Just Where Did Yiddish Even Come From?

Those of you who grew up in a Jewish family, or with Jewish friends, probably heard some words that sound kind of made-up. Hell, they’ve become part of everyday language and even non-jews use the terms, sometimes more than Jews do.

I heard them all the time growing up (since I’m a Jew), but I never bothered to think about where the language actually comes from. Luckily, I’ll never have to, since Dr. Eran Elhaik and his team from the University of Sheffield, UK, have cracked the code.

The team used a new tool called the Geographic Population Structure (GPS), which converts DNA data into ancestral coordinates, thus pinpointing the origin of that data. In this case, they used the DNA of Slavic Yiddish (shortened to Yiddish) speakers. It’s been spoken since the 9th century CE and is the language of  Central and Eastern European Jews, known as the Ashkenazic. Notably, it’s a mix of Hebrew, German, Slavic and some other elements written in Aramaic.

No one knew where it came from, but there were always two main schools of thought. One argues that Yiddish has German origins and the other argues that it has Slavic origins. It’d be easy to quash one just by finding out where the Ashkenazic Jews originated, but no one knew that information… until now.


Unfortunately, we’ll never know what the other 5 commandments were

The GPS tool led scientists to four ancient villages in north-eastern Turkey. What’s more, the research published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, suggests that Yiddish was invented by Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews as they traded on the Silk Road.

“We conclude that Ashkenazic Jews probably originated during the first millennium when Iranian Jews Judaized Greco-Roman, Turk, Iranian, southern Caucasus, and Slavic populations inhabiting the lands of Ashkenaz in Turkey,” Dr. Elhaik and co-authors said.

“Our findings imply that Yiddish was created by Slavo-Iranian Jewish merchants plying the Silk Roads between Germany, North Africa, and China.”

It turns out that the villages found by the GPS tool are bunched together by the crossroads of the Silk Roads and are named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz. If they all sound similar it’s because they’re all derived from the word ‘Ashkenaz.’

“North east Turkey is the only place in the world where these place names exist – which strongly implies that Yiddish was established around the first millennium at a time when Jewish traders who were plying the Silk Road moved goods from Asia to Europe wanted to keep their monopoly on trade,” Dr. Elhaik said.

“They did this by inventing Yiddish – a secret language that very few can speak or understand other than Jews.”

“Our findings are in agreement with an alternative theory that suggests Yiddish has Iranian, Turkish, and Slavic origins and explains why Yiddish contains 251 words for the terms buy and sell,” he said.

“This is what we can expect from a language of experienced merchants.”

So, they came to the conclusion that Ashkenazic Jews probably relocated to Khazaria before heading to Europe some 500 years after the fall of the Khazarian Empire. This was during a time then international trading networks, like the Silk Road, collapse.

The findings led the team to believe that towards the end of the first millennium, Ashkenazic Jews may have relocated to Khazaria before moving into Europe five centuries later after the fall of the Khazarian Empire, and during a time when the international trading networks collapsed. Yiddish became the primary language of the Ashkenazic jews to keep trade alive, and what better way to do it than with a secret language?

“Yiddish is such a wonderful and complex language, which was inappropriately called ‘bad German’ by both its native and non-native speakers because the language consists of made-up German words and a non-German grammar,” Dr. Elhaik said.

“The linguistic data used are from Yiddish, which we assume was invented in Western Asia as a Slavic language with a largely German-like lexicon and a significant Iranian component on all levels of the language,” said co-author Prof. Paul Wexler, from the University of Tel Aviv.

“The genetic data presented here appear to corroborate the linguistic hypothesis.”

Considering the only thing of use I know how to san in Yiddish is “Go shit in the ocean,” I think I’ll have to consider myself a schmuck.



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