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Review of  Yiddish

Reviewer: Ariann Stern
Book Title: Yiddish
Book Author: Neil G. Jacobs
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Yiddish, Eastern
Yiddish, Western
Issue Number: 16.3620

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Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2005 12:57:15 -0700
From: Ariann Stern-Gottschalk
Subject: Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction

Author: Jacobs, Neil G.
Title: Yiddish
Subtitle: A Linguistic Introduction
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 2005

Ariann Stern, Critical Languages Institute, Russian and East European
Studies Center, Arizona State University

This is a comprehensive volume on the Yiddish language, with
substantive chapters devoted, in the following order, to the history of
Yiddish, dialectology, phonology, morphology, syntax, and
sociolinguistics. It is a major contribution to the field and will, as
Jacobs says in the introduction, appeal to a wide audience, including
Germanic linguists, Yiddishists, theoretical linguists, scholars of Jewish
studies. Though Jacobs does not acknowledge this, the book will be a
useful tool for students of the language, who can use the morphology
section as a reference grammar.


Chapter 1, ''Introduction'', describes Jacobs' goals for the monograph
followed by a very broad introduction to what Yiddish is – when it
emerged as a language, and a general historical and demographic
description of Yiddish speakers/Ashkenazim. Next Jacobs explains
that he will frame the investigation by primarily describing and
analyzing Yiddish ''in terms of the patterns within Yiddish itself'' (4),
only secondarily comparing it with German. Jacobs' approach to
Yiddish as a complete system that can be described without resorting
to comparisons with other contact languages (indeed, there is a great
deal of dialectal comparison, but very little comparison between
Jewish and German, Hebrew, or the Slavic languages) is fundamental
to this work. After stating this, Jacobs provides some overview to the
development of Yiddish studies and background information on Jewish
languages, including an explanation of Jewish bilingualism and some
commentary on languages used for communication between Jews.

Chapter 2, ''History'', begins by contrasting two major views of the
history of the language -- divergence from German and convergence --
that Yiddish and German never were identical, and therefore Yiddish
did not diverge from it (the view most suitable for his approach to the
work described in the introduction). Jacobs leads the reader through
various scenarios posited for the origins and ''homelands'' of Yiddish,
including discussion of German sources in Yiddish. This is followed by
in-depth discussion of the Yiddish sound system, with special attention
paid to the vowels, and an examination of vocalic divisions in the
major dialects (Jacobs recognizes five: West Yiddish, Central Yiddish,
Southeast Yiddish, Northeast Yiddish, and Standard Yiddish). The
next major part of the chapter discusses Hebrew elements in Yiddish,
and their history, especially in the earliest stages of the language.
Useful here are insights into Jewish languages in general. Next,
Jacobs introduces on-going questions about older ''Yiddish'' texts and
whether or not they are in fact Yiddish, because they have features
not evident in more modern manifestations of the language. He bases
his periodization of Yiddish on M. Weinreich's work. Both the
periodization discussion, as well as the textual questions about the
earliest evidence of written Yiddish lead directly into discussion about
Yiddish writing, the role of written Yiddish in earlier periods of diglossia
with Hebrew, and the history of Yiddish orthography. The chapter
concludes with a short, albeit detailed overview on names for Yiddish.

Chapter 3, ''Dialectology'', begins with an overview of studies in
Yiddish dialectology before moving onto the actual classification of
Yiddish dialects, which Jacobs already identified in Chapter 2 as the
five major dialects recognized in the Language and Culture Atlas of
Askenazic Jewry. Helpfully, in the third chapter, he provides a dialect
map, followed by a very good overview of the major phonological,
morphological, lexical, syntactic, and cultural differences between the
five dialects. Jacobs does not claim his survey of these differences is
exhaustive, but the examples he provides are characteristic of the five
varieties of Yiddish. The section on cultural features is of particular
interest, introducing background information underlying the more
easily linguistically delineated phonological, morphological, etc.
distinctions. As the Yiddishists responsible for the Language and
Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry understood, this attention to the
cultural aspects of the differences is crucial to any thorough
description of this language. An exegesis on the geolinguistic
topography of Yiddish with an emphasis on language contact follows
this section. Jacobs very usefully describes the areas in geographic
detail, so the reader can visualize (or even locate on a map) the areas
discussed. The chapter ends with information on supraregional
varieties, which is of particular interest to speakers learning Standard

