In an essay in the recent issue of the World Affairs Journal, linguist and Columbia literature professor John McWhorter questions the effort to save dying languages:
What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it. But this idea is fragile. Certainly language is a key aspect of what distinguishes one group from another. However, a language itself does not correspond to the particulars of a culture but to a faceless process that creates new languages as the result of geographical separation.
At one point McWhorter discusses Yiddish directly:
At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation — such as that of the Amish — or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity, but because they lived in an apartheid society.)
At first, McWhorter’s column made me bristle. I don’t speak Yiddish fluently, but feel that the mamaloshen is a linchpin of my Jewish cultural identity, and rely on it daily to adequately express myself. What a shame it would be, I thought, to just accept its death.
But, on second thought, McWhorter’s argument began to make sense. Yiddish language and Yiddish culture — the latter being hard to precisely define, but largely synonymous with American Jewish culture — has already been separated.
Yes, there is the study of Yiddish literature in universities, by Michael Wex, and in newspapers like this one, which to this day publishes a Yiddish edition. I admire all these efforts, and have certainly made my ownattempts to pump some blood into the language.
But to a great extent, it is with the Haredi that the language lives. And that language is altogether separate from the culture of shlepping, kvetching, bagel-shmearing and Woody Allen-loving that takes place around the country.
McWhorter Questions Efforts To Save Dying Languages
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.