װעגן דעם פֿאָרש־פּראָיעקט
Our goal is to study the transfer of vocabulary from Polish to Yiddish, the language of Eastern-European Jews. The latter is a clear example of a mixed language significantly influenced by Polish.
By conducting a meticulous analysis of Polish-origin words in Yiddish, their meanings, grammatical properties and relations to other words, we hope to find answers to more general questions. We are comparing the semantic and grammatical connections of specific words within the new environment of Yiddish with those of their etymological ancestors in Polish. By doing so, we aim to show for instance how to distinguish words originating from the speakers’ ancestral mother tongue from later borrowings within a mixed language (see below).
Answers to these kinds of questions will enrich the existing body of knowledge of the consequences of language contact.
Direct language contact is primarily linked to human migration and occurs whenever individuals or groups sharing the same space are forced to communicate using more than one language.
Therefore, it ultimately comes down to finding strategies for overcoming communication barriers. Most of the time this leads to contact-induced changes within the vocabulary, phonetics and grammar of the languages involved, which, in cases of long-lasting contact, occur unconsciously to the speakers. The most common results are lexical borrowings, perhaps some grammatical influence as well, but in extreme cases a group may abandon its mother tongue in favor of another language. Sometimes a form of “linguistic compromise” is reached, which appears to have happened in the case of Yiddish when Jews who spoke Judeo-Slavic languages (also called Knaanic) integrated with their mostly German-speaking co-religionists immigrating from Western Europe. In contact linguistics, this process is called language shift. One of its results was the carryover of certain Slavic words into the emergent mixed language of Yiddish. This inherited vocabulary is one of our research topics.
Although these linguistic processes are universal phenomena, Slavic-Jewish-German contact provides a good illustration for them.
The figure below presents the outcome of Jewish-Slavic language contact in its consecutive stages.
Click on each point to view content.
These are words taken over from the speakers of another language and integrated into one’s own as a result of direct or indirect language contact.
Colloquially, the term “borrowings” includes all foreign lexical material, from occasional insertions, through well-known but recognizably alien words, to vocabulary used commonly within a community without knowledge of its origin. In the case of a mixed language, the latter are hard to distinguish from so-called lexical relics – old words stemming from the group’s original mother tongue. In situations of intense and long-lasting contact, new words (coinages) may also be created out of foreign material that do not exist in the latter’s source language. Therefore, one can say that words commonly called borrowings may have varying degrees of rootedness in their recipient language, based on the intensity and duration of contact, which is depicted in the graphic below.
The Jews have been a multilingual people since the biblical times as a result of their living in a diaspora for the greater part of their history. Besides Hebrew, used among scholars as a language of religion, law and science, they also spoke the languages of the peoples among whom they lived.
Therefore, as the German-speaking Jews from the West migrated East, they encountered and absorbed their Slavic-speaking co-religionists. With time, the latter changed their mother tongue to the German ethnolect of their kin due to the prestige and dominance of German in the cities in which they settled. This language shift was incomplete, however, as these Jews (often unwittingly) introduced many significant grammatical and lexical elements of their speech into the newly acquired idiom (the so-called Slavic component of Yiddish). The mixed character of this new language was subsequently reinforced by lasting and intense contact with the Slavic speech of the surrounding peoples, particularly Polish. This process of language fusion is visible in the mixed structure of Yiddish vocabulary. For example, the dominance of Slavicisms within complete sets of concepts, especially those closely related to the human being itself, may be a proof of their relic status.
Contact linguistics generally makes the distinction between core vocabulary and borrowings (Tadmor/Haspelmath/Taylor 2010). The former seems to form the stable part of the lexicon, highly resistant to replacement. Body-part names are for the most part included in this group, as they describe a universal reality, very close to the human experience. That is why borrowings should theoretically be very rare in the area of the human body. In Yiddish however, many body-part names are of Slavic origin which may testify to their relic status.
Click on the points below for information on each word, described as it will be in the upcoming dictionary (see below).
װעגן דעם װערטערבוך
The interactive dictionary of Polish loanwords in Yiddish is the investigative team’s primary research tool. Firstly, it makes it possible to describe each word with numerous types of data, such as pronunciation, grammatical gender, inflection or inclusion in semantic fields such as the human body. Secondly, it enables searching and filtering the gathered material based on all types of the mentioned information.
Moreover, the structure of the dictionary, based on a wordnet-like architecture, allows a visualization of the relations between specific words in Yiddish and a comparison with analogous relations in the source language. Thanks to these features, the dictionary takes lexical analysis to a new level by mapping the process of language contact.
Click below to view presentation.
SECONDARY LITERATURE (selected)
*Project funded by the National Science Centre (NCN) as part of the Opus 11 competition,
Faculty of Modern Languages, University of Warsaw
ul. Dobra 55, 00-312, Warsaw