The next three chapters are more purely grammatical and they
comprise the bulk of the book. Chapter 4 covers phonology, Chapter
5 morphology, and Chapter 6 discusses syntax. The information is
presented in conventional, logical order. Chapter 4 begins with the
vowels, followed by consonants, syllable structure, cyclic and lexical
phonology, stress and prominence, and concludes with discussion of
intonation. One of the highlights of this chapter are the comparisons,
in both tables and other examples, of dialect-based differences in
many of the sounds and features described. Jacobs uses material and
background information from his previous three chapters in
discussions of various influences on the sound system, including
historical changes, and influences from both languages in contact with
Yiddish and those that lent lexical and other elements to Yiddish.
Chapter 4 contains very rich data. Jacobs, for example, not only
discusses consonant clusters in the abstract in Chapter 4, but he lists
each potential cluster and an example for each. Jacobs has organized
this abundant and useful information in easily-read charts and tables.

Similar to Chapter 4, Chapter 5, which includes a great deal of data
and description from Zaretski, Yudl Mark, and Birnbaum, presents
information in a logical progression through the parts of speech:
nouns (including sections on derived nouns, prefixation, suffixation,
diminutives, compound nouns, nouns ''formed through clipping,
abbreviation, and similar processes'' (171), and grammatical
categories – gender, number, case) and the noun phrase, adjectives,
pronouns, numerals, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, fillers, and
verbs (formation and types, non-finite and finite forms, tense, mood,
passive voice, reflexives, and aspect). This chapter presents
historical and synchronic information on word formation and
derivations in addition to excellent information on the modern
language, including both notes on usage as well as examples of word

Chapter 6, ''Syntax'', provides substantive information on clauses
(declarative, imperative, interrogative, subordinate, relative),
constituent structures (NPs and VPs and their relationships with other
structures, and negations), sub-categorization, grammatical functions
(subjects, objects, adverbials), movements, transformations, and

The final chapter covers sociolinguistics, beginning with an
introduction to language attitudes and ideology central to Yiddish
studies. In this introductory matter, Jacobs poses one of the
fundamental questions about Yiddish, namely the relationship of
Yiddish speech to other types of speech''. This relationship of Yiddish
to other languages and their speech functions is, he states, ''for
Yiddish speakers... an intriguing and complex playing field, owing to
several factors, including: (1) the surface and similarity of Yiddish to
German and Yiddish speakers' over awareness of this; (2) internal
Jewish bilingualism...; (3) the role of external Jewish bi-
/multilingualism; (4) Yiddish speakers' component consciousness.''
Because of its singular relevance to Yiddish speakers, this question
and its attendant factors resonate throughout Chapter 7, particularly
factors 2 and 3. The first major section in this chapter addresses
attitudes and ideology and covers language contact, bi-/multi-
lingualism, and diglossia; code-switching, style, and register; and
spoken Yiddish (including spoken Yiddish in the pre-modern and
modern periods, styles of spoken Yiddish, male and female
speech, ''refined speech'', euphemism, taboo avoidance, secret
languages and professional jargons with fascinating information from
the speech of criminals and musicians, the aptly named 'klezmer-

Next is a section on models of spoken Yiddish, including descriptions
of the formation and problems inherent in Standard Yiddish and Soviet
efforts to standardizeYiddish. This section describes how the
standardized model created a hierarchical sociolinguistic
superstructure resulting in the stigmatization of dialect with very clear
examples of how this is manifest. This is followed by information
about New York Hasidic Yiddish based on Jacobs' observations of
printed material including his commentary on the heavy code-
swtiching evident in his data. Next is a short account of tempo's
influence on forms and includes examples of drawl and dropped
pronouns. The chapter concludes with a very satisfying account of
written Yiddish, including more information (already presented in
Chapter 2) about the diglossic situation between Hebrew and Yiddish,
descriptions of Jewish scribal language, the development of literary
and modern written Yiddish (with emphasis on the YIVO model), more
information on orthographic developments (again, drawing on
discussion started in earlier chapters), and a brief overview of the
debates over Romanization in certain Yiddishist circles.

