Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk

One People -Three Languages:

Yiddish - The Essence of Jewishness.


   Before 1939, when the mass murder of the Eastern European Jews began, there were 11 million people in Europe who spoke Mamme Loshen, i.e. the language of their mothers, Yiddish.

   It was heretofore assumed that Yiddish is a middle high German dialect which entered Poland and other lands east of Berlin when the German Jews moved there during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The language is written with Hebrew letters and can be traced back 1000 years. There were variations of Yiddish in the sense that a Lithuanian would use inflections and expressions which would differ from the expressions and accents of a Galician or southern Polish Jew or a Hungarian etc. Yiddish nevertheless provided a common language for all Jews across all national boundaries including Germany. This made Yiddish the most crucial factor in maintaining the unity of the Jewish people in all the years of our European exile.

   More recent linguistic research has revealed that Yiddish was not only derived from 14th and 15th Century German. Sprinkled with Slavic and ancient Romance languages as well as Aramaic, Yiddish may well have originated east of Poland, in the area now called Russia but largely unorganized before 1000. In fact, some claim that Yiddish began as a Slavic language later “relexified” with German words.

   This raises the question as to the origin of the European Jews. There is some evidence that a large contingent of Eastern European Jews were not descendants of the ancient Israelites who came there after the catastrophe of 70 C.E.  Instead, it is possible that some Eastern European peoples who had come to Europe from Asia adopted Judaism and also developed the Yiddish language independent of German but resembling it.

  Now, Columbia University in New York has undertaken to map all Yiddish dialects, plotting where the many variations of Yiddish were spoken.

   It ought to be understood that the common belief that Yiddish is merely a “broken German”, a jargon, is nonsense. Yiddish is a language like all others. It has a vocabulary, a grammar and a literature. Yiddish and German are of equal stature. Both are included in the Germanic Language Congress meetings which are held in various universities throughout the world. It should also be remembered that Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel prize in literature for his Yiddish novels.

   Linguists who specialize in Germanic languages note that Bavarian German, spoken in southern Germany, includes a number of words which are pronounced in a manner similar to Yiddish but not German. For example, the German word TAG, i.e., day becomes TOG in both Yiddish and Bavarian. RAD, meaning wheel, becomes ROD in both Yiddish and Bavarian. Since the various Germanic tribes settled in Germany at about 1000 C.E. it is likely that the Eastern European Jews were one of the Slavo-Turkic peoples who came from Siberia and  then converted to Judaism en masse.

   Today, Yiddish has few adherents. In Israel, Yiddish is a foreign language taught as such at the Hebrew University. It is my belief, however, that Yiddish will not die and will not become extinct. It is still spoken among Chassidic Jews and there is now some interest among young Israelis to learn the language of their European grandparents and keep alive that great and magnificent literature which has so enriched the culture of the world.


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