March 16, 2010 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Is Yiddish a creole?

I was thinking this morning that I think of Yiddish as being a creole: a mix or pidgin based on several languages that cemented into a 'language' over time. I'm not a linguist and may be using terms imprecisely.

However, a casual perusal of the internest suggests (in particular the wikipedia article) this is:

a) wrong
b) cruising for a fight.

I guess a lot depends upon what you consider a creole to be and whether you want to clearly demarcate "Eastern" Yiddish from "Western" Yiddish. Is there consensus on this issue or does it all come down to the uneasy position creoles have in linguistics (plus the politics of 21st century Judaism)?
posted by to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The definition you're using could also apply to English, which is arguably a creole of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French with Celtic influences on its grammar. They are either both creoles or neither is.
posted by musofire at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2010

Some people consider english to be a creole, FWIW.

You'd be amazed at how fighty linguists get...
posted by shownomercy at 10:37 AM on March 16, 2010

I always think of Yiddish as bastard German. I actually took German in school to better understand Yiddish, and mostly that worked.

Most every language is a creole . . . that's just what happens over time as peoples intermingle.
posted by bearwife at 10:38 AM on March 16, 2010

Response by poster: I always think of Yiddish as bastard German.

I think this is the basic problem: the wikipedia article seems to be implying that it's basically a german dialect, and the wiki-discussion page amplifies this.

but, i always thought it had a lot of other things, like say aramaic, at it's core and it just 'smells' like german. especially, if you are a german speaker.
posted by at 10:41 AM on March 16, 2010

The main other thing at its core is Hebrew. If you speak German and you speak Hebrew, then with a little practice (for accents, etc) you can understand most if not all of 'standard' Yiddish (a sort of fiction anyway. But then of course there are words from other languages, sometimes a lot, in the variations of Yiddish spoken in Poland, Hungary, etc.

The grammar is more Hebrew than German, but much simpler than Hebrew also.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:50 AM on March 16, 2010

I always think of Yiddish as bastard German. I actually took German in school to better understand Yiddish, and mostly that worked.

Yiddish actually predated modern German -- it originates in Middle High German.

It's a Creole in a sense, in that it borrows from two different languages primarily, with lots of other loan words from other languages thrown in. But Yiddish has a really distinct syntax. It's as legitimate a language as any.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:52 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty good at German and I have no trouble reading Yiddish. It is a lot more like German than some German dialects from Austria and Schwaben.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:01 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, creole is a loaded word. Observe this Harvardian using just about every synonym he can (scroll down to the second message).

English and Yiddish both qualify, but there's this weird idea that creoles are somehow lesser languages. If English speakers were a minority we'd probably be a lot grumpier about this too.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 11:20 AM on March 16, 2010

Weighing in on the "it's a creole, much like English is" side.

Its base is clearly German, but borrows a lot from Hebrew/Aramaic/Whathaveyou. (C.F., English and French.)

I'm now curious if there's a language that can be considered *not* a creole.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:59 AM on March 16, 2010

"אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָ" (A language is a dialect with an army and navy)
posted by fydfyd at 12:52 PM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is a great similarity between this question and other categorizing questions: Is it a dinosaur or bird? Is it to be shelved under "History", "Literature", or "Russia"? etc.

The thing - spoken language in this case - just is. And the thing cares not which conceptual bin you choose to place it in.
posted by fydfyd at 12:57 PM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: I'm not a linguist and may be using terms imprecisely.

I'm a linguist, and I'm here to tell you we don't use those terms precisely either. There are a lot of competing definitions of "creole" floating around in the literature; all of them are somewhat vague on their own, and if you don't specify which definition you're using, the word is so vague as to be completely useless. For instance, most of the debate over whether English is a creole is really a debate over how the word ought to be defined. On some definitions, the answer may be "yes," while on others, it's clearly "no."

So the question is, how are you using the word? What do you want to know?
  • Does Yiddish include any borrowed Hebrew vocabulary? Yes, lots. But bear in mind that the first Jews in Germany probably didn't speak Hebrew as their daily language — they probably spoke Aramaic, and used Hebrew only for prayer and education. So these loans are a lot like the Greek and Latin loans with religious and scientific origins that can be found across the globe, in languages from Basque to Russian to Japanese. They're not evidence of creolization unless you want to call every other first-world language a creole too.
  • So does it have any borrowed Aramaic vocabulary? Probably some, but it's much less pervasive or obvious than the borrowed Hebrew vocabulary.
  • Has it had specifically Hebrew or Aramaic influence on its grammar or its sound system? Probably not. Its grammar and sound system are different from those of Standard German, to be sure, but it doesn't seem to have picked up any traits that are unique to the Semitic languages.
  • Is it written like Hebrew? Well, yeah. But that doesn't tell you where the language came from. After all, when they started writing Vietnamese in the Roman alphabet, that didn't make it a Romance language....
  • Has it got the "simplified" sound system that's sometimes considered typical of creoles? You could make a case that it does. It's lost the German front rounded vowels ä ö ÿ for instance, merging them in with ey oy i. Those front rounded vowels are typologically rare, and they do tend to get lost in creole languages. (European French has 'em, Haitian Creole French doesn't.) But they also tend to get lost over time in non-creole languages. (Classical Greek had at least one of 'em, Modern Greek doesn't.) We'd need a time machine to go back and see why these vowels got lost in Yiddish — did the Jews never learn to pronounce them, or did they learn 'em and then lose 'em again?
  • Has it got the "simplified" grammar and morphology that are sometimes considered typical of creoles? Nope. It's retained as much of the Standard German case system as most modern colloquial forms of German, for instance, and it's kept complicated syntactic features like verb-second word order that are "supposed to" go missing in creoles.
  • Did it arise out of a pidgin contact language? Maybe — but if it did, it was a long-ass time ago, at least seven hundred years and maybe more like a thousand. And if such a pidgin ever existed, it's left no written record.
  • Did it arise out of some sort of slavery or oppression? Who knows. The Germans were often pretty nasty to the Jews, but we don't know if the first Yiddish speakers were the ones bearing the brunt of that nastiness.
Does that help? I hate to be pedantic (Hint: that's not true. He loves to be pedantic) but there really isn't a simpler answer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:47 PM on March 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: > but, i always thought it had a lot of other things, like say aramaic, at it's core and it just 'smells' like german.

No, not true. It's German at its core, with lots of other stuff tossed in; its situation is similar to that of many, many other languages (including English, as others here have said). In a philosophical sense, it could be suggested that most languages are creoles if you extend the net far enough, but yeah, not a good idea to say this specifically of Yiddish. Most people won't stick around for a half hour of explanation.
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

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