GOTHIC YIDDISH?

Charles Nydorf has a blog proposing that Yiddish began as a form of the Gothic language:

Contact with an older form of Yiddish, got me back to thinking about the origins of the language and its relations to other members of the Germanic family. I remembered an observation of Professor Robert Austerlitz that although Yiddish was quite different from German, it was typologically very much a Germanic language. Perhaps, I thought, its origin lay not in a German dialect but in another Germanic language. I starting looking at other Germanic languages with which the early Ashkenazim could have come into contact in Europe. The first possibility I looked at was Old Scandinavian which was spoken by Varangian settlers in Ukraine between about 800 and 1000. The match was not particularly good and I turned to the East Germanic languages, known through Gothic, that were spoken in eastern Europe between about 1 CE and 700. Gothic proved to be a surprisingly good typological match with Yiddish and I eventually concluded that the earliest Yiddish took a Gothic form.

Here‘s his post on “The Gothic Background of Yiddish.” I don’t know nearly enough to begin to evaluate this proposal, but as far as I know, the standard history of Yiddish puts its origin on the other side of the German-speaking world, in the Rhine region. Does anybody have any informed thoughts about this? (Thanks for the link, rootlesscosmo!)

Comments

  1. It’s an interesting idea, but it strikes me as highly implausible, for one very simple and very apparent reason. The West Germanic-ness of the Germanic component of Yiddish is unmistakable in Yiddish because of the High German consonant shift, which only took place in West Germanic.

  2. Excellent point.

  3. this is really quite a stretch, but a romantic (err..germanic) notion nonetheless

  4. Do I feel a Dravidian origin coming on?

  5. marie-lucie says:

    I read the posts referred to, and it seems to me that the author (who describes himself as an anthropologist, not a linguist, let alone a historical linguist) relies a lot on the vowels. In Germanic languages there has been a lot more differentiation of the vowels rather than the consonants (the West Germanic sound-shift notwithstanding, since it changed the consonants without changing their position and their relationship with each other). As consonants are formed by the contact of mouth parts with each other, interrupting the flow of air through the mouth, there are “anchor points” for the pronunciation of consonants, and they are less susceptible to change than the vowels, which are formed through changing the shape of the inside of the mouth, without specific points to hang on to. So the fact that the same vowel change may have occurred (or not) at different places in the Germanic-speaking world cannot be taken as the decisive factor in determining the place of a dialect within the “family tree”.

  6. John Emerson says:

    As I was going to say, bathrobe.
    You wonder if this is connected with the Khazar theory of the Ashkenazis. The Khazars and the Goths were tolerable close to one another geographically, though the Khazars appeared after the Goths had dwindled. But the Khazar theory is pretty much rejected, I think.

  7. John Emerson says:

    As I was going to say, bathrobe.
    You wonder if this is connected with the Khazar theory of the Ashkenazis. The Khazars and the Goths were tolerable close to one another geographically, though the Khazars appeared after the Goths had dwindled. But the Khazar theory is pretty much rejected, I think.

  8. The standard account of Jewish history places the earliest Ashkenazim in the Rhineland, southern Netherlands, and northern France in early medieval times, with migrations later into what we now call eastern Europe.
    Which means that there were not actually any Jews close enough to the Goths to adopt a language from them.
    Additionally, in modern Yiddish, there is a large component of vocabulary which a speaker of modern German would have little trouble recognizing as simply phonic variants of the standard modern German equivalents–and sometimes even closer:
    Zi (=Sie) a mensch!
    Er iz a starker.
    Vi(=wie) a loch in kopf.
    The differences generally lie in vocabulary taken from Hebrew or Slavic (primarily Russian and Polish) (for instance, tochis, which is actually the Ashkenazic pronounciation of the Hebrew word meaning “under” (tachat in Sefardic pronounciation), and used as a euphemism.)

  9. You wonder if this is connected with the Khazar theory of the Ashkenazis.
    This letter to the NYT thought so:

    If Ashkenazic Jews did originate primarily from converted Khazars, then Yiddish came primarily from Crimean Gothic, a Germanic language now extinct.

  10. moyshe kapoyer says:

    The real question is : why so many people feel it absolutely necessary to put forward new unbelievable theories about the origin of Yiddish? The entire litterary and linguistic history of Yiddish shows clearly and sufficiently where the language is born. Yes, what about Dravidians?

  11. michael farris says:

    Yes, what about Dravidians?
    Three new theories:
    1. They’re originally from SE Portugal.
    2. Theyre from just north of Kazakhstan.
    3. Southern Arabian peninsula (more or less around the Yemeni/Omani border region).
    All three theories have their supporters and detractors and the for and against arguments are so well known that it would be pointless to rehash them here.

