Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 11.003 [Sequential No. 180]
1) This issue of TMR
2) Review Essay
Marion Aptroot on Erika Timm, Historische jiddische semantik and Erika Timm & Gustav Adolf Beckmann, Etymologische
Studien zum Jiddischen.
[New insights on how Yiddish became Yiddish – ed.]
Click here to enter: http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr11/tmr11003.htm
Subject: This issue of TMR.
In this issue of TMR Professor
Marion Aptroot, Head of Yiddish Studies at Duesseldorf's
From: Marion Aptroot
Subject: Review Essay
Marion Aptroot on Erika Timm, Historische jiddische semantik and Erika Timm & Gustav Adolf Beckmann, Etymologische Studien zum Jiddischen.
Erika Timm, Historische jiddische Semantik. Die Bibelübersetzungssprache als Faktor der Auseinanderentwicklung des jiddischen und des deutschen Wortschatzes. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag 2005.
Erika Timm and Gustav Adolf Beckmann, Etymologische Studien zum Jiddischen. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur
Problematik der jiddischen Südost- und Ostflanke. (jidische schtudies,
Erika Timm takes us to the Middle Ages and back in Historische jiddische Semantik, her study of Old Yiddish vocabulary and morphology that, to a surprising extent, survive in Modern Standard Yiddish. Having scoured medieval and later sources on Hebrew Bible translation in the kheyder, Timm has uncovered its influence on language formation. She has thus made a major contribution to the history of both the Yiddish language and of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. The historical dictionary of an important part of (Modern) Yiddish vocabulary, the centre-piece of this volume, illuminates Yiddish literature as well as etymology.
Since Max Weinreich posited his view of Yiddish as a fusion language
the uniqueness of Yiddish was not sought in its Germanic Component and the Romance Component was deemed to consist of a
very restricted number of words not meriting much further exploration. The
interest of subsequent researchers was either directed towards the Slavic and
Semitic Components or towards alternative theories of where Yiddish began. Weinreich placed this birthplace in Southern and especially
In Historische jiddische Semantik. Die Bibelübersetzungssprache als Faktor der Auseinanderentwicklung des jiddischen und des deutschen Wortschatzes Timm demonstrates how the practice of translating the Bible in kheyder during the earliest period of the emergence of the Yiddish language influenced the formation of its Germanic Component, that the influence of Judeo-French in this context is more important than thought, and that an important part of the original translation vocabulary is present in everyday Modern Eastern Yiddish.
Erika Timm, emeritus professor of Yiddish studies at the
Historische jiddische Semantik is the fruit of twenty years of research dealing with central issues in the emergence of the Yiddish language. The difference between the Germanic Component in Yiddish and German (including all German dialects of the relevant periods) is one of the topics in Yiddish studies that have stirred Erika Timm’s interest. Timm uses Weinreich’s component terminology, but makes it clear that the image of the Germanic Component of Yiddish as being part of German as a stock language of Yiddish is too simple. Timm shows that parts of the Germanic Component of Yiddish have a meaning that cannot be explained by means of German historical linguistics or dialectology and that some Germanic words in Yiddish have never been part of German but are original coinages. In addition, some words mistakenly attributed to the Germanic component are of Romance origins or have been influence by Judeo-French traditions in biblical translation. The causes of the development of Yiddish as a language different from all German dialects are not just found in socio-historical developments and contact with Slavic languages. One of the keys to understanding the earliest independent developments in Yiddish as a European language lies in the basic education system, the kheyder.
The kheyder education, which ideally every boy received, consisted for an important part in translating text passages from the Torah. Since Yiddish wasn’t taught as a subject, the translation language was the only Yiddish taught in a formal setting. Translations were transmitted from generation to generation and therefore the vocabulary was relatively constant. Shloyme Noble already pointed this out in his study of translation of the Torah in kheyder . The language of Bible translation was central in transmitting Yiddish within Ashkenaz.
