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The creation of the Yiddish language about ten centuries ago was a unique occurence in Jewish culture and in world culture as well, with but few parallels elsewhere.  The ultimate impact on Jews and Jewish life in Eastern Europe and all over the world was critical to Jewish life and development.  Perhaps the most important impact was inherent in the language itself:  its warmth, its sweetness, its ease of use, its complementary relation to Hebrew, its subtle support of close family unity, its privacy vis a vis non-Jews, its vernacular utility for Jews traveling away from home.  The love affair between Yiddish and the Jews grew so intense that a standard form of written Yiddish was created, so as to be universal for all Jews, to draw them together.

The growth of the Yiddish language in Europe, and particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, was a major factor in the new direction which given names have taken over the last thousand years.  The presence of Yiddish gave great impetus to the absorption of European secular names by Jews, either by adaptation to the sound and feel of Yiddish, or by direct, as-is integration for the same reason.  The vast majority of vernacular given names used in the 19th century may now be classified as Yiddish names, despite their possible origins in other cultures.

The stages of development of Yiddish as a language can be defined as shown in Table 8.  The years 1250, 1500, and 1700 were major turning points in the development of Yiddish.

EARLY YIDDISH950-1250 CE   Rhine Valley settlers' initiation
OLD YIDDISH1250-1500 Forced migrations to Central Europe
MIDDLE YIDDISH1500-1700 Migrations to Eastern Europe
MODERN YIDDISH  1700 .... Eastern Europe, Worldwide

Table 8.  Stages of Development of Yiddish

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The initial growth of Yiddish began in Western and West-Central Europe. At the turn of the 9th century, Charlemagne (742-814) invited the Jews of southern France and Italy to the Rhineland to encourage economic growth.  Jews had lived in the trading towns along the Rhine River long before, under the Roman Empire.  Charlemagne's initiative caused trade and economic life to develop rapidly in the Rhineland.

Then, in the Early Yiddish Period tenth and eleventh centuries, Jews from northern Italy and northern France, who spoke Jewish Romance languages (Old French or Tsorfatic (Western Laaz), and Old Italian or Italkic (Southern Laaz)) migrated to Rhineland towns along the middle and upper Rhine Valley in an area called Loter (Lotharingia);  this area is close to present-day Lorraine.  It is from these Rhineland Jews that Yiddish originated.  In their new surroundings, they adopted various medieval Germanic dialects of the region, mixing in their earlier Romance and Hebraic/Aramaic elements.  They wrote their new language in Hebrew characters, from right to left.

The German stock of words itself was affected by a peculiar mingling of elements from different German dialects.  Thus, Old Yiddish and medieval German early parted ways as two separate languages.  Somewhat later, Slavic elements from Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian were also introduced into the language, for example, "khotsh" meaning 'although' was derived from the Slavic word 'choc'.

The collapse of the Babylonian academies took place during this Early Yiddish Period and many Babylonian teachers arrived at this time in Ashkenaz (the name used in Rabbinic literature for Germany), impacting nascent Yiddish.

In later centuries, pogroms accompanying the crusades (1095-1272), the black plague (1334-1350), and persecution drove the Rhineland Jews up the Rhine River into Baden/Wuerttemberg in South Germany, where they began creating Yiddish given names based on German names.  The first acts of Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land were to slaughter Jews in the Rhine valley.  Therefore, in the Old Yiddish Period twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the Rhineland Jews escaped east to Bavaria, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and northern Italy, incorporating more German names into the Yiddish lexicon.  During the High Middle Ages (1000-1492), Italy was the only European country where Jews were not persecuted en masse, and it was in Italy that the first dawn of the Renaissance mitigated the darkness of medieval barbarism.  But it was in Bohemia and Moravia that the Rhineland Jews moved into old Jewish non-ghetto areas where Slavic and Knaanic (a Slavic-based Jewish language) were spoken, and where they introduced Yiddish to the Slavic Jews and converted them to it.  They and the local Jews introduced Slavic words and given names into their budding Yiddish language;  the Slavic environment caused the beginning of a decisive withdrawal from the influence of Germany on Yiddish.