  12. John Emerson says:

    I think that with regard to the Dravidians, the goal is not so much to decide between theories as to come up with additional theories. We know that the Navajo are descended from the Mongols, so that theory is right out, but the parallels between the Dravidian and the Mayan languages are really striking.

  13. John Emerson says:

    I think that with regard to the Dravidians, the goal is not so much to decide between theories as to come up with additional theories. We know that the Navajo are descended from the Mongols, so that theory is right out, but the parallels between the Dravidian and the Mayan languages are really striking.

  14. Does anybody have any informed thoughts about this?
    Well, my degree is in German studies, and I am somewhat familiar with Yiddish albeit only from Romanized sources (such as Siegmund Wolf’s Yiddish dictionary for German speakers), and I can assure you that Yiddish is full of Rhinelandic (if this is the English word) traits. For two years ago, I had to familiarize myself with Luxembourgish, which turned out to have interesting similarities with Yiddish – because both are basically Westmitteldeutsch. There is no reason whatsoever to start telling fairy stories about Yiddish, which is a well-known, well-studied, and well-researched language.

  15. Michael Farris says:

    “We know that the Navajo are descended from the Mongols, so that theory is right out, but the parallels between the Dravidian and the Mayan languages are really striking.”
    Oh John, John John (shakes head sadly)
    It’s not the Navajo but the Hopi that are descended from the Mongols (and Zuni from Semitic of course).
    And the parallels between Dravidian and Mayan are not “really striking” they are “vaguely amusing”.
    Now the Hmong-Mayan similaries are not “really striking” either but they do merit “optimistic, but cautious, examination”.
    As for additional Dravidian theories, I’m in favor of the multi-origin frame of mind myself. The Corsican connection is undeniable but it’s just as undeniably incomplete. So much work to be done still.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Someone wrote a book saying that Zuni is actually Japanese, on the basis of 13 (very moderately) similar words.

  17. Come on now, we all know Zuni is essentially Basque.

  18. Panu: Thanks, that was my gut reaction but it’s good to hear it from somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

  19. michael farris says:

    So, we’re agreed. Zuni is descended simultaneously from Semitic, Japanese and Basque. I’m glad people are finally starting to see reason about this contentious issue!

  20. Why has no one researched the links between Old Norse and Nahuatl? Does anyone really believe it an accident that Cortez arrived on the shores of the New World at the exact moment the Aztec calendar had predicted the end of the world heralded by blue eyed strangers who would arrive from the east?

  21. marie-lucie says:

    the Khazar theory:
    I did not know about the Khazars, so I read up on them on Wikipedia. The Khazars were part of of the Turkic/Mongolian nomadic empire, and spoke a language or languages related to Turkish, not to an Indo-European language. For a population to switch to another language (especially one of very different structure) requires specific circumstances, which have been well-studied by linguists. Even if the Khazar population had converted massively to Judaism, there would have been no reason for them to adopt the language of the bringers of the new religion unless the Jews at that time had been the conquerors, massively dominant in terms of political power and cultural prestige, and speaking a single language useful over a wide area (like the Romans in Western Europe, or later the Arabs on the Southern shore of the Mediterranean). Furthermore, this theory would imply that the language of this Jewish superpower, used in both religion and politics, was of the Germanic family, basically Gothic, implying in turn that the local Germanic culture had itself been that of a local superpower imposing itself, etc.
    The theory that the Yiddish language had anything to do with the Khazars doesn’t make any sense, even if there were not already abundant proofs of its West Germanic origin: a language adopted (and adapted) by the Jews once they were settled in Germany, and later carried by them further East in Europe.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    the Aztec calendar had predicted the end of the world heralded by blue eyed strangers who would arrive from the east
    The Aztec calendar was organized around periods of 52 years, with the dreaded possibility of the world ending each time such a period ended.
    I believe that there was a prediction about the return of a light-skinned stranger who had been there centuries before. Light skin is not always accompanied by blond hair and/or blue eyes, even though many people jump to that conclusion. Most people of European origin do not fit that complete description, which is most common in Northern Europe but no so much in other parts.
    As far as a possible linguistic connection is concerned, Old Norse (the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages) was a member of the Germanic family, itself a member of the Indo-European group which is now spoken in most of Europe (and more recently the Americas), the Northern half of India, Iran, Afghanistan and a few other places. Nahuatl, the language still spoken (in several varieties) by the descendant of the Aztecs, is a part of the Uto-Aztecan group which has a number of subdivisions, spoken mostly in the Western US and some areas of Mexico. There is no reason to think that any languages of these two groups were in contact with each other before the period of European colonization.

