Yiddish, Esperanto and Ladino – Three International Languages

Yiddish, Esperanto and Ladino – Three International Languages

At first glance, Esperanto may look like the odd one out here but there’s a strong case for saying it isn’t. All three of these languages have substantial amounts in common and in social terms Hebrew also shares certain features with them, as well as clear and very obvious similarities such as vocabulary and script.

Before I go on, I’m briefly going to go off on a tangent about the Android WordPress app. I’ve found that it constantly crashes, loses my content and it isn’t obvious how to get wider column widths than the default, which is ludicrously narrow, possibly because it’s supposed to be used in portrait mode on a mobile device. Consequently, this is going to be written on a text editor (the Android one by the way, which isn’t exactly feature-laden but it’s there) as I strongly suspect most future blog posts of mine are likely to be written, and then copy-pasted into the web interface with a few images and the like added as need be.

Anyway, let’s start with Yiddish. Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazim, that is, the Jewish population of Central and Northern Europe stretching into the Ukraine and Russia. These people bore the brunt of the Holocaust, losing around three-quarters of their population in the concentration camps and in other ways. It arose around the forty-seventh century Anno Mundi (or the ninth century CE as it’s often called) and is largely based on High German, meaning of course that it must have come into existence after the High German Sound Shift (which turned “better” into “besser” and so on), which occurred more than a century previous to the emergence of Yiddish. Yiddish as a language I tend to perceive as basically High German, and as somewhat higher in fact than Standard German and having features of eastern German too. It’s said to have a unique mixture of characteristics from different regions of the German-speaking area, so Yiddish speakers don’t sound like they’re from any particular part of Germany if one thinks of them as speaking German. This is by contrast with Pennsylvania Dutch, which definitely sounds like Alsatian, Letzeburgesch and Kölsch, or the language of the Hutterites which just sounds like how WASP Americans would speak German if they didn’t try to imitate the accent. Yiddish itself has two major dialects, Eastern and Western, with Western sounding more like typical German. However, it’s important to recognise that Yiddish is in a very real sense no more German than Dutch or Afrikaans are.

Listening to the Mame Loshn, the “Mother Tongue”, I find general conversation about mundane matters pretty straightforward to understand. Not only is it very close to High German, particularly eastern High German, but it has undergone changes parallel to those in modern English, such as using “iz” for “is” and “a” for “a” instead of “ist” and “ein”. However, conversation on spiritual matters is much harder to follow because in that area, unsurprisingly, it uses a lot of Hebrew vocabulary, and since Judaism is in a sense more a culture with a lot of God in it than a religion as a Protestant such as myself would understand it, this is a larger arena than one might imagine. For instance, a Yiddish word for Saturday, “Samstag” or “Sonnabend” in German, would be “shabbos”, and would refer to the period between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday (or would it? When does the day begin? Is it when the sun touches the horizon, when it’s completely below the horizon or a certain angular distance below it? And so on – let’s not go there right now). But it’s very common to be fluent in some areas but not others, even in one’s native tongue, and there are areas I can’t use English to express myself in. For instance, I have little idea how to express the words “Sinn”, “Bedeutung”, “Vorhandenheit” or “Zuhandenheit” in English and when I see Swiss chard I think of it as “acelgas”, which is the Castilian word for it. Similarly it can be expected that the specifically Jewish aspects of a Yiddish speaker’s life would tend to be expressed using Hebrew words rather than German. Since it was also spoken widely in Eastern Europe, the language also has a lot of Slavic vocabulary, substantially Polish. These often refer to plants, vegetables or animals distinctive of the area where Yiddish was spoken, although there are wider words such as the ones for dinghy and toy.

Although I don’t have any trouble following Yiddish provided the matters are neither poetic nor religious, I wouldn’t be able to produce it myself very easily. Comprehension of language is usually ahead of the ability to express oneself, and for me Yiddish is no exception. If I attempted to speak it, I would probably end up using a lot of German words not found in Yiddish and tend to round front vowels. One distinctive feature of Yiddish is that it lacks the “ö” and “ü” vowels of standard German. However, perhaps surprisingly, Yiddish does use the uvular R of Standard German most of the time even though Ancient Hebrew, Polish and many dialects of German don’t.