Appropriately, the chapter (and the monograph) concludes with a
section on ''Post-Yiddish Ashkenazic speech'', which describes ''the
post-Yiddish [European language] ethnolects [which] are successor
lects to Yiddish, arising via language shift.'' (303) Beginning with a
synopsis of the decline of Yiddish in the twentieth century, this section
briefly covers the modern successors to Yiddish in Europe and the US.


As Jacobs himself notes, his work is unique in the field, covering the
range of grammar, history, and sociolinguistics. Most sections begin
with references to the contributions of major scholars relevant to the
topic under discussion. Notably, Jacobs cites Max and Uriel Weinreich
primarily for the history and dialectology (though of course, there are
references to the Weinreichs throughout the book), Ayzik Zaretski and
Yudl Mark in the grammatical chapters (with most data directly
attributed to Zaretski), and a panoply of scholars in the section on
sociolinguistics, including Joshua Fishman, S. Birnbaum, and, for the
interesting klezmer loshn, Robert Rothstein. These references and
Jacobs' comments on their application to modern Yiddish studies are
one of the best features of this altogether excellent work. At times,
Jacobs' ability to incorporate the work of others so seamlessly into his
own scholarship acknowledging and explaining, sometimes in great
detail, the contributions of his predecessors can make it difficult to
differentiate where this background research ends and his original
contributions begin.

Jacobs' claim that this book will have broad appeal is borne out in its
variegated contents and rich examples. At some junctures in these
chapters, I was struck and often distracted by Jacobs' broad
definitions of the linguistic phenomena under discussion, e.g., what is
diglossia, what are the categories like aspect or structures like
interrogative clauses where he otherwise assumes his readers
possess a rather high degree of linguistic sophistication. He likely
includes these rather elementary explanations because of his
intention to address a relatively wide audience. Readers, particularly
linguists, should be prepared for this.

As I mentioned in my overview of the chapters on phonology and
morphology, but as is true in all chapters, there is a very rich amount
of data in this book and excellent, relevant examples, both of which
add tremendously to its overall value. This is especially so, because
unlike other dense monographs of this nature, in which, all too often
and to the detriment of a book's overall usefulness as a reference,
examples and data are repeated to describe a variety of phenomena,
Jacobs has a very good and satisfyingly diverse variety of examples. I
only noticed some repetition with dialect forms, of which there are
presumably a limited number of attested forms for some regions.

One of the cleverest aspects of the book is the comparison of dialects
and the way in which Jacobs expands his discussion of dialects to
more broadly demonstrate the development of Yiddish. Jacobs is
committed to comparing Yiddish forms, rather than comparing Yiddish
to languages in contact. However, through descriptions of individual
dialects and comparisons of their forms, and through discussion of
contact between dialects, Jacobs also manages to reveal influences
from other languages in contact with each major dialect of Yiddish and
to demonstrate where these other languages failed to impact Yiddish
forms. These comparisons of dialects also prepare the reader for
discussion on the formation of Standard Yiddish.

Ariann Stern directs the Arizona State University Critical Languages
Institute. Her primary research is currently on second language
acquisition, especially language teacher training and issues of cross-
cultural instructional norms and classroom behaviors. Ideally she
would also like to be researching verbal morphosyntax in eastern
varieties of Yiddish.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 052177215X
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 348
Prices: U.S. $ 80.00
U.K. £ 50.00