The Aims of Yiddish Philology (1913)
by Ber Borochov
Of all the sciences, philology plays the greatest role in the national revival of oppressed peoples. Philology is not a hollow theory for scholars and sedentary academics but a practical guide for the people. It does encompass certain theoretical and historical components such as the history of the language and culture with which it is concerned and the general principles of language development. Yet its purpose and its educational importance lie with the practical life of the people. The first objective of every awakening people is the mastery of its own language in order that it be used all the more productively in its national creativity. As long as a people remain illiterate in its own language there can be no national culture. National culture comprises not only the poetic works of literary masters but primarily and foremostly the skill to correctly speak and write the mother tongue.
At the beginning of a national and cultural renaissance–during the genesis of national culture–there is chaos. The folk language is divided into countless dialects. People of different localities speak differently and everybody writes as he pleases, each writer fashioning his own words according to his own understanding. Only philology can bring an end to this havoc. Philology ascertains the root of each word and traces its history and the development of its meaning. Science thus allows general and clear principles to replace personal whims and inventions. A general dictionary and a general grammar are established and the folk school, literature, and the press see to it that they become mandatory. As long as a nation lacks a national philology it remains far from modern national culture.
Unlike general linguistics, which is a general science, philology is a national science. It presupposes that its object-language entails cultural and historical value at least with respect to the past. Usually philology transcends this limitation and operates on the premise that its object-language has a national significance for the future. Whoever does not believe in the survival of the Yiddish language can be a Yiddish linguist, but not a Yiddish philologist. Linguistics is concerned only with the forms of the language while philology extends to its cultural productivity.
These are not all the tasks of Yiddish philology. At present, however, we are concerned with elementaries, and the elementaries of national culture entail the correctness of speech and writing. It is therefore no surprise that national philology is so highly prized amongst oppressed peoples. Each nation counts amongst its national heroes not only political freedom-fighters and great poets and thinkers, but also those philologists who laid the first stones in the foundation of a national linguistic science. Cultural revivals begin almost universally with the establishment of literary, philological, and ethnographic institutions. One need only take note of the esteem in which literary and philological societies are held by the Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Flemings, Catalans, Ukrainians, and other awakening peoples. The few exceptions consist of the Jews and several other small and luckless nations. It is one of the signs of our national impoverishment that amongst us Jews there are still no institutions dedicated to national philology.
It cannot be said that Yiddish philology is poor or that there is no Yiddish philology at all. On the contrary, there is an entire body of books, brochures, articles, and notices on Yiddish language, literature, and folklore. But this corpus of research has almost no national significance. Our people know nothing of it, and it is useless to our intelligentsia. Why? First, it is almost entirely written in foreign languages. Second, it has neither order nor central theme, dealing as it does scatteredly and chaotically with isolated problems and details such as the question of the diminutive forms in Yiddish grammar or the history of this or that book. Third, nearly all the existing works on Yiddish are purely academic. They are remote from life and do not strive toward practical educational goals. The field of cultural education is handled for us by the daily press, which ponders over the question of whether Yiddish is a folk language, a national language, an ugly jargon or a cultural medium worthy or our use. The majority of the authors who deal with Yiddish are assimilationists, alien to the Jewish nation. In their scientific writings they continually seek to demonstrate that Yiddish is a bona fide German dialect and that the Jews are the bearers of German culture in the Slavic lands.
We do not know for sure the age of the Yiddish language (Hebrew alphabet), but Yiddish is no exception; it is impossible to determine with assuredness when any language is born. In any event, Yiddish is probably no younger than 600 or 700 years. It is older than the period during which German Jews began to settle in Galicia under the Galician King Daniel and in Poland under Duke Boleslav (13th-14th centuries). Old Yiddish manuscripts which survived date back to the thirteenth century. Avé-Lallement, comparing Yiddish with the German thieves’ language of the Middle Ages, concludes that Yiddish is 800 years old. Our language and literature are far from being young. The study of Yiddish is itself 400 years old. Martin Luther, Johann Agricola and other early sixteenth century theologians made occasional remarks regarding Yiddish. The well-known Hebrew scholar and founder of Aramaic science, Sebastian Muenster, afforded Yiddish a prominent position in his Hebrew dictionary of 1523. In 1609 the brilliant Christian linguist Johann Buxtorf the Elder published an explicit description of Yiddish. When we take into account that the philology of many nations (e.g. the Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, and the Serbs) is not older than 70 or 80 years, and that of other nations younger still, we have all the more reason to be ashamed that our national science has not yet acquired a respectable position.
