In a previous blog post I discussed how social attitudes are implicated in our valuation of languages and dialects, that is, I highlighted the tendency to think more highly of languages and dialects that are associated with high prestige social groups and denigrate those that are not. I also addressed the importance of confronting language attitudes in introductory language courses in order to make transparent the cultural ideologies that underlie them.
As a researcher and native speaker of Hasidic Yiddish, I grapple with such issues in both academic and social contexts. In fact, language attitudes are part of the reason that my original study program in linguistics did not include Yiddish. When my advisors suggested that I focus on Hasidic Yiddish, my resistance stemmed mainly from a sense of inadequacy. For one, I knew I lacked familiarity with the vast literature on Yiddish linguistics that existed. But I was deterred by more than just a fear of insufficient background knowledge. Over the years, I had unconsciously absorbed the belief that my native dialect was somehow deficient in comparison to other Yiddish dialects. This made me doubt not only my own linguistic competency, but also the legitimacy of a research program focused on the language spoken in my community. Here I describe briefly the high and low points of Yiddish from a historical perspective. This post sets the stage for a subsequent one, in which I will discuss how the Yiddish dialects of Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, especially in the United States, fared in this context, and how their status was affected by the fate of their dialectal counterparts.
Yiddish has had a long history of stigmatization. Arising organically out of the mixture of languages spoken by Jewish settlers on German-speaking territories, it was for a long time viewed as a corrupt form of German and referred to as the zhargon ‘jargon’ by those inside and outside the speech community. In the medieval era, there was a widespread fear that Jews were utilizing Yiddish as a secret language to plot against their non-Jewish neighbors. Negative attitudes towards the language persisted, as shown by this excerpt (quoted by Sander L. Gilman) from a 1699 publication by Johann Christoph Wagenseil, entitled Instruction in the Jewish-German Manner of Reading and Writing:
The Jews have dealt with no language as ‘sinfully’ as one says, as with our German language. They have given it a totally foreign intonation and pronunciation. They have mutilated good German words, they have tortured them, they have inverted their meaning as well as invented new words unknown to us. They have mixed innumerable Hebrew words and turns of phrase into German, so that if one heard them speaking German, one would believe that they spoke pure Hebrew, since the listener could understand almost none of the words. Also, they have published not a small number of books in this gibberish in Hebrew letters, and everyday even more are printed.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish assimilationists echoed and amplified the anti-Yiddish rhetoric. To them, Yiddish was symbolic of the unenlightened, primitive Jew. Decrying the language as “a godless barbarity,” “something revolting,” and even a “semi-animal tongue,” (quoted by Emanuel S. Goldsmith) these intellectuals encouraged Jews to rid themselves of their ‘uncultured’ Yiddish and ‘return’ instead to the ‘original and pure’ version of their language: German.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of (mostly) secular Jewish intellectuals and linguists inspired by the revolutionary zeitgeist that had been sweeping across Europe for the past century launched a movement to rehabilitate Yiddish and install it as an official language of European Jewry. The movement, known as Yiddishism, encountered resistance from a number of groups. Among these were Jewish nationalists who believed Hebrew should be the official Jewish language (Hebraists); Jewish assimilationists opposed to the very idea of a separate Jewish identity; and non-Jewish intellectuals who did not think Yiddish was a real language at all. In spite of the opposition, Yiddishists persisted in their agenda. Their efforts were not in vain. By the 1930s, in addition to its estimated 11 – 13 million speaker base, Yiddish boasted its very own language institute (known as YIVO). A standard dialect had been developed, a number of Yiddish dictionaries had been printed, and a growing body of literature was emerging. Yiddish newspapers were being published and consumed all across the world. Furthermore, scholars were beginning to trace the development and describe the nuances of the diverse network of Yiddish dialects. In short, Yiddish was well on the way to achieving linguistic legitimacy.
Then came World War II. Six million Jews, approximately 85% of whom were Yiddish speakers, were murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. The cultural heartland of Yiddish-speaking Jewry was completely destroyed. In their new host countries (including the United States), Yiddish-speaking refugees slowly shifted to the majority language. Within a generation or two, it was clear that the use of Yiddish was in decline. The story of Yiddish, which had seemed so auspicious at the turn of the century, became a story of a dying language.