At the same time, during the 13th and 14th centuries, Polish rulers welcomed Jews, issuing charters of equal rights for them.  Along with Bohemian and Moravian Jews, the Rhineland Jews moved north to eastern Germany and were invited to Poland as traders, rising in social rank.  During the one hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish population of Poland exploded from 15,000 to 150,000.  Polish words and given names were incorporated into Yiddish.  In this period, even before the development of printing, a relatively uniform literary Yiddish language developed.

The wanderings of the Rhineland Jews and the others that they had converted to Yiddish also led them out of Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries (the Middle Yiddish Period) into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (contemporary Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine), Galicia, Hungary, Romania, and Russia.  Poland, Ukraine, and Belorussia were destined to have the largest Slavic impact on the Yiddish language, while the non-Slavic Central and Eastern European countries Hungary, Rumania, Lithuania, and Latvia were to have but regional impacts;  these countries did not penetrate the uniform literary Yiddish language.  The process of dialectalization and Slavization (integrating Slavic words, phrases, grammatical forms, and local names into the rapidly developing Yiddish language) gained momentum.  In this way, all of Central and Eastern Europe came under the influence of the growing, increasingly popular Yiddish language of the Rhineland Jews.  It appears (3) that beginning in the early 16th century, Jews first entered Lithuania from the Warsaw region of Poland;  the tendency of Lithuanian and Belorussian Jews to replace the "sh" sound by "s" is traced to the Christian population of Warsaw.

With the advent of printing by Joseph Guttenberg in the middle of the 15th century, Yiddish literature was launched for a pan-European market of readers, and a standard written form of Yiddish was developed with this market in mind.  This standard was based on the then-existent Western dialect of Yiddish and was clearly discernible in the 1540s.  The standard survived right up to the beginning of the 19th century.  By that time, well into the Modern Yiddish Period, the Western Yiddish dialect centered in Germany as spoken by the original Rhineland Jews during their travels had begun to decline as the Age of Englightenment gained momentum in Germany.  This was largely a consequence of the demise of Western Ashkenazic culture and the linguistic assimilation to the German language of the modern Western Ashkenazim who were becoming "Jewish Germans" rather than "German Jews."

With the collapse of the old literary standard Yiddish from Western Europe, a new standard began to form in Central and Eastern European around 1820, and gradually took over from the old Western Yiddish.  In 1908, the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference was held in Bukovina.  The Conference included a broad spectrum of Yiddishists, from Zionist Hebraists to militant Bundists, and recognized the use of the language in organized social movements and in quickly accelerating literary activity.

By contrast to the collapse of Western Yiddish in Western Europe, Eastern Yiddish flourished in the Slavonic and Baltic lands as it never had before.  The mystical Chassidic movement of the 18th century consciously elevated Yiddish to the status of familial sanctity.  Hebrew was the language of prayer and learning, but Yiddish was "Mama-Loshn".  The literary, social, and naming functions of the language expanded to suit the needs and wishes of the diversified literary, cultural and political movements of 19th-century Jewish Eastern Europe, at the same time that Yiddish was absorbed there by religionists.  East-Central and Eastern Europe remained the heartland of Yiddish until the Holocaust.

This process can be summed up and its sources highlighted, from a few piquant stanzas from a poem written by Leon Feinberg, called "Yiddish," and translated into English by Joseph Leftwich:

"In the grey night of the middle ages,
Amid the flame of auto-de-fe,
Along roads chill and stormy
A people wandered on its way.

As a heart craves for joy that is quenched,
As parched throats for water long,
The dumb people sought a language,
Yearned with a chattering tongue,

Borrowed the yeast from the French,
From the Bible a measure of honey,
That after the fermenting and rising
Some sweetness should be.

A little corn from the Slavs,
A deep bowl from Germany,
And motherly hands kneaded the dough
From which Yiddish came to be.

From words simple as small copper coins,
From plain speech straight from heart and head,
The Yiddish mother-tongue emerged
Like good new crisp home-made bread."

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