Timm has chosen the semantics of Yiddish Bible translation to study the differentiation between Yiddish and German vocabulary in the period leading up to the point where Yiddish is clearly an independent Germanic language. Timm realized that a contrastive approach between Yiddish and German should not end with the study of the obvious, the non-Germanic components or even with the unique semantics of German Component words used to designate special Jewish customs. The Romance Component has always been quantitatively weak; the Slavic Component becomes more obvious in the written tradition only at a later date. The Hebrew-Aramaic component is the most obvious, but dependent on the text genre and the degree of education of the author/speaker. Some of the earliest Yiddish texts, for example the rhyming verse pair in the Worms Mahzor (1172), contain Germanic and Hebrew-Aramaic elements, but others are devoid of words of Hebrew-Aramaic origins (e.g., the Cambridge Codex with the exception of the Hebrew Titles which were probably added at a later stage). They were in all likelihood consciously omitted for aesthetic reasons: a ‘mixed’ language was perceived as stylistically seriously flawed.
Erika Timm explores the differentiation between Yiddish and German during the Old Yiddish Period, examining facts and underlying principles. Max Weinreich, in chapter 3 of his history of the Yiddish language (Derekh ha-shas) and earlier articles on the relationship of cultural specificity and the development of the Yiddish language, had already pointed out how a language is determined by a culture and its religion. He also gave some examples of loan translations from loshn-koydesh (e.g., oyf eyn fus). In her 1987 study Timm also provided a number of cultural specific expressions such as lernen (for studying canonical Jewish texts) or vrouen-shul (vaybershe shul) for the women’s part of the synagogue. She subsumes the latter type of expressions formed under the influence of Jewish religion as “institutsbedingt” (determined by an institution) because they developed from institutions and customs in Ashkenazic Jewry. Such elements were part of Timm’s earlier study; the present book is concerned with what she calls “übersetzungsbedingte” phenomena (determined by translation), which have come into existence through the translation practice in the medieval khadorim.
The book is
divided into four sections:
A. General overview, introduction and synthesis (p. 1-147);
B. Alphabetical section (p. 149-575, an etymological dictionary of an important part of the Yiddish vocabulary);
C. Specific semantic fields in Bible translations (p. 577-681): designations for musical instruments, gems in the breastplate of the High Priests, flora and fauna);
D. Indices and Bibliographies.
As point of
departure for her exploration, Erika Timm used Mirkeves hamishne
(MM), also known as Seyfer shel reb Anshl, a Hebrew-Yiddish
glossary of the Torah printed in
Because she analyses the continuity in the language of Ashkenazic Jewry from its origins until the present, Erika Timm opts for the use of the term Yiddish for the language of Ashkenazic Jews from the earliest texts in Hebrew characters onwards without going into the question of when the disparate developments of Yiddish and German lead to the existence of two different languages. That question cannot be answered because no clear line can be drawn: it is not a matter of all or nothing. Yiddish has developed under the influence of the German language which at all times had many more speakers and, much of the time, more prestige.
In order to
sketch the development of the Yiddish translation tradition Timm
analyses its relationship with the Bible translation tradition of the French
Jews (Part A, § 9, p. 33-40). In the tenth and eleventh century the main
communication of Ashkenazic Jewry with the rest of
the Jewish world took the route over northern
The beginnings of the Yiddish translation tradition are to a large extent lost to us. The manuscripts predating Mirkeves hamishne that Timm could consult all date from ca. 1390 and thereafter. Hardly any manuscripts including Yiddish words predating the persecutions of 1349 seem to have survived. Based on the analysis of the Bible translation corpus, Timm concludes that the Yiddish Bible translation did continue to develop after 1349, but before that date it may have been more open to changes in its vocabulary: with only very few exceptions the words in use in Yiddish – excluding Yiddish translation coinages – can still be found in German until 1400. The pogroms of 1349 and the politics of expulsion of the Jews from the towns and certain regions lead to the dissociation from German and a stronger conservation of the Yiddish translation language.
The drifting apart of Yiddish and German is not only caused by the conservation of the Yiddish tradition, but also by the changes in the German language, which Timm illustrates with striking examples. Under the influence of Luther’s translation many variants which continue to be part of the Yiddish Bible translation vocabulary disappeared from Standard German and numerous German words of Latin and Greek origin which Yiddish had borrowed in their traditional, Germanic form (e.g. Yiddish apteyk, lempert, mirmlshteyn) were “corrected” in German – also in Luther’s Bible – according to the humanistic knowledge of Latin and Greek (German Apotheke, Leopard, Marmor).
