To the Editor:
I was surprised to find that in his otherwise insightful “Of Fish and People” [December 1971] Milton Himmelfarb repeats two hoary myths that careful research has quietly exploded.
That Yiddish shows a “striking poverty” in names for plants and animals is an exaggeration common among 19th-century maskilim who ridiculed the traditional melamed’s glossing of biblical names for then unknown species of flora and fauna as merely a min geviks/khaye, “a kind of plant/animal.” Yet a Yiddish-English-Latin botanical dictionary soon to be published by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research lists over two thousand Yiddish terms for trees, shrubs, and flowers. As for animal names, let one example suffice: the 510 Yiddish names for birds in H. Kozakevitsh, “Nomenklatur fun feyglen,” Di yidishe shprakh, Kiev, 1928.
Dzhudezmo (Ladino) is much older than the 15th century. For various reasons, the age of the so-called “galut” languages was minimized in by now obsolete research. Thus, Yiddish was said to have originated only when Ashkenazim settled en masse on Slavic territory (“In Germany they spoke impeccable German; only after being cut off from German Kultur [!] did their language degenerate into a piggish jargon”). It was likewise believed that Dzhudezmo dated only from after the 1492 Exile, though Romance scholars have slowly been collecting cogent evidence for the pre-exilic origin of this language (e.g., Leo Spitzer, “The Origin of the Judeo-Romance Languages,” Yivo-bleter XIV).
David L. Gold
Benyumen Shekhter Foundation for the Advancement of Standard Yiddish
Bronx, New York
Milton Himmelfarb writes:
David Gold complains that I ascribe to Yiddish a striking poverty in names for plants and animals. Not I, Maurice Samuel—whose In Praise of Yiddish was admired by Lucy S. Dawidowicz in the same issue of COMMENTARY. The Rabbis tell us that someone who says something in the name of the man who first said it helps bring redemption to the world. “Maurice Samuel,” I wrote, “has shown us the striking poverty of Yiddish in names for the plants and the animate beings, etc.” The reference is to Samuel’s World of Sholom Aleichem (first edition, 1943), pp. 193 ft:
Yiddish, the language of Sholom Aleichem’s world, is a folk language; but unlike all other folk languages it has not a base in nature. It is poor, almost bankrupt, by comparison with other languages, in the vocabulary of field and forest and stream. . . . Yiddish purists will, of course, find words for perch and trout in the dictionary. The point is that only the exceptional Yiddish scholar, never the ordinary, intelligent, Yiddish-speaking Kasrielevkite, would know about it.
Almost a half-century ago David Blondheim’s Les Parlers judéoromans et la Vetus Latina posited Judeo-Romance languages, deriving from a kind of ancestral Judeo-Latin. But so far from being in the ascendant, this theory appears to be in decline: see now, for a significant test-case and a review of the literature (Blondheim, together with Umberto Cassuto’s asserted Judeo-Italian and Giuliana Fiorentino’s denial, “General Problems of Judeo-Romance. . . ,” Jewish Quarterly Review, XLII, 1951), Vittore Colorni, “La parlata degli ebrei man-tovani,” in the Volume speciale in memoria di Attilio Milano (= Rassegna mensile di Israel, July-September 1970).
A linguist is a scientist, and should not bully people. He should not put pressure on them to pretend they believe some language is more ancient than they really believe, lest they be suspected of despising it as a piggish jargon. I assure Mr. Gold that the last epithet I would apply to any Jewish language—or dialect, or even zhargon—is “piggish.”