The real difficulty comes with writing. Yiddish is written using Hebrew characters, and not entirely as in Hebrew either. For instance, it will double the yod to express the “ai” diphthong and the way it uses vowel pointing differs. The orthography is also mixed in a similar manner to English, respecting the original Hebrew spelling of words rather than writing them phonetically, although German and Slavic words are written thus. An oddity of Yiddish spelling is the way it uses certain consonants. Like other Afro-Asiatic languages, Hebrew had a series of pharyngeal consonants which used to contrast both voiced and voiceless consonants as with most European languages. That is, it has a third series of consonants to the two of, for example, English – we have T vs. D, F vs. V and so on, but Hebrew, Arabic and other related languages have a third lot which are pronounced with a tightening of the throat. It seems that Hebrew today doesn’t use these sounds, and it may have been that Hebrew spoken in Europe during the Christian Era had also lost them. Incidentally, Hebrew pronunciation of the reduced vowels known as schwas also seems to have changed in today’s Hebrew. For some reason I don’t understand, Yiddish prefers to use the pharyngeal consonant letters for sounds which are identical to their voiceless but non-pharyngeal correspondents, such as teth and samekh rather than tav, and it also uses ayin as the short vowel “e”.

Not only was the language devastated by the Holocaust, but also like Ladino (which I’ll come to later), the association between political Zionism and Hebrew as a vernacular language led to a preference for Hebrew in Israel and although it’s still spoken there it has gone into a further decline due to that. The general idea seems to be one of unity and assimilation, and this has ironically affected Ladino even more than Yiddish. I’ll come to why that’s ironic later.

Now for Esperanto. Esperanto is of course Ludwik Zamenhof’s invention, and is intended to be an international auxiliary language, i.e. a language spoken between people who have no fluency in each others’ native languages. It’s also widely perceived as a failure, but it has an interesting history, particularly with regard to its Jewishness, which is often not recognised by those sympathetic to its aims, although sadly widely recognised by anti-Semites. Esperanto was the third language I tried to learn formally and compared to the average European language can be acquired about four times as fast by a native speaker of a European language. However, in global terms its grammar and pronunciation don’t stack up particularly well – Malay/Indonesian is far easier in that respect and unlike many non-European languages it has many consonant clusters and of course a mainly European vocabulary. It has many, many problems, but perhaps surprisingly, speakers of European languages tend to object more strongly to its Eurocentrism than native speakers of non-European languages such as Japanese, Mandarin or Korean, who are usually perfectly happy with it. The Baha’i religion, which is Abrahamic incidentally and was adopted by one of Zamenhof’s daughters, advocates for a single international auxiliary language, partly vacillating between Esperanto and Interlingua, but also does raise some objections to its Western bias, probably because Baha’i originated in the Middle East. There is clearly a lot of scope for an Arabic-based international language but this has not been explored much, which I find odd.

It often goes unrecognised, by myself for example, that Esperanto is substantially influenced by Yiddish. A crude count of the core vocabulary of the language reveals that the single biggest contributor is, surprisingly, not a Romance language but Greek. However, this is misleading because like other non-polysynthetic languages most of the time the most frequently used words are from a small set and the reason there’s so much Greek is the number of technical terms, which internationally tend to be taken from that language or Latin more than others. Taking away the Greek, the biggest contributor is of course either Latin itself or its descendants such as French or Italian, then what’s usually claimed to be German, then English followed by Slavic languages. However, on closer inspection much of what appears to be German is in fact Yiddish, which in a way is not surprising since being Jewish, that was Zamenhof’s first language. It would also mean that his pronunciation would have a bias in that direction. It’s thought that he disguised the fact that it was Yiddish rather than German out of fear of anti-Semitic rejection of the language, which did eventually happen of course. This fact is worth bearing in mind.

