Yiddish, the Living Language
Jordyn is an editor from Cape Town, South Africa. She completed her BA undergrad and Honours degree in Linguistics at UCT, while serving on the committee of her local SAUJS throughout her university career, and involving herself in various projects in the wider Cape Town Jewish community.
The Jewish people have a knack for staying alive against all odds.
We are, as the philosopher Simon Raidowicz puts it, an eternally living, ever-dying people. And while Hebrew has undergone an impressive revival, I often still encounter the assessment that Yiddish is, conversely, ‘dying’.
I’ll let you in on a little linguistic secret, and by secret, I mean mainstream stance. There’s no such thing as a ‘dying’ language. Do speakers of languages die? Sure. Am I gravely oversimplifying this topic? Naturally. Allow me to expand.
In sociolinguistics, there are three general states that describe how a language is doing; maintenance, shift, and death. Maintenance is when a language is being continually used in a region, like English in most countries where it’s spoken. Language shift is the process whereby a language is falling out of widespread use in favour of a different language, like how Irish gave way to English in Ireland. Language death is where a language exists only in one speech community in the world. In fact, there are four states of death that a language can be in, and in all of these cases there exists still at least one living speaker of said dead language. So, there is such a concept in linguistics of language ‘death’, but it’s not really the same concept that people usually refer to.
When people say that Yiddish is a ‘dying’ or even a ‘dead’ language, they’re usually referring to the fact that they don’t see Yiddish in mainstream publications and media. They see English, Hebrew, and others, and because they see these languages being used more widely, they conclude that these languages are ‘healthy’.
Language is a tool - an essential tool that forms the bedrock of communities, nations, and relationships, but a tool nonetheless. As a result, language is whatever we need it to be.
But there’s a problem with this. Languages aren’t living things; they don’t have feelings, or characteristics, or stages of life. Language is a tool - an essential tool that forms the bedrock of communities, nations, and relationships, but a tool nonetheless. As a result, language is whatever we need it to be.
We often relate to the world through vitalistic metaphors. People can be living, thriving, flourishing, struggling, dying, or dead – and as the adage goes, we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. Thus, we project our own states of vitality onto language. But it doesn’t stop there - we project qualities and emotions onto language, as well. I’ve heard on many occasions, as I’m sure you have, that “French is such a romantic language”. I’ve heard people say that Russian sounds scary and harsh. At the same time, I’ve heard people say that Russian is the most beautiful and warm language they’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard people say that French sounds weird.
So, we arrive at a question; what is actually happening?
Well, as it turns out, we were never assessing the languages themselves to begin with.
When we make value judgements about a language (whether ‘dying’, ‘romantic’, ‘harsh-sounding’, or otherwise), we are really making value judgements about its speakers because language is, primarily, a reflection of its speakers. These value judgements aren’t just descriptive, they are constitutive. When I speak of language as a tool, this includes its ability to shape, convey, and assess the identities of ourselves and others.
Identity works in two main stages. The first stage is how we convey or express our personal identity as we ourselves understand it. The second stage is how others perceive us. And there can be a schism between these two stages. For example, I could call my friend every day because, to me, that expresses my love for my friend. For my friend, this same action can be perceived as me being nosey and annoying.
The tool used to express identity is just the vehicle for the expression, but what we intend to convey, and what is actually perceived, depends on who you’re talking to.
Now for the Jewish and Yiddish part. Jewish membership itself is quite limited. By Orthodox halacha, you are only a Jew if you’re born to a Jewish mother or if you convert. Jewish identity, however, is massively complex. The Jewish people can be considered a religious group, an extended family, an ethnicity, a race, a culture, or a nation. Or any combination. And this is all even before you’ve taken into consideration nusach, observance levels, and so forth.
But with all this complexity comes one really cool conclusion: once you’re in, you’re in. And no matter how you define your Jewishness, or how you practise it, you’re ‘as much of a Jew’ as Moshe Rabbeinu. Yiddish may have been borne from Ashkenazi Jewry alone, but it has left a world-wide impression from which we can make a couple of useful generalizations.
Primarily, a notable fact about Yiddish is that in its millennium-long history, it’s never had a ‘home country’. French has France, German has Germany, but the ‘home’ of Yiddish is the Jewish people themselves. It has travelled wherever its speakers have (both Ashkenazi and not), and was historically a compelling marker of Jewish identity.
But can’t we say the same of Hebrew? The official language of all the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland? Yes and no...
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