  23. John Emerson says:

    The Aztec calendar was organized around periods of 52 years,
    The years were organized into four “suits” each of which was numbered from one to ten followed by the jack, queen, and king in that order.

  24. John Emerson says:

    The Aztec calendar was organized around periods of 52 years,
    The years were organized into four “suits” each of which was numbered from one to ten followed by the jack, queen, and king in that order.

  25. Yes, what about Dravidians?
    Once again, a thread in which proto-Hungarian origins are brazenly neglected. Have my efforts been for nothing? I wonder how this will be received in Mauritius.

  26. The years were organized into four “suits” each of which was numbered from one to ten followed by the jack, queen, and king in that order.
    No ace? Then the whole thing was organized around the Viking version of chess.
    And what about the Mandans. And those boat rings carved into the rocks up in North Dakota?

  27. marie-lucie says:

    The Mandans:
    Nijma: I suppose you refer to a) the fact that they used “bull boats” of leather, identical to the Celtic coracles, and b) the reports that they spoke Welsh.
    About b), the reports are quite old, and not documented by any record of actual words the Mandans said. A Welsh man later sent to investigate the reports came back with a purely negative conclusion: the language of the people was certainly not Welsh. Of course, it could have been because centuries would have separated the putative immigrant ancestors from their current descendants, and meanwhile the language could have changed greatly, but it would not have changed that much in a century or two between the recorded European visitors. Nor do Mandan culture and mythology seem at all close to what one would expect of Celtic descendants.
    Actual records of the Mandan language demonstrate that their language is/was of the Siouan family (named after the Sioux). The few survivors of post-contact epidemics merged with the Arikara and Hidatsa who speak/spoke varieties of Siouan. Of course, the Mandans could have switched from “Welsh” to Siouan in between the European visits, but the time is rather short, and one would expect that if so, they would still have preserved words for typical aspects of their culture (such as the bull boats) for which their neighbours might not have had a word. There is no evidence that this happened.
    So why did the first visitor(s) say that the Mandans spoke Welsh? It could have been because some of the sounds and intonation of their language sounded familiar to people who had heard (but did not understand) the Welsh language. For instance, the sound written ll in Welsh is not used in other European languages, and therefore is very striking for those first hearing it, although it is (coincidentally) fairly common in North America.
    A similar problem exists with the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” in some churches, where people in trance are reported to speak Italian, Hebrew, or whatever. Linguists who have studied recordings of such utterances found that none of them were spoken in identifiable languages, even though witnesses said that they could understand them.

  28. mollymooly says:

    It wasn’t Welsh, it was the Irish brought by Saint Brendan

  29. rootlesscosmo says:

    @mollymooly:
    Which closes the circle nicely, since as we all know the Irish are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

  30. A similar problem exists with the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” in some churches
    After three decades, I can now confess. Forced to endure (as a captive audience: don’t ask) a session of speaking in tongues, I introduced Serbian sentences into the mix to allay the sheer boredom of the thing. These were duly taken up by the earnest babblers, much to the amusement of my native Serbian partner and fellow prisoner.

  31. Welsh? They should have sent someone who could speak Old Norse, or maybe Gothic.

    Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de Verendrye (b. 1683 at Trois Rivieres, Quebec), took an expedition from his forts in present-day Manitoba to what is now North Dakota, in search of a rumoured tribe of “white, blue-eyed Indians”. Along the banks of the Missouri River La Verendrye found a stone cairn with a small stone tablet inscribed on both sides with unfamiliar characters. Jesuit scholars in Quebec later described the writing on the stone as “Tartarian” — a runic script similar to Norse runes. Professor Peter Kalm of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences interviewed Captain La Verendrye about this discovery in Quebec in 1749. The tablet was reportedly shipped to France, stored with other archaeological artifacts in a church at Rouen, and buried under tons of rubble by a direct bomb hit during World War ll.

    Yup, the lost Western Settlement of Greenland.
    And then of course there’s the Kensington Stone.

  32. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie: Light skin is not always accompanied by blond hair
    And vice versa: you have dark-skinned Australians (or Melanesians) who have blond hair, although not a lot of them I believe (I the people, not the hair).

  33. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie: Light skin is not always accompanied by blond hair
    And vice versa: you have dark-skinned Australians (or Melanesians) who have blond hair, although not a lot of them I believe (I mean the people, not the hair).

