A reader sent me a link to Harold Bloom’s 2008 NYRB review (single page) of the new Yale University Press edition (with restored footnotes, “extraordinarily copious and rich”) of Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language (only $300!). I’ve called Bloom a blowhard, and he is, but when he’s talking about Yiddish (of which he is a native speaker, which I hadn’t known), he’s much more interesting than when he’s bloviating about the anxiety of influence. In his discussion of Weinreich’s Chapter 2, “Yiddish in the Framework of Other Jewish Languages,” Bloom says “Hebrew itself probably began as a fusion language” before mentioning Babylonian, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and Ladino:

Weinreich’s zest for Jewish languages was awesome; you can drown happily in his oceanic discussions of Marranos (converted Jews secretly practicing Judaism) using the Portuguese language, or of deviations from Arabic and Turkish idioms in the other varieties of Ladino. The byways lead Weinreich into folklore, which aids him in asserting that “of all Jewish languages Yiddish has…the largest degree of individuality.” Literary achievement in Yiddish, even now underestimated, sustains the linguistic esteem that Weinreich conferred on a tongue that he himself had not spoken as a child.

He also quotes at length from another wonderful book on Yiddish that I do own and am surprised I haven’t mentioned on LH, Benjamin Harshav’s The Meaning of Yiddish, about which the Times Literary Supplement said, quite accurately, “It is a remarkable feat of high popularization, written with great flair and without a hint of pedantry. . . . The book should be read by all who are interested in language.” An enjoyable review of a book I’ll probably never read; thanks, Rick!


  1. Tom Recht says

    This is very tangentially relevant, but since the history of Hebrew came up I thought I’d mention what is certainly the most linguistically savvy stamp I’ve ever seen, recently designed by the Hebrew Language Academy. It can be seen here:
    The conceit is quite ingenious, I think: the Hebrew language is represented by a seedling (whose leaves spell “Ivrit”, Hebrew), and the roots are groups of lexemes, issuing from four different layers of soil, i.e. historical strata. So from the uppermost layer (“Modern Times”, symbolized by a computer keyboard) come words for computer, taxi, oxygen, etc.; the next layer down, the Middle Ages (a manuscript book) gives words like comparison, melody, horizon; next, Mishnaic Hebrew (a parchment scroll) – client, assembly, and, oddly, beehive; and the deepest layer is Biblical Hebrew (an ostracon), giving words like thunder, soul, family.
    What’s missing, of course, is any recognition of the existence of loans from other languages, but I thought it was very clever nevertheless.

  2. That is clever!

  3. I have a 4.0-meg, 28-slide PowerPoint show in Hebrew about this stamp. If any LH readers want a copy I’ll be pleased to send it.

  4. I’ve been reading Blackmur recently. Now I know where Bloom gets his style. Bloom (on lit anyway) is like a shit modern Blackmur.

  5. How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish

    If “The Joys of Yiddish” were not already the title of a beloved book by Leo Rosten, the phrase would be ideal to describe what is celebrated in the pages of a newly published anthology of Yiddish writing in English translation, “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish,” edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books).

  6. What does he mean, “began as a fusion language”? A fusion of what and what?

  7. FWIW, Bloom’s entire article appears to have been copied and pasted here, and the full paragraph reads:

    Weinreich’s account of the bewildering multiplicity of Jewish languages is masterly, since there were at least ten aside from Hebrew and Yiddish. Hebrew itself probably began as a fusion language: the name ivrit (Hebrew) is not biblical, but is a much later word from the Mishna, the principal rabbinic commentary on the Torah. The original Israelites spoke a kind of Semitic, which merged with Canaanite. Isaiah 19:18 refers to the language of Canaan, sefat knaan, always transcribed as Hebrew. Nehemiah 13:24 calls Hebrew yehudit.

    Which leaves something to be desired in terms of clarity.

    I don’t seem to be able to look inside the Google Books version of “History of Yiddish”, but searching for “Canaanite” finds a note referring to “Zelig S Harris. Development of the Canaanite Dialects: An Investigation in Linguistic History”

    And searching for that finds this, which might go into more detail, but looks like it would require a heavy slog to get through and parse out the details.

  8. Getting back to Yiddish, I was searching to see if I have access through my library to Weinreich’s book (I don’t seem to), and I found this:

    Alexander Beider. Origins of Yiddish Dialects. Print publication date: 2015. Print ISBN-13: 9780198739319

    This books shows that it is worth speaking of Yiddish as a separate language only from the fifteenth century onward. Modern Eastern Yiddish (EY) and Western Yiddish (WY) do not have a common Jewish ancestor. WY is mainly related to the East Franconian dialect of German. It has a small Old French substratum. EY has a Bohemian German basis and has a small Old Czech substratum. During its development, it underwent the significant influence of the Silesian dialect of German spoken by German colonists in medieval Polish towns. The partial unity of EY and WY mainly relates to close links between the German dialects underlying them and extensive contacts between the people who spoke EY and WY. A large part of the pan-Yiddish particularities that came into being as a result of internal Jewish developments first appeared in western Germany. The Hebrew components of both EY and WY have common origins. A similar unity was already globally valid in the Middle Ages. The historical conclusions are: Modern Ashkenazic Jews mainly descend from the merger of three principal groups of Jews who lived during the Middle Ages in non-Mediterranean Europe, namely those from the Rhineland (mainly of French origin), those from the Czech lands, and those from the territory of modern Ukraine and Belarus. None of these groups represents an offspring of any another group. For the formation of modern Ashkenazic Jewry, the role of the first two sources was significantly more important than the role of the last one.

  9. Very interesting, thanks!

  10. David Marjanović says

    We’ve had a thread or two about this already. 🙂

    The really fun part is that Prague appears to have played a role in the origin of both EY and Standard German, in both cases mixing eastern Upper and eastern Middle German dialects, just in different ways. What can I say, PRAGA MATER VRBIVM.

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