Signs of Yiddish influence on Esperanto include the way the diphthongs “aj” and “ej” are distributed in words of Germanic origin. Middle High German had two sounds, “ei” and long “i”, which later merged in standard German into the “eye”-type sound found, for instance, in “Stein” and “mein”, which have different original sources. This is seen in the Esperanto word “fajro”, meaning “fire”, which looks at first just like the English word “fire” but in fact corresponds to the Yiddish “fayr” rather than the German “Feuer”. There are also, unsurprisingly, no rounded front vowels (the “umlauts”) in Esperanto, which makes sense from the viewpoint of simplifying pronunciation except that Esperanto does have both L and R, unlike Volapük its predecessor which only used L because many languages have one and not the other, and also the uvular fricative as in the Scots and English “loch”, which is also seen as hard to pronounce by many speakers of languages which lack it but which Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish and German all have, except that in most German accents it varies according to the vowels accompanying it, but not in Yiddish where it’s always pronounced as in Scots, Hebrew etc. Sometimes the supposèd German etymology is extremely contrived. For instance, the word for husband is “edzo”, which is supposedly a back-formation from “edzino”, “wife”, from the German “Kronprinzessin”, or, maybe it could be much more straightforwardly from “rebbetzin” – rabbi’s wife?

There is in a sense an Esperanto diaspora like the Jewish one, in that it’s spoken by scattered groups of people across Earth and is comparable to the situation Yiddish and Ladino found themselves in prior to the Holocaust. There are even Esperanto “kibbutzim”, such as the communal farm for abandoned children in Brazil known as Bona Espero. Esperanto is also a “European” language spoken by non-Europeans of a similar mindset, again like Ladino and Yiddish. Also like those two, merely being able to speak Esperanto fluently could earn you a place in a Third Reich death camp. Hitler saw it as an insidious Jewish project and Goebbels called it the language of Jews and communists, which in a way it is, but even more so during the hopefully past age of Fascism and Nazism.

Zamenhof’s life and projects cast a fascinating light on the relationship between the two languages. Before inventing Esperanto in 1887, he had attempted to reform Yiddish by writing it in our own Latin alphabet and make its spelling more phonetic. Later on, he became disillusioned with both Zionism and Hebrew. He once said:

“My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from the earliest childhood, I have given my all for a single great idea, a single dream – the dream of the unity of humankind”.

None of Zamenhof’s children survived the Holocaust. The Nazis, in a sense, didn’t care that one of his daughters was a Baha’ist, and in fact most of the followers of the Baha’i faith in Europe at the time were from Jewish backgrounds. Baha’i was outlawed in 1937.

Zamehof planned to buy sixty square miles of unoccupied land on the banks of the Mississippi and establish a Jewish colony there. Although he believed in the idea of a Jewish homeland, he was completely opposed to it being in Palestine because it was sacred to all Abrahamic faiths, including incidentally Baha’i nowadays. This made it too dangerous in his view to the Jewish people and its defence would be likely to use up too many resources in the military. He also wanted Yiddish to be the lingua franca. However, he reluctantly conceded that there was more momentum in a Zionist plan which would involve Palestine due to its history. He gave up on Zionism because he decided the problem was broader, and was in fact to do with all racism all over the globe and not just anti-Semitism. In widening his vision into a global project, Zamenhof saw himself as following the wisdom of the Talmudic sage Hillel The Elder, who may have been the inventor (discoverer?) of the principle of reciprocity – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Like Hillel, Zamenhof wished to reform Judaism. Perhaps “reconstruct” would be a better word. He regarded halakha (Talmud-based jurisprudence) as tradition more than Holy Writ (rather like Karaites), celebrated the holidays for historical reasons and saw God as human unity, hoping that the whole human race would unite in monotheism but, as far as I can tell, being agnosti about the idea of a Creator separate from the Creation and the human mind. This is very similar to Reconstructionist Judaism with its rejection of the supernatural combined with reverence for the traditions of the faith, but predates it somewhat. Like his reluctance to acknowledge the Jewish roots of the Esperanto language, Zamenhof later changed his “hilelismo” to “homaranismo”, that is, the concept of humanity having a universal home and unity in peace and adequate provision.

