Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Erika Timm, Historische jiddische Semantik. Die Bibelübersetzungssprache als Faktor der Auseinanderentwicklung des jiddischen und des deutschen Wortschatzes. Niemeyer: Tübingen. 2005. ISBN 3-484-73063-3.

(Published June 2006. HSL/SHL 6)

Erika Timm:Historische jiddische Semantik

Max Weinreich created the term ‘fusion language’ (shmeltsshprakh) to describe the process by which four languages were combined over centuries to form Yiddish. Judeo-Romance was according to Weinreich the language of the first Jews to settle in Ashkenaz, the German-speaking language area. The others were Hebrew-Aramaic, varieties of first Old High German and later Middle High German, and finally Slavic languages, after a majority of Ashkenazic Jews migrated eastward as a consequence of persecution in the West. Although not unquestioned (see e.g. Krogh 2001), there is wide agreement among scholars on this concept of amalgamation. However, there are diverse views on the role and importance of each of the components in the process. Some argue for Judeo-Romance, Aramaic or Sorbian as the substrate of Yiddish (see Katz 1985 and Wexler 1991), whilst others would say that these languages influenced Yiddish as adstrates (Krogh 2001). Although the Germanic component in Yiddish is the most dominant in phonology, morpho-syntax and the lexicon, the majority of research over the last fifty years has concentrated on the impact of the other components. This was perhaps due to the desire to separate the study of Yiddish from German linguistics and philology, which had traditionally ignored Yiddish or perceived it as a minor variety of German, obscurely characterized by Hebrew letters.

This slightly imbalanced approach has been counteracted to a certain extent by the Department of Yiddish at Trier University, notably by Erika Timm, who contributed a major study Graphische und phonische Struktur des Westjiddischen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Zeit um 1600 to the field of Yiddish historical linguistics in 1987. Earlier, in 1986, Timm had published an article outlining structural differences between German varieties and the emerging Yiddish language, focussing on the distinct development of the Germanic component in Yiddish. In this article Timm already refers to the important role the Yiddish calque language used to translate the Bible might have played in the process towards a Germanic component distinct from other German varieties. Her latest publication Historische jiddische Semantik. Die Bibelübersetzungssprache als Faktor der Auseinanderentwicklung des jiddischen und des deutschen Wortschatzes in 2005 is the result of a research project led by Timm over more than a decade, partly funded and supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. In her book she looks at the distinct development of the Germanic component in Yiddish, focussing on its semantics by examining the impact of the Yiddish translation of the Bible as learned and memorized by schoolchildren in the traditional Jewish elementary school, the Kheder. The institution of the Kheder dates back to the second century AD, if not earlier, and its main method of teaching involves the cantillation of passages from the Bible in Hebrew in order to learn them by heart, followed by a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation into the vernacular. The translation of the Bible into Yiddish, although a calque language rather than a medium for spoken language, developed into a fairly customized form through its institutional use. As Timm shows convincingly in her book, it influenced the semantics of the Germanic component in the language in a remarkable way.

Timm and her team based their research on the Hebrew–Yiddish Bible dictionary Mircevess hamišne, first printed around 1534, which gives a more or less complete overview of the Yiddish calque language. The relevant translations from the Biblical text into Yiddish were compared with historical and recent sources and dictionaries of Yiddish, Middle High German and Early New High German. Furthermore, words offered by the calque language were contrasted with a number of Yiddish sources dating from the first half of the fifteenth century. In doing so Timm can show that the calque language preserved forms in Yiddish which were abandoned by German varieties and/or the German standard language, e.g. šprejtn “to spread” or the verbal prefix der-. Furthermore the calque language created many words unknown in German dialects or in the emerging German standard language by using Germanic derivational affixes , e.g. -ung, -nisch, -kejt or –haftig. A main translation principle of the Kheder made it necessary to find Germanic equivalents even for Hebrew component words in Yiddish since the biblical texts were not supposed to be translated by Hebrew words. Many of the resulting neologisms were not common in old Yiddish sources but made their way into modern Yiddish. Timm shows how Hebrew influenced and formed the Germanic component of Yiddish indirectly through the established calque language for bible translation, thus contributing to the distinct development away from German varieties. It is, however, not only the lexicon but also parts of morphology which are influenced, formed or simply reinforced by the calque language, e.g. the s-plural, diminutive plurals or the Yiddish demonstrative construction der dosiger (“the same”).

The second part of the book is devoted to a thorough and meticulous discussion of those German compound words from Mircevess hamišne which show considerable differences when compared to German. Thus, Timm most remarkably specifies in her study what can be hidden beneath the somewhat vague notion of contact induced language change in highlighting the sociolinguistic and institutional background of language use which contributed to the distinct development of the Germanic component in Yiddish. 

Gertrud Reershemius, School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham (contact the reviewer).


Katz, Dovid. 1985. Hebrew, Aramaic and the Rise of Yiddish. In: Joshua A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill. 85-103.

Krogh, Steffen. 2001. Das Ostjiddische im Sprachkontakt. Deutsch im Spannungsfeld zwischen Semitisch und Slavisch. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Timm, Erika. 1986. Das Jiddische als Kontrastsprache bei der Erforschung des Frühneuhochdeutschen. Zeitschrift für germanistische Linguistik 14, 1-22.

Timm, Erika. 1987. Graphische und phonische Struktur des Westjiddischen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Zeit um 1600. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Weinreich, Max. 1980. History of the Yiddish Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wexler, Paul. 1991. Yiddish – the fifteenth Slavic Language. A study of partial language shift from Judeo-Sorbian to German. International Journal o0f the Sociology of Language 91, 9-150.