DNA Suggests Yiddish Began on the Silk Road
For decades, linguists have questioned the origin of Yiddish, the millennium-old language of Ashkenazic Jews.
Now, the Geographic Population Structure (GPS), which converts DNA data into its ancestral coordinates, has helped scientists determine that the DNA of Yiddish speakers could have originated from four ancient villages in northeastern Turkey.
The research, led by Eran Elhaik of the University of Sheffield, suggests that Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews invented the language as they traded on the Silk Road.
The ancient villages cluster close to the crossroads of the Silk Roads and are named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz—names that may derive from the word “Ashkenaz.”
“Language, geography, and genetics are all connected,” says Elhaik. “Using the GPS tool to analyze the DNA of sole Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers, we were able to predict the possible ancestral location where Yiddish originated over 1,000 years ago—a question which linguists have debated over for many years.”
“Northeast 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.”
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“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.’ This is what we can expect from a language of experienced merchants.”
A Slavic Language
Yiddish incorporates German, Slavic, and Hebrew. It is written in Aramaic letters, and is commonly thought to be an old German dialect.
However, an alternative theory proposed by Paul Wexler, professor at the University of Tel Aviv and a coauthor of the study, suggests Yiddish is a Slavic language that used to have both Slavic grammar and words but in time shed its Slavic lexicon and replaced it with common and unfamiliar German words.
The findings of the study, published in Genome Biology and Evolution , lead the researchers to believe that towards the end of the first millennium, Ashkenazic Jews may have relocated to Khazaria before moving into Europe half a millennium later after the fall of the Khazarian Empire, and during a time when the international trading networks collapsed.
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As Yiddish became the primary language of Ashkenazic Jews, the language began to acquire new words from other cultures while retaining its Slavic grammar.
“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,” says Elhaik.
A calligraphic segment in the Worms Mahzor, the oldest surviving literary document with written Yiddish. It is a Hebrew prayer book from 1272. ( Public Domain )
“Yiddish is truly a combination of familiar and adapted German words using Slavic grammar. In a sense the language uses the same premise as Yoda from the Star Wars movies. For example, Yoda’s language consists of common and made-up English words like ‘Wookie’ or ‘Jedi’ but the grammar is different—the words are used in a different order to what we are familiar with.”
“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,” adds Wexler.
“The genetic data presented here appear to corroborate the linguistic hypothesis.”
Featured image: Caravan on the Silk Road, 1380. ( Public Domain )