The scientific investigation of our language suffers considerably from the deep-rooted prejudices of our intelligentsia against Yiddish. To this day there are many who consider the very idea of Yiddish philology to be funny. Just such ignorant claims as “Yiddish is a dirty jargon” or “Yiddish is a corrupted German dialect without a grammar and without any cultural importance” were voiced 80 or 100 years ago by the reactionary people-hating intellectuals amongst the Greeks, Serbs and to some extent even today amongst the Ukrainians, Catalans, and others. But life has undone the endeavors of the folk-hating zealots. Modern Greek, Serbian, and other folk languages are liberating themselves more and more from cultural enslavement and are progressing rapidly on the road toward national creativity. It is beneath the dignity of a scientifically trained philologist to engage in dispute with the anti-Yiddish arguments enumerated above. Whoever has the vaguest notion of linguistic science knows very well that any language spoken and understood by millions of people must have an internal order and a systematic structure. Otherwise, quite simply, nobody would understand it. What is called “grammar” may be written down or not, but the language nevertheless has its rules, its philological law. The cultural value of a language is wholly independent of whether its grammar has yet been written. Every living language of a living people is a living organism, a free individuality with its own laws and caprices. Simple and lucid as the structure of a language may be, it is at the same time inexhaustible. No scientifically trained person will boast that he knows the entirety of a language. Yiddish has a straightforward structure, and yet the task of Yiddish philology is infinitely broad and endlessly deep because Yiddish, too, is a unique living organism, unbound in its creative freedom.
The Yiddish philologist encounters great difficulty in consequence of Yiddish belonging to the category of mixed languages. A truly pure language does not exist. Hebrew has many Aramaic, Greek, and Persian elements and Russian includes numerous Turkish and Finnish words. There are, however, languages whose mixed structure is immediately conspicuous such as English–a mixture of Celtic, Germanic and Romance elements; Japanese–a mixture of native and Chinese elements; or Persian–a mixture of native and Arabic elements. An extreme example of a language mixture is provided by Turkish (Osmanli). Inherently an agglutinative language without inflections of the Ural-Altaic group, Turkish is combined with completely alien inflecting languages–the Indo-European Persian and the Semitic Arabic. Yet this union is harmonious throughout and highly organic and productive. There are many beautiful and powerful languages that are more mixed than Yiddish, yet nobody will call them “jargon.”
Yiddish consists mostly of Germanic words and forms. In addition, it has many Semitic (Hebrew and Aramaic) words, an especially Semitic syntax and style, as well as Slavic (Polish and Ukrainian) elements. Finally, one finds in Yiddish a small but fascinating element–the handful of Old French, Italian and Portuguese words, such as tsholnt (a baked Jewish dish served on the Sabbath), fatsheyle (kerchief), and bentshn (to bless). It is evident from Old Yiddish writings that the Romance element was once far more extensive than it is today. There is almost no doubt that these words are remnants of the Romance languages our grandfathers spoke before turning to Yiddish.
Just as in other mixed languages, the several elements emerge in Yiddish as an autonomous organic compound. It is not a language mixture or a hodge-podge but a language, albeit a mixed one. As soon as German, Hebrew, and Slavic elements enter the folk language, they cease to be German, Hebrew, and Slavic. They lose their erstwhile status and assume a new one; they become Yiddish: Their pronunciation is fitted to its phonetics, their declension–to its morphology, and their position in the sentence–to its syntax. Yiddish frequently fuses elements of diverse origins, as from Hebrew and German (e.g. bagalzen [to rob], unterkhasmenen [to sign]) or Hebrew and Slavic (e.g. tsuvak [hypocrite], kolboynik [jack-of-all-trades; wicked fellow]).
