Max Weinreich (1894–1969) was born in the Courland region of Latvia, then Russian, into a family of German-speaking Jews, and learned Yiddish only in his teens. His doctorate in linguistics at Marburg University (he wrote on the history of Yiddish dialects) was awarded in 1923, the year he published, in Yiddish, Shtaplen (Rungs), featuring essays on Yiddish philology. This was the beginning of a scholarly career that culminated, four years after his death, with the publication of his truly monumental Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language). The publisher was YIVO—the Yiddish acronym for the Jewish Scientific Institute—initially housed by Weinreich in a room of his apartment in Vilna, Lithuania (the city was then part of Poland). By good fortune, Weinreich and his older son Uriel were in Denmark when Hitler’s war began on September 1, 1939, and they continued on to New York City, to be joined there in 1940 by his wife Regina and their younger son. From that year on, Weinreich was director of research at YIVO in New York City and professor of Yiddish at CCNY. Uriel Weinreich, also an eminent linguist, became professor of Yiddish at Columbia but died at the age of forty.
The masterpiece of Max Weinreich, his History, was published in a curtailed translation by the University of Chicago Press in 1940, which unfortunately omitted the thousand pages of notes, now restored in the superb new Yale University Press edition. The notes, extraordinarily copious and rich, are unlike any others I know. I have been reading them for several months in a proof copy, and cannot come to an end, because every subject they discuss involves the processes by which Jewish culture was transmitted and survived. The story of Yiddish, in a sense the Jewish language, parallels and embodies the history of the Jewish people.
Like some other European languages, Yiddish evidently began around the year 1000, and sprang up in the Carolingian Rhineland. It was not at first called “Yiddish.” When Jews migrated from Lombardy and France to the Rhine region of such towns as Cologne and Metz they spoke what in Hebrew was called La’az, a “foreign people’s language,” called “Loez” by Weinreich. This was a form of neo-Latin that was fused with the Germanic language of their Rhenish bad neighbors, and protectively was always written in Hebrew letters. In Hebrew, Germany was named Ashkenaz, in contrast to Spain, called Sepharad. Further east, Loez fused with Slavic languages, intricately yet randomly. Weinreich’s phrase for the nature of Yiddish is a “fusion language,” and he carefully informs us that Loez itself had earlier fused Hebrew and Aramaic elements with Old Italian and Old French. Similarly Yiddish and Middle Rhenish German are utterly distinct languages, with very different sorts of metaphor, since the culture informing Yiddish rhetoric is primarily Talmudic.
In a very useful handbook by Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (1990), Weinreich’s exemplary refusal to study the nostalgias many Jews felt for previous forms of…
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