Although there are variants within the Yiddish Bible translation tradition, the Yiddish primary texts (with the exception of the Amsterdam Yiddish Bible translations by Blitz and Witzenhausen which underwent the influence of Christian Bible translations) can be distinguished from Christian German translations by their specific vocabulary and syntax. Timm explains the unity of the Yiddish Bible translation on the one hand through the constant transmission over generations guaranteeing a degree of consistency, and on the other hand through underlying principles which Yiddish translations have in common and can be recognized after thorough analysis. The older translations are extremely close to the Hebrew original in their attempt to reflect the number and order of the words in the original text as closely as possible. This was not always possible – Semitic and Germanic languages being so different in structure – but the attempt to do so led to constructions of the type der man der doziker (as translation of ha-ish ha-ze). On the level of the vocabulary, the creativity of the early Yiddish Bible translators was put to the test. The translators were confronted by the problem of finding matching translations for Hebrew roots whereby for each Hebrew three-letter-root (shoresh) ideally one corresponding Germanic equivalent was to be found. This despite the fact that a single root can often have different meanings which cannot all be covered by one translation equivalent. Furthermore, the morphology of Hebrew and German is very different.
Generally when translating a text, one tries to transpose the meaning and style from a source language into a target language and aims for the language of the translation to be as “natural” as that of the original text. This is not possible without “artistic license”. Dealing with a revealed text (the Torah), faithfulness to the source text had priority over the language of the translation in the Jewish tradition and if necessary as the ultimate consequence a language had to be created in the image of the original text.
The search for
appropriate translations led to different forms of independence with regard to
the German language which the first generations of Ashkenazic
Jews had adopted in their new environment. The translation language could (1)
select among different alternative words or expressions which German offered or
it could (2) change the content or (3) seek expressive possibilities of such
materials. Timm shows that these decisions are
dependent on the underlying motives for the choices made. The translation
language can (a) avoid or prefer a certain Germanic element without
consideration for the Hebrew language structure because of its semantic
properties (e.g. the word gayst ‘spirit’; its connotation with the Christian concept
of the Holy Trinity made Jews avoid its usage). Alternatively, the motivation
of certain decisions can be based on (b) the attempt to translate a Hebrew root
with words which are etymologically related or (c) the attempt to reflect the
syntactic properties of a Hebrew lexeme. E.g., in the translation frukhpern [un mern] zikh ‘to be fruitful
[and multiply]’, the verb frukhpern (or frukhtigen) was coined to reflect the ‘fruitful’ property of
The translators would not have had to grapple with some of the problems with which they saw themselves confronted if they had been able to use Hebrew words which were probably commonly known because they were part of the everyday language. The underlying principle, which predates the Ashkenazic period, forbids the translation of Hebrew through Hebrew – or in this case through the Hebrew Component of Yiddish. How large this Hebrew Component was is not least hard to tell because of the influence of Bible translation language and the – unrelated – aesthetic principle that “mixed language” is aesthetically undesirable.  As a result Biblical translations and glosses as well as literary texts from the early centuries of Yiddish generally avoid the Hebrew Component and cannot be considered a faithful reflection of the component structure in the vernacular. The Hebrew words which form the exception in the Bible translation language are the four cardinal points, the expressions tsofn, mizrekh, dorem and mayrev, used in more than 90% of the translations of cardinal points in the texts researched by Erika Timm (§20). Here again, Erika Timm explains an ‘anomaly’ through its rootedness in Jewish culture with quotations from sources ranging from the Bible and the Talmud to the hugely popular Tsene-rene and the custom of having a mizrekh on a wall in the living room indicating the direction of prayer.
The creation of a translation language that reflects the semantic relationship between different elements in the Hebrew language has led to the formation of new words which – within the Germanic language family – are unique to Yiddish. Timm not only analyses the underlying principles but also presents different specific morphological categories: the formation of nouns by means of the suffixes -ung (A § 21), -nish (§ 22), -keyt (-kayt, § 23), haftik (§ 24) and the substantive use of adjectives in the neuter form (§ 25, e.g. dos guts). For the differentiation between German and Yiddish the plural formation on -s is also an interesting question (§ 26) as is the diminutive plural on -likh (Mod. Y. –lekh) (§ 27), which is here for the first time convincingly reconstructed. A special characteristic of Yiddish Bible translation language is preference of appositional instead of genitive groups (e.g. ek velt, sof-vokh), a construction which also occurs in German but is much more widespread in Yiddish. Max Weinreich assumed that the influence of the Hebrew smikhut is the cause; Erika Timm supports this view (p. 115). The influence of the Bible translation language on ‘ordinary’ Yiddish and its morphology is clearly demonstrated by the examples of the demonstrative der/di/dos dozik- and der/di/dos zelbik- (§ 29). Erika Timm traces their emergence from early translations of Hebrew constructions of the type ha-yom ha-ze to the modern type, which gains ground around 1500.
