Tablet magazine, an excellent source of discussion of all things Jewish, has reprinted a 2010 article by the late Cherie Woodworth (I wrote about her sudden death last year, and I still miss her and find it hard to believe she’s gone) on the titular subject; she begins with the great scholar Max Weinreich and the new edition of his magnum opus, History of the Yiddish Language (over 750 pages of footnotes!), and his very influential theory that
…Jews from Rhineland France, presumably through contact with Jewish settlements in southern Germany, converted from old Judeo-French to western Yiddish, which was more purely German with some elements of Latin or early French. In subsequent centuries—when, exactly, is a source of considerable debate—this language moved east with Jewish emigrants, settlers, and refugees, either in the 12th century (after the Crusades and persecutions) or in the 14th or 15th. There it picked up a significant cargo of Slavic vocabulary and expressions and became the Yiddish more familiar today: eastern Yiddish.
She then moves on to Paul Wexler and his very controversial book The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity; you can tell from the title why it’s controversial. Her discussion of all this is fascinating and (like all her work) well written; I’ll just quote a bit on my own former specialty and leave you to read the whole thing when you have the time and attention span:
Comparative linguistics poses two genuine, and interconnected, problems when its methods are used to make arguments about history. The first is that in its most specialized details, the evidence and arguments are inaccessible to outsiders; Wexler will not be able to persuade historians about the origins of the Jews by discussing lexical inventories and phonemic shifts (especially as long as other linguists return fire with equally arcane and scientific-sounding counterarguments about other phonemic shifts). Second, despite its stress on precision and details, comparative historical linguistics is not as scientific or as purely historical as it seems; lost forms must be reconstructed, development must be interpolated, and thus no argument is definitive. The majority view among Yiddish linguists—a very small but committed cadre of scholars—is that Wexler’s argument is untenable.
Tablet followed up Cherie’s piece with an equally long and very lively one by their staff writer Batya Ungar-Sargon, “The Mystery of the Origins of Yiddish Will Never Be Solved,” in which she discusses the, shall we say, vivid personalities involved in the arguments. She starts out with an amazing story about a 1987 book, Origins of the Yiddish Language, which got a scathing review in Language that turned out to have been almost certainly written by Wexler under a pseudonym (though he denies it). She goes on to describe the various contending theories. Dovid Katz’s is that “the Jews arrived in what Katz calls ‘the cradle of Yiddish,’ the city of Regensburg, speaking Aramaic. It is this spoken language that provided the source material for the Semitic component of Yiddish, spreading both further east as well as west, to the Rhineland, replacing whatever language the western Jews were speaking.” Then there’s Alexandre Beider, who has a doctorate in applied mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and “believes that western and eastern Yiddish are simply too different to have a common origin. Rather, Jews spoke German dialects until the 14th century, when gradually their dialects became different from those of their co-territorialists.” And of course Wexler, who “holds the controversial position that Yiddish is neither German nor Jewish but a Slavic language with German and Hebrew words slotted into Slavic grammar in a process called ‘relexification’:
Other linguists have not taken kindly to the Slavic hypothesis, nor to its author. “I have no impression that Paul Wexler is searching for the truth,” said Beider. “Sometimes I even wonder if he himself believes in what he writes. If he is not believing, but making a provocation, his writings of the last 20 years are oriented just to prove that Jews are not Jews. In this case, there is nothing to discuss.” Indeed, though he has a following amongst non-specialists, most linguists disagree with Wexler. “I respect him as a linguist, but I don’t agree with him,” said Steffen Krogh. Simon Neuberg called the relexification theory “very adventurous” but said ultimately it “seems more of a marketing trick.”
And finally, there’s Manaster Ramer, who “believes that Roman Jews speaking a Romance dialect, not French but related to it, lived in both western and southern areas of what would become Germany. When the German tribes invaded the Roman territories, these Jews learned perfect German”:
So, if the Jews who started speaking Yiddish originally spoke German, how and when did the Semitic component enter the language? The question itself is unscientific, said Manaster Ramer, ignoring as it does the historical context in which Yiddish came to be, which incidentally was a time in which German too underwent a similar process, incorporating loan words from Latin. Indeed, said Manaster Ramer, the influence of Latin on German was far greater than the Hebrew and Aramaic influence on Yiddish, “and yet no Yiddishist seems to asks, why does the massive Latin influence on German not mean that German is not German, if the much smaller Hebrew influence on Yiddish is supposed to mean that Yiddish is not German,” he wrote in an email. Any language spoken by polyglot people can incorporate words from their second or third language at any time. Furthermore, he said, almost all of the Hebrew and Aramaic words in Yiddish are accretions added to the language after the 13th century.
We’ll probably never know the truth, but I sure enjoy the back-and-forth. Thanks for the links, bulbul and Kobi!