Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Role of Crimean Gothic in the Formation of the Eastern Yiddish Dialects

As readers of this blog know, my research has led me to some unusual conclusions about the history of Yiddish. Yiddish is most commonly believed to have originated in Germany about 1000 years ago and to have been carried from there to eastern Europe where the majority of its speakers lived. Two things that have that generally been considered relevant to the history of Yiddish are Crimea and the Gothic language. Crimea is a peninsula of Eurasia which is not known to have had a Yiddish-speaking population before the 19th century when Jews began to settle there from other parts of the Russian Empire. Gothic is a Germanic language spoken by a people who migrated from northern Europe to the shores of the Black Sea around 250 CE. It gradually stopped being spoken on the European mainland after about 600 but continued to be used in Crimea at least through the 1500's.

In previous posts I have stated my general conclusions that there was once a Gothic speaking Jewish community in Crimea which played a role in the history of Yiddish. Recently, I have been able to come up with a more detailed historical narrative. In future posts I plan to supply the reasoning behind this reconstruction but here I just want to present it in broad outlines.
Around the 850's there was an active trade route between Austria and east Germany in the west and the Black Sea coast. Crimean Jews played a role in this trade. The Jews involved in this trade spoke a form of Gothic. By making inferences from later Yiddish it is possible to reconstruct some aspects of this language. It incorporated words borrowed from Hebrew and Aramaic. Often these were incorporated into Gothic by attaching Gothic elements to the Hebrew roots.
After about 900, this trade route declined. The Gothic speaking Jewish community now split into two groups which had, for a long time, relatively little communication.
One group continued to live in the Austrian and East German area. They were surrounded by speakers of German, a language that was fairly closely related to Gothic and they gradually shifted from speaking Gothic to speaking a language that was largely German but with an underlying structure that was retained from Gothic. This was an early form of Yiddish. The modern Yiddish dialect which resembles it most closely is the one that Uriel Weinreich named West Transcarpathian Yiddish.
Back in Crimea, the Jewish Gothic spoken there eventually took a new approach to Hebrew loans. Gothic morphemes were no longer attached to Hebrew roots. Hebrew nouns were given Hebrew plural endings and the roots of Hebrew verbs were used along with separate Gothic auxiliary verbs.
Around 1300, trade between the German lands and Crimea revived. Jews from the eastern parts of Germany and Austria re-established communication and some migrated to Crimea. They brought their language, the ancestral form of West Transcarpathian Yiddish  along with a new approach to Jewish culture that had evolved in central Europe. Some Gothic speaking Crimean Jews adopted these cultural features and also learned Yiddish from these immigrants.
In this new environment Yiddish was no longer surrounded by German speakers but by speakers of Gothic. A new dialect, Crimean Yiddish developed under this renewed Gothic influence.
By the mid 1300's,  major trade routes from Crimea led north into the developing Duchy of Lithuania and Polish Kingdom. Yiddish speaking Crimean Jews moved north along these routes, settling along them and bringing their Crimean Yiddish. In the Duchy of Lithuania it developed into the Northeastern Yiddish dialect.
In the Polish Kingdom the development was more complicated. There settlers from Crimea encountered Jewish settlers from eastern Germany and Austria who spoke the ancestral form of West Transcarpathian Yiddish.. Contact between this dialect and Crimean Yiddish led to the development of the Central and Southeastern Yiddish dialects.

In summary the eastern dialects of Yiddish formed as the result of three language contact events. The first involving a form of Jewish Crimean and German occurred along the the trade routes between the German speaking lands and the Black Sea around 850. This produced a dialect ancestral to modern West Transcarpathian Yiddish. Subsequently, the central European and Crimean branches of this trading community were separated The second event was renewed contact between speakers of this Yiddish dialect and speakers of Jewish Crimean Gothic which occurred around 1300. It produced the ancestor of modern Northeastern Yiddish. The third event occurred in the 1300's in the lands that became the Kingdom of Poland. There the contact was between the Crimean Yiddish ancestral to Northeastern Yiddish and the dialect ancestral to West Transcarpathian Yiddish. The products of this was the ancestor of the modern Central and Southeastern Yiddish dialects.


Anonymous said...