  34. Siganus Sutor says:

    Noetica: I wonder how this will be received in Mauritius.
    If I were you I’d take great care when dealing with anything Dravidian in Mauritius. This can be a very sensitive issue. (For instance “Tamil” is very often considered to be a religion and Christians of Tamil origin — Muruga forbid — are barred from entering some Tamil organisations.) About fifteen years ago, the order of languages on new banknotes was changed (“by mistake”): Tamil was printed below Hindi, whereas on the previous series it was the other way around. There was a big Dravidian uproar and all the new banknotes — which cost a few dozen million rupees — were destroyed.
    By the way, when speaking about the language the Ferengis use the written form gotique, as opposed to gothique, supposedly to differentiate the language from architectural matters. Given what has now been said about the origin of Yiddish, one can wonder if there has ever been a “gothic synagogue”…

  35. I like the sound of “a big Dravidian uproar.” I imagine John Emerson will be even more pleased.

  36. John Emerson says:

    Real Gothic Architecture.
    The Crimean Goths.
    I’ve shown admirable restraint in not link-whoring before now. If I do say so myself.

  37. John Emerson says:

    Real Gothic Architecture.
    The Crimean Goths.
    I’ve shown admirable restraint in not link-whoring before now. If I do say so myself.

  38. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Very interesting, and some nice pictures, Emersonj. By all means be a link whore.
    So how do you propose to deal with Chartres? Is it neo-Gothic? I think that name’s occupied. Fake-Gothic sounds kind of plasticy. Post-Gothic? Thing is, some of us are used to calling it plain old Gothic. Can’t you use Visigothic and Ostrogothic? It’s got more class, anyway.

  39. Yes, feel free to link-whore any time. They are, after all, interesting links.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Still haven’t read the original, and I need to go to bed, but…

    it seems to me that the author [...] relies a lot on the vowels..

    And that works? Bizarre. That’s because Yiddish shares what I call “vowel steamrollering” with Middle and New High German and no other Germanic language: a messy process that turns all vowels into [ɛ] unless they escape, or at least closer to [ɛ] than they were before (by Umlaut — the results of which were then unrounded in Yiddish, becoming [ɛ] and [i]). Then there’s syncope and apocope (most of the uniformized vowels are dropped altogether), something shared with southern New High German. And so on.
    The features of the sound system that I find weirdest all appear to be features of the western border of the German-speaking area.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, the Hebrew words in Yiddish are vowel-steamrollered, too.

  42. fimus scarabaeus says:

    vedy interesting.
    when everyones genes be mapped then looking at the language and sound making genes then we will know if the escapees from the Baltic and or La mere Adriatic did in fact infect the cultures of the Americas before Copernicus did say the world be spherical..

  43. My good friends Michael Alpert and Zev Feldman are better known as Klezmer musicians, but they are both avid linguists and fluent speakers of Yiddish as well. They actually communicate in Wulfila-based Gothic when sending each other SMS messages on their cell phones.

  44. Þiuþeig!

  45. Robert Berger says:

    It’s highly unlikely that most of today’s Jews are of Turkic origin, although some Karaim still do speak a Turkic language, if I remember correctly.
    Jews today don’t resemble Turkic people at all physically.
    Modern Yiddish shows some similarities in pronuciation to the Saxon dialect still spoken around Leipzig and Dresden.
    Could Tamil terrorists be called Branch Dravidians ?

  46. Robert Berger says:

    It’s highly unlikely that most of today’s Jews are of Turkic origin, although some Karaim still do speak a Turkic language, if I remember correctly.
    Jews today don’t resemble Turkic people at all physically.
    Modern Yiddish shows some similarities in pronuciation to the Saxon dialect still spoken around Leipzig and Dresden.
    Could Tamil terrorists be called Branch Dravidians ?

  47. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Wow, that’s really interesting, Robert. When I lived in Hamburg someone told me that that Saxon dialect was generally considered in, I guess, N. Germany to be the ‘ugliest’ German spoken. Leaving aside the rudeness etc., do you think that attitude could be tied to the previous generations’ anti-semitism?

  48. michael farris says:

    IME Saxon is described not so much as ‘ugly’ but ‘funny sounding’, there’s a kind of lisp to it. My workplace had a German teacher who had a strong Saxony accent and it too me a while to figure out that was just his accent and not a speech impediment.

  49. John Emerson says:

    At my college there was a German teacher beloved by the students who was laughed at by the faculty because of his dialect. I thought he was Swabian but maybe he was Saxon.

  50. John Emerson says:

    At my college there was a German teacher beloved by the students who was laughed at by the faculty because of his dialect. I thought he was Swabian but maybe he was Saxon.

