Monday, March 6, 2017

Is Yiddish on a path to extinction?

Is Yiddish on a Path to Extinction?

By Juliana Ramirez

Juliana Ramirez recently graduated with an Accounting degree and French minor from the University of Illinois. In the Spring of 2016, Juliana took French 418 to learn about the minority languages in Europe and finish her French minor. In the near future, she will start a summer internship at an Accounting firm in Chicago and come back to Champaign in the Fall of 2016 to pursue a Masters in Accounting.

One of the most predominant languages of the Jews up until a century ago is on a path to extinction. Yiddish, which originated as early as the 9th century, provided the nascent Ashkenazi community with an extensive Germanic based vernacular fused with elements taken from Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as from Slavic and Romance languages (Jewish Generation) of the particular linguistic environment. The language is primarily native to Central, Western, and Eastern Europe, Israel, and regions with high Jewish populations. As part of the Indo-European language family, Yiddish has roughly 2 million speakers worldwide, according to the Council of Europe (Zaagsma). However, because of its vulnerability to extinction, Yiddish is officially recognized as a minority language by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and Ukraine.

Source: BBC News
The population of Yiddish speakers decreased tremendously during WWII due to the killing of native speakers by the Nazis and the assimilation of Jews into linguistic communities; nonetheless, the language itself had already been on a decline before the war. On the eve of WWII, there were 11 to 13 million Yiddish speakers; this number decreased by roughly 85 percent by the end of the war (Katz). The majority of Jews able to escape throughout the WWII period migrated to Israel or to the United States, where they found Yiddish to be an impractical language and thus learned English and other prevailing languages. For those unable to escape, like the Yiddish population in the Soviet Union, found their language outlawed by Stalin during and after the Holocaust (Shyovitz). As a result of the Holocaust and repressive measures in place by governments, Yiddish came to an almost immediate standstill and continued to do so for decades. However, there have been movements by Jewish organizations and cultural centers to revive Yiddish in modern day.

Source: Pew Research
In unstable, bilingual or multilingual speech communities, languages lose their last native speakers quickly and thus leading to language death. Sudden, radical, gradual, and bottom-to-top are all types of language death. In the case of Yiddish, it is not yet dead, but it is on the path to extinction. Yiddish experienced sudden, radical and gradual language declines during some years throughout its history. Sudden language decline occurred primarily during the Holocaust because of the significant and rapid loss in population. On the other hand, radical language decline, which occurs abruptly due to the threat of political or social persecution, transpired throughout the course of the Yiddish language’s history. Many Yiddish-speaking communities abandoned their culture, traditions, and way of life in order to avoid acts of violence or discrimination. Consequently, after WWII many found Yiddish to be the language of their ancestors and thus obsolete. During this time, Yiddish experienced gradual language decline, arising when minority languages are in contact with dominant languages, and the native speaking population gradually shifts to adopting a new language. Sometimes the use of a language is not considered advantageous, parents do not pass it on to their children, or its use is discouraged by society or by the government (Rozovsky).

Source: Wall Street Journal
As for Yiddish today, 76 percent of Yiddish speakers in the US live in the New York metro area, with another 6 percent in the Poughkeepsie metro area, 4 percent in the Miami metro area, and 2 percent in the Los Angeles metro area (Basu). This goes to show how the majority of Yiddish speakers live in just four metropolitan areas in the entire US, making it more difficult for the language to gain recognition and expand; however, there are efforts to improve the usage of the language. Likewise, the 2007 American Community Survey on Language Use counted just 158,991 people who spoke Yiddish at home in the United States, a drop of nearly 50 percent from 1980 to 2007 (Basu). Like in the US, Yiddish populations continue to reside in small communities throughout Europe and mainly Israel.

When languages die, entire cultures, communities and identities vanish as well. In the world today, there are 6,800 languages spoken. However, almost half are endangered, and nearly 90 percent of languages will disappear by the end of this century (Rozovsky). Throughout history, languages have been born, developed and discarded; yet, only Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and Tamil have had lives of more than 2,000 years (Rozovsky). As economic and cultural globalization and development continue to push forward, growing numbers of languages will become endangered and eventually extinct. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua-francas of world commerce: English, Chinese, Spanish and French (Malone). Only time will tell if and when Yiddish will face extinction along with other languages.

Works Cited

Basu, Tanya. “Oy Vey: Yiddish Has a Problem.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/yiddish-has-a-problem/379658/

Katz, Dovid. YIDDISH, the Historic Language of Ashkenazic (central and East European) Jewry, Is the Third Principal Literary Language in Jew (n.d.): n. pag. Web Archive. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Malone, Elizabeth. “Research Areas.” Language and Linguistics: Endangered Language. National Science Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/linguistics/endangered.jsp

Rozovsky, Lorne. “Path to Extinction - The Declining Health of Jewish Languages.” Chabad. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.

Shyovitz, David. “Yiddish: History & Development of Yiddish.” History & Development of Yiddish. Jewish Virtual Library, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/yiddish.html

“The Unity and Diversity of Human Language.” 29 Apr. 2009. Middlebury. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.  http://cr.middlebury.edu/public/usoltan/intd0111a-s09-html/content/lecture22_language_death.pdf

“YIDDISH DIALECTS.” Jewish Generation. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/givennames/yiddial.htm

Zaagsma, Gerben. Public History beyond the State: Presenting the Yiddish past in Contemporary Europe. Public History beyond the State: Presenting the Yiddish past in Contemporary Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

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