The elements of multiple linguistic origin within Yiddish are by no means mutually contradictory. They perform complementary functions in the language and combine with each other as organically as the functions of a living organism. One of the goals of Yiddish philology is to determine the functions performed by the Hebrew, German, and Slavic elements in Yiddish. The usual view, that Hebrew words express more lofty and abstract concepts, and Germanic words everyday matters, is incorrect. We have got (God) and gedank (idea)–Germanic words for higher concepts, and mekhutn (in-law) and mishpokhe (family)–Hebraic words for everyday matters. Many erotic terms also originated in Hebrew. The difference might be formulated thus: The ideas and relations of life are generally derived from German. The phenomena that arose in the realm of intimate Jewish existence are for the most part derived from Hebrew, while the forms and feelings of daily life in the narrow family environment, as well as many uncouth personal characterizations, are Slavic in origin. A single concept may acquire divergent nuances depending on the genetic descent of the word used to express it. Let us take, as an example, three of the words for “God” in Yiddish. Got (God) is a universal concept and is expressed by a Germanic word. Reboyne sheloylem (master of the universe), of Hebraic descent, conveys only the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Finally, gotenyu-tatenyu (dear little God, dear little father), derived from the Slavic, discloses an intimate, almost childish relationship with the almighty power. There are, of course, numerous exceptions to the stated rule. In general, though, the Germanic words stem from the contact of Jews with the European world, the Hebrew and Aramaic words from Jewish communal life, the kheyder (traditional Jewish primary school) and the yeshiva, Slavic words from intimate contacts with peasants, housekeepers, and Gentiles employed to perform tasks on the Sabbath. In as much as the three elements–Germanic, Hebraic, and Slavic–provide different functions in the language, the mixed nature of Yiddish is no hindrance to its development. On the contrary, our language is thereby enriched with words, and its potential expressive power is enhanced.
As was said before, most words and forms in Yiddish are Germanic. Consequently, every high school student thinks that “Yiddish is corrupt German.” Whoever makes this claim is unfortunately ignorant of what German is. Yiddish is not derived from the German that is studied in school for examinations. That German–the language of Schiller and Goethe–is not the stepfather of Yiddish but its stepbrother, and indeed its younger stepbrother. It is older that the German our “intellectual” deems acceptable and in fact three or four hundred years older. Both [modern German and Yiddish] derive from Middle High German and both are “corrupt.” Yiddish was “corrupted” by Hebrew and Slavic impact, modern German by Latin and French. Yiddish was “corrupted” in the marketplace and the yeshiva. German in the universities and the bureaucratic chancelleries. Modern Yiddish contains many Old Germanic words which have long been lost in literary German. Frequently, a word or a grammatical form which our ignorant “intellectual” considers corrupt German is in fact an Old Germanic form preserved from extinction in Yiddish.
A sweeping task of our philology entails the enrichment of the Yiddish language. The problem is not that Yiddish is poor. On the contrary, this language must be very rich in expressive capability, because it is fused from three exceedingly rich language families. This wealth, increased by the liveliness of Jewish temperament, in continually manifest in Yiddish. The poverty from which it suffers results from social and psychological causes. Wandering about on the streets for generations, dragging along at fairs, it was not privileged to be bred in chancelleries and refined in universities. For this reason, Yiddish is poor in scientific ideas and lacks a sophisticated legal and political terminology. Most significantly, Yiddish was severed from nature as were its people, hence the dearth in names of minerals, plants, and animals.
The paramount tasks of Yiddish philology can be formulated as the nationalization and humanization of the language. Nationalizing Yiddish entails purifying the language thoroughly and enriching it extensively, to the point where it can express all aspects of Jewish creativity. Humanizing Yiddish entails turning it into a means for incorporating into the Jewish nation all the cultural values of modern panhuman development. Our great writers saw the need to enrich and to cultivate the common folk language without even having recourse to the methods of scientific philology. Mendele Moykher Sforim is the Columbus of the Yiddish language, and Yitskhok Leybush Peretz is its Napoleon. Mendele discovered Yiddish and Peretz conquered European worlds on its behalf. The unexpected blossoming of Yiddish poetry and literary criticism unearthed innumerable paths of expressive possibility, demonstrating to us that this language can become a rich and powerful cultural and educational means of our people.
Scientific philology must contribute with its methodology by introducing order into the chaotic process of creativity. Mendele nationalized Yiddish; his first literary grandchild, Sholem Aleichem, wondrously popularized it, and Peretz humanized it. The three great writers divided amongst them the historical task. Let science too have a part in its heritage. Mendele discovered the language, so let us explore it. Peretz brought it new nations, so let us create an order among them. Philology must excavate the homeless layers of folk creativity by searching out the treasures of our national creativeness scattered across the libraries of Western Europe. Old Yiddish literature had its classical works such as the Shmuel-bukh, the Mayse-buke, and the Seyfer Mides, which served as models for long generations and were even translated into other languages. The people possess masses of witticisms, jokes, songs, stories, and riddles–a folklore that philology must research and cultivate. The methods of philology will enrich the language by enabling the nation to become acquainted with its literary past and to learn to benefit from its latent wealth. But his is a task that individuals cannot take upon themselves. Individuals can work on single branches, since it is they who have the initiative. But only a societal institution can organize the work of philology in its entire breadth. Only when we have united our people’s strength, when there is an authoritative national organization for philological purposes, will Yiddish philology be able to befittingly fulfill its aims.