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Philologos vs. Dovid Katz, Round III

In this third and last column on linguist Dovid Katz’s theory of the origins of Yiddish, let us pose the question: Is there any historical evidence for a migration around the year 1000 C.E. or later of a community of Aramaic-speaking Jews from the Middle East to a German-speaking area of Europe — a migration that, according to Katz, produced Yiddish’s “big bang” by fusing, in a single generation, Germanic and Semitic elements into an instantaneously created new language? And if no such evidence exists, is it plausible to assume that this might have happened anyway?

Unfortunately for Katz’s theory, the answer to both these questions is a resounding no. Not only does Jewish history know nothing of such a migration, but it also is almost inconceivable that one could have taken place.

To begin with, by the year 1000 — and no one dates the origins of Yiddish back any earlier — the number of Aramaic-speaking Jews in the Middle East had dwindled greatly, particularly in the urban centers in which Jews were concentrated. Although it is impossible to gauge the exact rate at which, after the seventh-century Islamic conquest of the region, Arabic replaced Aramaic as the spoken language of its Jews, the written evidence tells us that this happened rapidly. After the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, which was coeval with the ascendancy of Islam, not a single Aramaic Jewish text of importance was produced in the Middle East. Strictly religious literature, such as exegetical commentaries and liturgical poetry, were written in pure Hebrew. Jewish philosophy, on the other hand, a new genre that developed under Muslim influence, was composed entirely in Arabic, the earliest extant example being the works of the great rabbinical figure Saadya Gaon (892-942), who was born in Egypt and lived most of his life in Iraq.

Even more to the point than Gaon’s philosophical work, which was written for Jewish intellectuals, was his Arabic translation of the Bible, which was done for ordinary Jews. These were Jews who, if they could not read the Bible in the original Hebrew, had read it in Aramaic until Islamic times. Gaon’s translation demonstrates that by the early 10th century, Aramaic no longer was a language widely understood by them.

Of course, Aramaic still might have survived among some Middle Eastern Jews, particularly in rural and outlying areas. But such rural Jews would have been far less likely to travel than their urban, commercially active counterparts, let alone to move en masse to Europe — and in any case, there was absolutely no incentive in this period for any Middle-Eastern Jews to settle in Europe. The Muslim Middle East was, in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, a far more prosperous and economically developed region than Christian Europe, and one in which Jews were treated much better — even before the terrible massacres of German-speaking Jews in the Rhineland in 1092. An estimated 90% of the world’s Jews lived in the Muslim world at this time, and there was no reason for them to leave it for the literally and figuratively colder climate of Christendom.

Moreover, let us assume that — improbable as it would have been and in the absence of any historical documentation — groups of Aramaic-speaking, Middle-Eastern Jews did, sometime in the 11th or 12th century, immigrate en masse to Europe and settle down there. How and why would they have gotten, in one jump, to Central Europe, where German was spoken? This was a period during which land travel between Europe and the Middle East was practically nonexistent, the only routes being the shipping lanes across the Mediterranean — and these would have brought our emigrants to the port cities of France and Italy, not to the interior of the continent. The idea that they would have gone straight to Worms or Regensburg (which Katz and other linguists have pointed to, on the basis of its medieval German dialect, as Yiddish’s most probable place or origin) is like the idea of 19th-century Russian Jewish emigrants en route to America going straight to Cleveland or Cincinnati without first settling in New York and Boston.

The whole thing just doesn’t hold water. It is not a historical construct but an ideological one, the true rationale for which is its constructor’s desire to view Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, as the main conduit of linguistic and cultural continuity in Jewish history. Still fighting the great war that raged between the two languages in the first half of the 20th century, Dovid Katz has sought to refute the in fact irrefutable claim that Hebrew alone is the Jewish language of all times and places by arguing on linguistic grounds that, on the contrary, it was Yiddish that transmitted the ancient Jewish culture of the Middle East to its new home in Europe.

The great language war, however, is long over, and diehards like Katz who go on fighting it are risking making anachronisms out of themselves. Katz is a brilliant linguist who has contributed many things to contemporary Yiddish studies. A logical analysis of Yiddish’s historical origins is not one of them.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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