  51. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Right. Funny sounding was part of it, but I’m pretty sure ugly was too. ‘Not a speech impediment’ is faint praise for an accent. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I wonder how modern Yiddish resembles it, lithp? …David?

  52. David Marjanović says:

    lithp? …David?

    Me? I have never heard Saxon. In fact, I’ve never even heard Yiddish live, though I’m not aware of any lisp in it… But Ashkenazi Hebrew turned all those “th”s you can find in the King James Bible into [s], and some such words then entered German from Yiddish, for example Mäuse, literally “mice” but also a dysphemism for “money”, from ma’oth “small coins”.

  53. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I have never heard Saxon.
    Huh. Here I was thinking Saxon was a well-known accent or dialect that most of the other German speakers discussed at breakfast and then made jokes about on the way to work. Oh well.

  54. Michael Farris says:

    A couple of links about Saxon both of which describe it as the least popular dialect:
    http://www.3sat.de/3sat.php?http://www.3sat.de/nano/cstuecke/41457/
    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,1256732,00.html
    The latter has a transcript and link to the original program with examples of Saxon.
    The ‘something like a lisp’ isn’t a classic English lisp but there is a hissy very front s that you can hear (and a kind of puckered mouth delivery. It was more extreme in the live speakers I’ve heard (from Dresden IIRC).

  55. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yeah, with the dead speakers I guess it’s more of a rattle.

  56. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Interesting about the soft consonants, in the Deutschewelle article. The way they’ve transcribed it, it reminds me of Danish relative to Norwegian.

  57. Robert Berger says:

    Saxon dialect has a tendency to pronounce words with diphthongs such as klein to rhyme with English words such as sane or Spain. Meister is pronounced Meester.

  58. Robert Berger says:

    Saxon dialect has a tendency to pronounce words with diphthongs such as klein to rhyme with English words such as sane or Spain. Meister is pronounced Meester.

  59. diphthongs such as klein to rhyme with English words such as sane or Spain
    That’s funny, I thought klein was supposed to rhyme with sane and Spain…. Oops, I’m Australian :)

  60. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Zer Rhein in Spine…

  61. Charles Nydorf says:

    Quite a few people were kind of enough to comment on my blog. First, I want to say that I too have wondered about Dravidian which typologically has many things in common with the languages that Greenberg groups as Eurasian (see Colin Masica’s book on South Asia as a language area) but doesn’t seem to have much lexical or morphological resemblance to these languages.
    Getting back to the subject of the relationship between Yiddish and Gothic, one post cited the many things that Yiddish has in common with the West Germanic branch of the Germanic family as evidence that Yiddish cannot be derived from Gothic which belonged to the East Germanic branch. My view is that oldest Germanic features of Yiddish, the ones that go back to the time when Yiddish first became an independent language are East Germanic. These include features of the vowel system such as glide insertion, an r/x umlaut, and a very small vowel system with characteristic East Germanic mergers. I also think it can be shown that Yiddish consonantal features such as widespread uvular ‘r’ and regional merger of hissing and hushing sibilants can be traced back to East Germanic. Among morphological features, the most striking East Germanic one in Yiddish is the ‘n’ verbal infix. These features go back to the origins of Yiddish at about 350 CE. Later in its history Yiddish did borrow very heavily from High German with the borrowing reaching its peak in the early 1300′s. It is this heavy borrowing from German, a West Germanic language, that accounts for the many West Germanic features of modern Yiddish.
    Some comments reflected the view that Yiddish could not derive from Gothic because Yiddish originated on the Rhineland. This view was put forward, very tentatively, by Max Weinreich and has since passed into many popular accounts of Yiddish. But it is not one that is widely accepted by modern historical linguists with the largest group arguing that Yiddish began to be spoken around Regensburg on the Danube around 900. I agree that Yiddish probably did originate on the Danube but I think it probably goes back to the much earlier Visigothic settlements closer to the Black Sea.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Charles Nydorf,
    It would help it you defined “typologically”. Each language shows a number of typological features, which individually can be shared with a wide variety of other languages which are not necessarily related to it. For instance, in the days of structuralism the linguist Charles Hockett wrote a book in which he sorted out the numbers and types of consonants and vowels in a wide variety of languages. The languages that shared the same number and type were very different from each other and a typological classification based on their sounds would have been totally useless for determining whether or not those various languages were related to each other.
    You already quoted Austerlitz as saying that Yiddish was typologically very Germanic (meaning that it shared not just one such feature, or even type of feature, but several, with other Germanic languages). So when you mention similar typological features in Gothic and Yiddish, apart from the ones the two languages share by virtue of both being Germanic, what do you have in mind?

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