Part B, the alphabetical section, is a historical dictionary of those parts of the Bible translation vocabulary that are specifically Yiddish (roughly 500 words in about 300 items). The unmarked headwords are part of Modern Eastern Yiddish. Those words that are restricted to Western Yiddish or cannot be found in dictionaries of Modern Eastern Yiddish are marked with a diamond. The entries often contain word histories that are little gems of (cultural) history and reflect a dazzling erudition.
Historische jiddische Semantik provides us with a wealth of new facts and insights regarding the Yiddish language and Ashkenazic culture. It is a towering achievement in Yiddish linguistics and cultural studies. Happily, the indices and clear structure will guide the earnest users of this weighty reference work.
Etymologische Studien zum Jiddischen. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Problematik der jiddischen Südost- und Ostflanke was written by Erika Timm with Gustav Adolf Beckmann, a scholar of Romance languages known in Yiddish circles as Erika Timm's collaborator on a number of her earlier books.
This book deals with the history of the Yiddish language and, specifically, with the history of certain words. Erika Timm and Gustav Adolf Beckmann discuss recent theories of the history of Yiddish, notably Paul Wexler’s theory of Yiddish as a relexified Slavic language and his adventurous etymologies. Dovid Katz earlier took issue with Wexler’s methodology in his polemical, witty and well argued “A late twentieth-century case of katoves”. Timm and Beckmann join the main points of his argument, but also react to Wexler’s more recent work and add much that is new and of value regardless of the academic debate.
In chapters discussing the etymology of gete (ghetto), davenen and katoves, as well as a list of words proposed by Wexler as direct loans from Greek (Judeo-Greek) and a chapter on oriental words that are of non-Greek origins, Timm and Beckmann make a very strong case for following the history of a word over the centuries when trying to establish its etymology. The case of ghetto (Chapter I) shows that the original and widely accepted etymology (Venice’s “il ghetto nuovo”, the terrain where the old foundry was located and which later became the enforced Jewish quarter) is valid, but that the semantics of the word may at times and in certain contexts have been influenced by other associations (e.g. by get ‘divorce’). Proposed etymologies can be interesting phenomena in and of themselves. The chapter on katoves (Chapter III) demonstrates that the use of an expression in the early centuries of its use can offer vital information about its origins and development. For davenen (Chapter II, which also refers to the heated discussion on Mendele in 1997), Timm and Beckmann provide evidence to support the theory that davav is the most likely candidate ranging from the Torah, through Talmudic traditions, also referring to non-Masoretic Jewish as well non-Jewish interpretations, through medieval Judeo-French and Ashkenazic glossaries, the poetic style of piyyutim from the sixth to the twelfth century up to Mendele Moykher-Sforim's Hebrew version of the Vintshfingerl, Be-emek ha-bakha, via sixteenth century Yiddish texts that present Western Yiddish oren and Eastern Yiddish davenen as equivalents. The amount of evidence is impressive, but Timm and Beckmann do not hide the fact that matters are complicated, among others by an extensive gap in Hebrew lexicology (spanning most of the Early Modern Era). They write that they are not under the illusion that the evidence, although substantial, will end the discussion: facts may be unearthed that support existing alternative theories or new etymologies can still be proposed.
