The puzzle of the origin of Yiddish, the millennium old language of Ashkenazic Jews, has been solved by a pioneering tool which converts DNA data into its ancestral coordinates.
The Geographic Population Structure (GPS) has helped scientists pinpoint the ancestral DNA of Yiddish speakers to four ancient villages in north-eastern Turkey.
The ancient villages are clustered close to the crossroads of the Silk Roads and are named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz – names which could be the origin of the word ‘Ashkenaz’ – and the research suggests that the Yiddish language was invented by Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews as they traded on the Silk Road around the 9th century when they arrived Slavic lands.
The research team leader, Dr Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield, said: “Language, geography and genetics are all connected.”
“Using the GPS tool to analyse 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.”
“North east 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.
“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.”
Yiddish incorporates German, Slavic and Hebrew, and is commonly thought to be an old German dialect. However, the study proposes that it is Slavic in origin, but shed its Slavic words over time and replaced them with German words. As Yiddish became the primary language of Ashkenazic Jews, the language began to acquire new words from other cultures while retaining its Slavic grammar.
Dr Elhaik said: “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.
“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.”
He added: “Utilizing the GPS ancestry technology and applying it to the DNA of sole Yiddish speakers and non-Yiddish speakers allowed us to find the ancestral origins of their DNA. The GPS tool indicates where ancient Ashkenaz could have existed over 1,500 years ago.”
Source: The University of Sheffield