I found this blog recently and look forward to learning more about the connection of Yiddish to Gothic! The connection has been discussed recently on the Gothic list: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/gothic-l/conversations/topics/11290
... and ...
Obviously, lots of words are the same in Germanic and Semitic languages and there is no single explanation of how they were borrowed, but they seem to have trickled over on many occasions. It is easy to just state that so and so happened but it would be gold to have a story with reliable ancient sources, comparative linguistics and falsifiable hypotheses that have not yet been falsified.

Yohnitzl said...

Only now that I’m reading Neil Jacobs’ Cambridge monograph Yiddish have I come to realize that you’re using ‘[west] Transcarpathian Yiddish’ in Uriel Weinreich’s sense: meaning the Yiddish that is my family heritage! (We are from the Czech Lands: both Bohemia [Prague and Rataje nad Sázavou] and Moravia [Olomouc and Skrbeň u Olomouce]. I’d understood you as referring to a very small area, though not necessarily an irrelevant or uninteresting one: those western parts of what’s now the Ukrainian Zakarpats’ka Oblast’ that were historically not Máramaros County within the Kingdom of Hungary, the Yiddish of which indeed differs from that of more easterly Transcarpathia in losing the short [a] ~ [o] distinction [presumably under Hungarian influence] and in tending to the ‘western’ loss of the initial voicing contrast, so e.g. ['daxtǝr], ‘daughter’.)

My family’s Yiddish is probably extinct as a spoken idiom (it may still be worth trying very old people originating not so much in Czechia as in small-town Slovakia and Hungary), so I am glad to have taken down even a mere two pages or so of notes, in IPA transcription, of words, expressions and phrases from the lips of my grandmother (1892-1982) and her son, my father (1916-1984). When I review my notes and read e.g. Uriel Weinreich or Dovid Katz, I think too much emphasis has been put on this dialect’s western, or at least west-east transitional, character. Instead, I think that it belonged more to a zone of eastern Yiddish that, spoken wholly within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and lacking any sense of itself as a language other than ‘the Jews’ bad German’, had come under the influence of (a) the Austro-Bavarian spoken as a colloquial lingua franca throughout the Empire, (b) the ‘German’ pronunciation of Hebrew-Aramaic that both the Frankist movement and the prestige of more respectable German rabbis (both early Reform and neo-Orthodox) had made standard.

My family’s Yiddish indeed did seem like something of a proto-Eastern one. As an ‘executive summary’, it combined the vowel qualities associated with ‘Litvish’ north-eastern Yiddish with the vowel quantity maintained in ‘Polish-Carpathian’ or central Yiddish – in contrast with the latter, not even shortening long vowels in contact with dorso-velar consonants, so e.g. ['xo:xem], ‘(1) wise man, (2) clever-clogs’. What gives it a ‘western’ appearance is the near-absence – in common with the western Yiddish of the Netherlands, Alsace and Switzerland – of the famous or stereotypical [oj]: in some words it has [ou], probably those where much of Polish-Carpathian Yiddish has it also, in others (where Litvish has [ej]?) it has the characteristically western [a:]. But I haven’t yet been able to formulate a generalization about this pattern, and I can also remember my father’s striking ['sxojre]: ‘wares’, ‘stock-in-trade’ (just possibly this is a loan from the usage of this Odessite boss after World War II).

For the Gothic connection, I’ve tended to focus more on the Mome-Tote-lushn of Moldavia – both Romanian Regat Moldavia and formerly Soviet, now independent ‘Bessarabian’ Moldova – especially its more southerly parts. There, apart from the well-known development of short [a] > [o], older people – indicating an archaism vis-à-vis the encroaching influence of more general south-eastern Yiddish, especially of Ukraine – have preserved [i] in such words as [rign], ‘rain’: that word is recorded precisely as ‘rign’ in the Salzburg-Vienna MS, which is often called ‘corrupt’ but is unique as a Roman transcription of Biblical Gothic, perhaps in a late (9th- or 10th-century) pronunciation. You are of course very right to focus on Crimean Gothic, given the likely role of Crimea as staging-post between the Byzantine Empire, the thinly populated but Jewish- (Karaim-?)ruled Khazar Empire, and western Europe.

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