Ashkenazic Jews - Language

The Yiddish language, which is the single most distinctive marker of Ashkenazim, was the most widely used of numerous Diaspora Jewish languages, each of which synthesized Hebrew and Aramaic elements with lexical and syntactic bases of the coterritorial languages or dialects. It should not be supposed that the Hebrew and Aramaic elements were mere remnants of a time when those languages were Jewish vernaculars. Rather, the fact that Bible and Talmud study were at the heart of Ashkenazic culture meant that words, phrases, and loan translations from the religious texts were constantly interacting with the vernacular and shaping the evolution of the Jewish language.

Nor is Yiddish a variant of any single Germanic dialect belonging to a single time or place. Yiddish served to unify Jews within particular communities, and it also provided a means of communication between Jews living across a huge territory, among populations speaking a wide range of different languages. The distinctiveness of Yiddish became more obvious when Jews from Germanic-speaking lands moved into Slavic territories. Yet the language was as porous as the people were separatist, and it thus contains within itself traces of the entire cultural history of the Ashkenazim. The distinctiveness of the Hebrew alphabet also helped identify distinctive Jewish language use, even (or especially) in "secular" texts whose lexical corpus is almost indistinguishable from non-Jewish German usages.

Women and "uneducated" men were the earliest intended audience of Yiddish texts. Religious books in Yiddish, such as formalized supplications to God and an interpretive translation of the Bible, were popular long before the nineteenth century, as were Yiddish versions of the postmedieval adventure-story collections. These texts served as the basis for the growth of a secularist Yiddish literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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