On Whether to Mourn a Dying Language?

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9 Responses

  1. dave hoffman says:

    Count me in the mournful camp. Fwiw, you might enjoy the yiddish radio cds that amazon sells…

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Me too. I regret not pushing my father (and my grandfather, when he was alive) when I was a kid to teach me more than the occasional word or phrase (which, while handy to drop into conversation, is not the same as really knowing the language).

  3. Apart perhaps from Sanskrit, I don’t feel a similar attachment to any particular language, no doubt owing to the idiosyncratic circumstances of birth and socialization. I do, however, regret the rate at which we are losing many languages around the world: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/world/18cnd-language.html

    Some readers might be interested in Paul Buhle’s* marvelous discussion, “The Significance of Yiddish Socialism,” in a book he edited: Popular Culture in America (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).** As Buhle begins his essay, “The Yiddish-speaking community [of the 1890s-1920s] was infused with socialist dedication and mass-cultural creativity as no other community on American shores has ever been.” I confess to mourning the loss of THAT dedication and creativity!

    *Among other things, Buhle has edited a marvelous 3 volume study of Jews and American culture.

    **Some of this material is also found in his Marxism in the USA: From 1870 to the Present Day (Verso, 1987).

  4. Jim Maloney says:

    Some semi-coherent ramblings, all somewhat optimistic:

    1. I’d rather lose a language than see a species go extinct. Of course, it’s possible that (as was portrayed in Jurassic Park) an extinct species could someday be miraculously revived from DNA preserved in amber. Come to think of it, something similar happened with Hebrew, which was “extinct” in the sense of not being a living “native-spoken” language for millennia, until Eliezer Ben-Yehuda worked his little miracle…

    2. There is a large body of literature in Yiddish that will likely preserve it even it ceases to be “living” language. Only a small percentage of the many works of Sholom Aleichem have been translated from Yiddish. Perhaps that fact alone will keep the world from forgetting the language entirely. So Sholom Aleichem’s work is kind of like a linguistic coelacanth.

    3. It must also be remembered that Yiddish is essentially a dialect of German with Hebrew, Russian and other Jewish cultural influences. I recently read Chaim Potok’s novel, Old Men at Midnight, wherein one character, an American WW2 soldier who grew up in New York learning Yiddish and Hebrew as well as English, is questioning a couple of German soldiers in something close to their native language. “What kind of German is that?” asks one of the Nazi soldiers, who understands what is being asked but recognizes that it is a dialect. “New York German,” replies the American.

    4. Nu?

  5. Jim Maloney says:

    And one more optimistic thought:

    5. In yeder umglick iz do a glick.

  6. Don says:

    My father in law was an old-school Jew from New York’s Lower east side. One day in 1979, we were discussing an article that had appeared in the New York Times mourning the slow death of Yiddish.
    “Oh,” he said. “It’s always been dying. It was dying when I was a kid in the 1930′s. It was dying after I got home from the war. It was dying in the 1960′s. They are always printing stories about the death of Yiddish, but somehow it never dies.”
    And here we are, 30 years later, and they are still announcing the slow death of Yiddish.
    Something tells me the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    I hope Don is right. Given that Chasidim are having more babies than most other Jews, there is a chance that Yiddish may survive a bit longer. Also, the Lubavitchers (and maybe others?) still use the Ashkenazic pronunciation in the liturgy, which by me, on the rare occasions when I’m in shul, has more emotional power (i.e., koyach, not koach) .

    Jim, depends on the species; also, while some older scholarship considered Yiddish a dialect of German, the more prevalent view these days is that it simply has a common ancestor (Mittelhochdeutsch). It parted company from what became modern German about a thousand years ago, before the vowel shift that characterizes modern German. Earliest attested evidence for Yiddish is about as old as that for Portuguese, and several centuries older than the earliest attestations for Romansh (both of which are accorded ‘language’ status, despite being mutually comprehensible with other languages). Patrick, it wasn’t just socialists among the Yiddish-speakers who were creative.

    On favorite aphorisms: when I was about 4 years old, my mother taught me one that her father (then still alive) had taught her: “af shpitzn tzinge ligt di gantze velt”: on the tip of your tongue lies the whole world. Its sense was: if you don’t know, ask. This made my life. Happily, it has a very easy update for the Internet age: af shpitzn finger ligt di gantze velt.

  8. A.J.,

    The quote from Buhle said “The Yiddish-speaking community [of the 1890s-1920s] was infused with socialist dedication AND mass-cultural creativity….” [emphasis added] This was not a claim that ONLY Yiddish-speaking socialists were creative! [one reason I also cited Buhle's 3 volume edited work]

  9. Jim Maloney says:

    Thanks, A.J., for the clarification. As it happens, I read Potok’s “The Chosen” for the first time this past weekend. One of the main characters, Danny, who speaks Yiddish and is studying German in order to read Freud, gives a similar account, i.e., that Yiddish descended from Middle German.