on this blog that Yiddish is descended from Gothic we can venture further into the past, as far back as somewhat before 400 when Gothic is documented by Wulfila's translation.
Around 400 Yiddish would not have been very different from Gothic as represented by Wulfila. By 1400, Yiddish shows very strong influences of German. What can be said about the intervening period?
Let's look first at geography. Around 400 Yiddish speaking territory would have coincided with at least a part of Gothic territory. This territory embraced the northern shore of the Black Sea, including Crimea, and extended into the Balkans. By the 800's Ashkenazic Jews, presumably Yiddish speakers were living in the Carolingian Empire, in Austrian and Bavarian territory, notably in Regensburg. If this community was an extension of the Gothic Jewish community it mostly likely spread there from the Balkans.
In the course of the following two centuries, Jewish communities spread into East Central German towns like Magdeburg, Halle, and Erfurt and in the central Rhineland around Speyer, Worms and Mainz.
Next let's look at social conditions. During the late Roman and early Medieval period up to about 800, Jews were generally well integrated into European society and Judaism even attracted many converts. Later conditions deteriorated, particularly after the late 11th century.
These changes very likely had linguistic consequences. During the early period up to 800, Yiddish may have served the role of a missionary language designed to recruit converts. Traces of this early function still survive in Yiddish as I plsn to demonstrate in a later post. When Jews came in contact with German-speakers, chiefly after 800, Yiddish which was then based on Gothic would have been close enough to early German for Jews to be able to communicate with their neighbors by making small modifications in their speech. This would have chiefly meant that Geman sounds would be substituted for Gothic based sounds. Among themselves. Jews would have continued to use the Gothic based pronunciation.
This state of affairs where a community uses one system internally and communicates with neighboring communities through sound substitutions is called a diasystem. It is likely that this diasystem persisted until about 1100. Around this time the social status of Jews began to fall and the German sounds came to be used all the time, even in inter-Jewish communication. This collapse of the old diasystem left a very strong mark on later Yiddish, something that I plan to make the subject of future posts.


Yohnitzl said...

It's long been my thesis that Ashkenaz is 'refugee Byzantine' Jewry. Due to recurrent persecutions within the Empire (which originally encompassed both Eretz Yisrael and the Kurdish kingdom of Adiabene which became Jewish as a Roman client-kingdom), e.g. those under Justinian in the 6th century CE, Jews emigrated in waves to non-Christian territories to the north: Carantania (proto-Slovenia), Great Moravia (proto-Czechia and Slovakia but encompassing all later Hungarian territory), the early Ruthenian 'Russias', and the Khazar Empire. Only in the last did rulers of a powerful kingdom adopt Judaism as their own religion. In all of them, the Jewish populations came to comprise descendants of emigrants from Byzantium as well as converts.

(It's especially notable that while most Ashkenazi Y-chromosome DNA is shared with non-Ashkenazi Jewish lineages, only about 40% of maternally inherited mtDNA is similarly Jewish - the rest is characteristically Slavic or Magyar. No doubt many of the emigrant Jews belonged to trading fellowships mostly of men - the Radhanites? - and to take a local wife would require one to convert her.)

As late as the 19th century CE, Yiddish was NOT a universal lingua franca of Ashkenaz; only Hebrew-Aramaic lashon qodesh was known to all sufficiently educated people. In the revival of mystical life among ordinary people that was the early Hasidic movement of c 1750-1850, popular song was often in non-Yiddish vernaculars, e.g. the Ruthenian (W Ukrainian) of much Galician Hasidic song, or the Raisish (E Belarusian) of the famous Lubavitcher 'Ne bayusya'.

Notably, the language of these songs uses Yiddish phrases as containers for lashon qodesh, 'nashi deti in dr Toyre mit yiras shomayim vykhovati'. Yiddish is thus seen to have been a vehicle for bringing devotional life to the less educated in Slavic-, Hungarian- or Romanian-speaking territories.

As late as the 1950s-1960s, for some extremely conservative Hasidic groups from Ruthenia (Munkacser, Satmarer), Yiddish was not a first choice of either written or spoken language: one wrote Hebrew and spoke Hungarian with lashon qodesh phrases embedded in Yiddish, as described. For all in these groups, even elderly rabbis, to speak Yiddish nowadays is a newer development, caused by proximity to other groups among whom Yiddish had made greater progress earlier.

I can't help finding attractive Dovid Katz's theory that Regensburg and the Danube valley generally happened to contain Jews who had high prestige because they retained a certain daily-life bilingualism in the Galilean-Tiberian dialect of Middle Aramaic - after all, a form of lashon qodesh, indeed more or less that of the Yerushalmi Talmud. Katz believes that this dialect, whose pronunciation of Hebrew directly reflects the Tiberian pointing, actually influenced that of the Germanic core of the Yiddish that (for him) originated there. This is why it is the traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation that actually best reflects the distinctions indicated in the Tiberian pointing.

However, like you, I do believe that for German(ic) of all languages to make the progress that it did over many centuries within Ashkenaz, there must have been a prior use of it or familiarity with it in deep Eastern Europe. And I think that Gothic and splinter dialects spanning the space between Bavaria and the Crimea, retained better among Jews in the face of local adoption of proto-Slavic (the lingua franca of the Avar empire), may be the explanation.

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