Timm and Beckmann do not
try to impress us with the breadth and depth of relevant information – and
sometimes deliberately irrelevant information in order to show us with humor
that surprising information that may fit at first glance cannot possibly be
relevant. Although an excursion on the building of bimas in medieval
This book defends high standards in philological research as well as the view Timm shares with her predecessors Max Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum: Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazic Jewry and bears the traces of the underlying unity of the culture as well as significant diversity. In their final remarks “Lexik und jenseits der Lexik” (the lexicon and beyond, Chapter VI) Timm and Beckmann explicitly formulate the questions that cannot be answered by the proponents of “relexification”, the theory that Yiddish is in its core a Slavic language that has adopted a Germanic vocabulary. Those who don’t accept that Yiddish is a member of the Germanic language family cannot explain the fact that Yiddish also has a Germanic case system, Germanic verbal endings, Germanic pronouns, the Germanic auxiliary zayn, the analytical past tense, the basic numbers 1-10 etc. Timm and Beckmann side with Birnbaum, Bin-Nun and Max and Uriel Weinreich in supporting the theory of Western origins – a theory to which Timm has contributed a wealth of additional evidence in a number of her publications – and make a case for the study of the Sprachbund between (Eastern) Yiddish and Slavic languages.
 The transcriptions in this review follow the YIVO-rules of transcription for English language texts. The transcriptions in the books that are being reviewed follow a related system conceived for a German context (in which letters such as /s/ and /z/ are pronounced differently). The system used by Timm contains additional information in the transcription of quotations from Premodern and Early Modern Yiddish: their spelling is defective and the transcription system clearly indicates which letters are transcribed and which are based on the (informed) interpretation of the author.
 ‘Historical Yiddish Semantics. The Language of Bible Translation as a factor in the growing apart of Yiddish and German vocabulary’
 Erika Timm, Graphische und phonische Struktur des Westjiddischen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Zeit um 1600. Tübingen: Niemeyer 1987.
 Noble, however, was interested in those parts of the kheyder
vocabulary that had survived in that context from about 1600 (he did not have
access to earlier sources) until the early twentieth century, but were not part
of the living language. He directed his attention to what was ‘unique’ from the
point of view of a speaker of Modern Eastern Yiddish. Timm
opens our eyes to the ‘uniqueness’ of what is taken for granted. Shloyme Nobl, Khumesh-taytsh: an oysforshung vegn der traditsye
fun taytshn khumesh in di khadorim,
 The continuing study of the impact of Slavic languages on the structure of Yiddish is of great importance. Cf. the work of Ewa Geller and Dov-Ber Kerler and the syntax project of Henrike Kuehnert, Rosemarie Luehr, Moshe Taub and Miriam Wagner.
 Historische jiddische Semantik provides a wonderful example of the West-East
continuum of such vocabulary in the form of a rhymed verse on Jewish customs
collected by Chava Turniansky
from an informant from
 Timm provided overwhelming evidence for the origins of these glosses to the period in which Rashis commentary was written in an article that reads like a detective story. Timm, “Zur Frage der Echtheid von Raschis jiddischen Glossen,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 107 (1985), p. 45-81.
 Timm remarks that the more flexible “integration” of German words in the earlier period is responsible for the “less remarkable” character of the earlier phase of the tradition before 1349. This may be an explanation for the lack of recognizable influence on the texts, even the religious poems, in the Cambridge Codex. The following of the style and form of German literary examples may also have contributed to this. Nevertheless, Timm has found evidence of specific Yiddish Bible translation vocabulary in the Cambridge Codex, cf. p. 48.
 On the perceived inappropriateness of the Hebrew Component
in verse epics see Timm 1987: 365-375. The first to
consciously break this rule was Elye Bokher (see Erika Timm in Chone Shmeruk, ed., Pariz un’ Vyene. Mahadura biqortit be-tseruf mavo, he’arot
venispakhim bidei Chone Shmeruk beshituf
 Erika Timm bases her transcription of modern Yiddish on the YIVO system and klal-yidish pronunciation, adapted for a German readership. An exception is made in the case of the suffixes -hayt and -kayt which are transcribed -hejt and -kejt, thus being closer to the Yiddish orthography than the klal-yidish pronunciation. I could not find information in the text on the motivation for the transcription of the diphthongs in these two suffixes.
 Dovid Katz, “A Late twentieth-century case of katoves” in Dov-Ber Kerler, ed., History of Yiddish Studies, Chur: Harwood 1991, p. 141-163.
 The relationship between Semitic and Slavic impact on Yiddish also deserves further exploration, cf. Steffen Krogh, Das Ostjiddische im Sprachkontakt. Deutsch im Spannungsfeld zwischen Semitisch und Slavisch. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001.
End of The Mendele Review Vol. 11.003
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