Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Origins of Yiddish

In keeping with our recent non-news news trend, reader cg passed along this link to a long article by Cherie Woodworth in Tablet on the origins of the Yiddish language yesterday. The piece is new to Tablet, but is a reprint from Kritika 2010. Worth reading.

The controversy that the piece reviews is considerably older … where and how Yiddish came into existence as a language. That whole story is rich and amazing (the briefest and best starting point, I think, is in Neil Jacobs' Yiddish: A linguistic introduction (Oxford, 2005). The focus in this article is much narrower, contrasting Max Weinreich's History of the Yiddish Language with the views of Paul Wexler, with a bit on genetics tossed in. Weinreich is a revered figure in and far beyond Yiddish linguistics, like his son Uriel (who was mentioned in our last post, here.) Wexler seems to have a reputation as a rock thrower, though some hasten to add that he has important ideas and isn't just a crank. So, this makes for a pretty good story line.

But the reason for this post is simpler ... Woodworth, who was a historian, spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the scholarly apparatus of Weinreich's book, pictured here. Our house historical linguist on Team Verb says that Weinreich's book may be his favorite history of a language overall and he reports that it does indeed have something like 750 pages of footnotes. His comment:
Yeah, she gets the feel of the book right ... it's good, solid linguistics, but with this incredible narrative story line.  That one footnote Woodworth focuses on that runs for 20 pages is in ways like an article but with paragraphs of annotated bibliography and such inserted into it. But it's not a footnote in the traditional sense, more like a sidebar commentary on the whole section of the text it references. And, yes, the section of the book it references is considerably shorter than the 'footnote'.
Tablet announces that next week, they're running a profile of "the academic personalities and their battles in the field of linguistics." I'm keeping an eye out for that.

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