Origin and Development of the Yiddish Language

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



On 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.

Thousands 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.

In 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 Israel.

In 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.

Hebrew, 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.

Because 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 to them.

Consider 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.

Every 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.”

We 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.

I 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.

Shalom u'vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Gender, Sex, & Status (2019).

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