Origin and Development of the Yiddish Language
September 1, 1939, the day the German army invaded Poland, 9.6 million Jews
lived in Europe. Nine million of these Jews lived in Eastern Europe and spoke
Yiddish, a Germanic language derived from medieval German. The language had its
origin during the crusades, a mass movement of western European peasants and
others who in 1095 had been released from their oath of allegiance to their
landlord by Pope Urban II on condition that they would travel to the Holy Land
and defeat the Muslims who had occupied Israel.
of these semi-slaves armed themselves and traveled down the Rhine river towns on
their way to Genoa to sail from there to the Holy Land and fight the Muslims. As
they traveled south they encountered Jewish communities in almost all the towns
along their way. The Jews had no weapons. Therefore the Christian hordes found
it safer to kill unarmed Jews than to fight the well-armed Muslims in Jerusalem.
Thus a massacre of Jews along the Rhine river towns ensued, so that the
survivors followed the invitation of the king of Poland to settle there. They
came to Poland speaking the German of the twelfth century. That German gradually
accepted some Slavic words and also included some Hebrew phrases. The language
changed over the centuries and finally became the Yiddish language with its own
vocabulary, its own grammar, and its own pronunciation.
the course of years, Yiddish developed a great literature, translated into many
languages, including English. The language employed Hebrew letters and is
therefore confused with Hebrew, the language of the Torah and of the people of
the late 1880's and today, students of the origin of languages decided to label
languages of similar origin that belonged together. Thus, European languages are
labeled "Indo-European" because they originated in India. Yiddish, as
a Germanic language, is therefore included among the European languages.
however, is called a Semitic language, as is Aramaic, spoken in Lebanon, and
Arabic. According to a number of Talmudic sources, one son of Noach , Sem,
became the patriarch of several middle eastern (from the European view) nations
whose languages included Hebrew. Therefore linguists arbitrarily called these
languages Semitic. A Semite is therefore someone whose native tongue is Hebrew
or Arabic or Aramaic. There is no Semitic race. Nevertheless, a German
journalist, Wilhelm Marr, invented the legend that all Jews are Semites by race
and that Jews are therefore “Untermenschen," that it, subhuman. He
founded the Anti-Semitic League in 1888, preaching all the old hate canards
which were included in the two books by Martin Luther, On
the Jews and their Lies (Über die Juden und Ihre Lügen) and Vom
Shem Hamphorash, which I translated into English because it is not included
in The Collected Works of Martin Luther.
American journalists don't know much, they keep calling anti-Jewish conduct
anti-Semitism instead of anti-Judaism. Of course, not much can be expected from
those who keep telling us that we have had 45 presidents when in fact there are
only forty-four. The League of Anti-Semites became the source of Nazi propaganda
leading to the Holocaust. One of the
malicious accusations against the European Jews was the ignorant argument that
Yiddish is not a legitimate language like all other languages but that Yiddish
is "corrupt" German, or the slang of a stupid uneducated proletariat.
Even American Jews have repeated this nonsense despite the fact that Yiddish is
the language of such great writers and scholars as The Chofetz Chayim (Kagan)
and Sholem Aleichem (Rabinowich). The argument that Yiddish is a German dialect
and the language of dumb and stupid masses can easily be defeated by looking at
English, which is at least one half Latin. English words derived from Latin are
altered in the same manner as are Yiddish words derived from German. Yet, both
Yiddish and English are as valuable languages as the languages which gave rise
this Latin paragraph. No doubt you will recognize it at once even if you know no
Latin. Evidently he English version of this Latin paragraph shows a number of
changes from the original Latin. Therefore it is as illegitimate to call English
a corruption of Latin as it is to claim that nonsense for Yiddish.
English speasker can cognii this at once. "Fidem meam obligo vuxillo,
federalis civitatis Americae et Res Publico quo stat. Uni Nationi, sub Deo, non
dividende, cum libertate et usquiasque, omnibus.”
are fortunate that Chasidic Jews continue to speak Yiddish and teach it to their
children so that the language of six million martyred Jews may live forever.
do not speak or read Yiddish because the language was not used in Germany where
I spent my youth. Most American Jews are also no longer able to speak the
language of our ancestors. Nevertheless we have every reason to honor and esteem
the language of such intellectual greats as the Chofetz Chayim, Sholem Aleichem,
and so many others.