Can a language without a home survive?

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Can a language without a home survive?

by Alex Hacillo


Letters of the Yiddish alphabet (Paul Dooley under a Creative Commons Licence)

Yiddish is an endangered language with about 2 million speakers. But it seems to have a very big influence on the English language and Anglophone culture. People use many words (like putz, schmuck and schlong – they all mean “penis”) in the US. Woody Allen uses the neurotic comedy and self evaluation of Yiddish culture in his films. Stephen Fry, in his BBC Two series Fry’s Planet Word, said that Yiddish is evidence that ‘Some languages are funnier than others’. He said that Yiddish is ‘more a way of thinking than a language [...] a joke can be Yiddish even when people tell the joke in English.’

But Fry seems confused. Yiddish, has a lot of jokes, humour and insults; but it is a language like other languages. It is way of talking about cultural ideas, not a way of containing cultural ideas. If you shout at a dog, discuss Thatcher’s economic policy or ask for a prostitute, these things are about the same if you do them in English or Yiddish.

So why should we protect an endangered language? Why not let Yiddish die? Yiddish does not contain the basis of Jewish culture inside its language. David Schneider, a comedian and playwright who has studied Yiddish theatre, told me that ‘Yiddish has lots of words for God and fool. The language is full of irony and dark humour, this is because of where it started and developed.’

It started in Eastern Europe – but an in Eastern Europe of the past with a lot of persecution and difficulties. There is no ‘Yiddishland’. Barry Davis, a lecturer in Jewish History and Yiddish literature at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, says Yiddish is unique: ‘Other immigrant languages have a place where you can speak them in their homeland... Yiddishland doesn’t exist anymore.’

Modern Hebrew developed as a ‘national’ Jewish language because of the culture that Yiddish developed in. Davis says that ‘Jews who spoke Yiddish had a type of self-hatred, and wanted to speak a cultivated language, because Yiddish was linked to poverty. They hated something which was a part of themselves.’ Yiddish had low status. People thought it was a dirty language that servant girls and manual workers spoke. So they needed to create a new ‘national’ Jewish language that was not connected to negative ideas.

The status of Yiddish is now the opposite. A large number of Yiddish-speaking Jews died in the Holocaust. And now Yiddish has a sacred status that only Hebrew used to have. Many Jews now use Yiddish to remember their identity, lost in the terrible 20th century.

We must look after Yiddish, not because it is funny, or has the secret to Jewishness. It is part of a wider Jewish culture, that existed for half a millennium in the shtetls and yeshivas of Eastern Europe. This is symbolic, and it is rebellion against history to promote the Yiddish culture. We should not lose that history. It is not sentimental to promote Yiddish, but fighting against the past.

It is not certain what the future of Yiddish will be. Probably, British, US, Polish and Lithuanian secular Jews will continue to be speak and study it. It will probably not become as important as it was before the war with Ashkenazi Jews. It is impossible to recreate the cultural situation it came from. This academic Yiddish is probably not as natural as the language the European Jews used to speak, so something has been lost as the language has changed.

But there is one place where street Yiddish is still alive: with the Orthodox Hasidim in Stamford Hill, Brooklyn and Beit Shemesh. They do not want to speak Modern Hebrew, as they say it is a corruption of the sacred language. They speak Yiddish and more of their groups are learning it. David Schneider says that this is where the language belongs: ‘In the 1980s we worried that the language would die and we needed to take it back as a language of secular Jews. But now it’s clear that the language is safe with the Hasidim. Yiddish belongs to them now.’

Coming soon: the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist is about the topic of endangered languages: Speak up, speak out for a multilingual world.


(This article has been simplified, so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).