Although in the early years of the Esperanto movement, Esperantists were almost necessarily also homaranistinoj, the divisions of the Dreyfus Affair led to those principles being watered down and the adoption of an ideologically neutral position. Whereas Emmanuel Levinas has said that all ideology is coercion, I would incline to the belief that if you say you have no ideology, consciously or not it means your ideology is passive or unconscious, and perhaps even just blatant and strongly held but likely to be considered as unpopular, and that the abandonment of an extrinsic ideology leads to the colonisation of your conceptual territory by a more coercive approach. This happened in a way with Esperanto, in that those who espoused it even without the overt political aims ended up being murdered by Fascists or Nazis. Zamenhof later retreated even further from his stated ideals by talking about an “interna ideo”, which is the inner idea of Esperanto – justice involving unity of human and divine righteousness, bearing in mind that his Ultimate Concern would probably have been non-supernatural and to do with a Quaker-like divine spark in every human. Later on the interna ideo was perceived in various ways, such as striving for goals “higher” than politics can achieve, equality, dignity and respect for all, or political and religious neutrality.

The third language, which I’ve mentioned without properly introducing it, is Ladino. This is the language of the Sephardim – Mediterranean Jews – and owes its origin to the expulsion of Spanish Jews by Felipe II in 1492, after which they found a home in the more tolerant (because partly Islamic) Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ladino is substantially like a mediaeval version of Spanish, as opposed to Castilian, and sounds like “Spanish without the weird bits” to me. I’m not as fluent in Castilian as I am in German, but if anything Ladino is easier for me to understand than Castilian. The sound changes such as ceceo and the shift of palatal voiced fricatives to velar unvoiced ones did not take place and there is no “Usted” followed by third person verbs. Two kind of “external” things about Ladino: it isn’t the only Jewish Romance language and it has in common with Castilian that it’s strongly influenced by a Semitic language. There used to be a “Jewish French”, spoken in, among other places, England, known as Zarphatic, which however died with its speakers due to pogroms in the Middle Ages – it was gone by the end of the fourteenth century, I imagine partly because the Jews were being blamed for the famine and the Black Death among other things but I haven’t checked. And there’s Mozarabic, which was the language spoken on the Iberian peninsula after the Moors invaded, which still shows its traces today in the names of vegetables among other things. While I’m on the subject of the Maghreb, there also used to be at least one Romance language spoken in North Afrika which was completely wiped out by the Moors and whose only traces are in the occasional loan word in Berber languages.

Back to Ladino. Ladino was in fact a fairly dominant, widely-spoken and successful language which led to some people wondering why the Spaniards seemed to speak a Jewish language as well in the early modern period. It was the main language of Palestine when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. Rashi script, used to write it, is traditionally used to write RAbbi SHlomo Itzhak’s commentary in the Talmud, although he didn’t use that script himself. It’s pretty close to bog-standard Hebrew letters except that the aleph looks a bit odd. Later on a fully cursive script called Solitreo was employed for the language and that I find very hard indeed to read. It was, a bit irritatingly, later adopted by Yiddish. However, as the number of speakers fell it came to be written in the Latin alphabet. I don’t know exactly why but it may have been because it became rather less official and more oral, so it came to be written down using the same alphabet as we use. A substantial factor in this is that it fared even worse than Yiddish in the Holocaust and now has perhaps fewer than 200 000 speakers, most of whom are quite old and haven’t passed it on, so it’s a dying language. The fact that it’s now written in the Latin script, however, makes it easier to read for most Europeans than Yiddish, and it’s also distinctively not influenced by Spanish spelling, so for example rather than writing “que” one would write “ke”. This brings it closer in appearance to Esperanto, also substantially Romance-based, when written down. As with Yiddish, Ladino has dialects, in this case Turkish (where the majority of speakers have been due to it being largely outside Europe and protected from the Jewish Holocaust), Greek and Balkan. In the New World, however, it has tended to become assimilated into Spanish. The relative rarity of Ladino puts it in the same league as Esperanto in terms of number of speakers, and both languages are spread across many countries. It was also adversely affected by the use of Hebrew in Israel and also by intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, as their common language would then be Hebrew rather than the other two and their children would then probably be raised speaking that language.

To compare Ladino and Esperanto, I’m going to copy-paste the first article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. First in Ladino:

Kada benadam i benadam nase forro i igual en dinyidad i en derechos. Todos son baale razon i konsiensia i deven komportarsen los unos verso los otros kon fraternidad.

And now in Esperanto:

Ĉiuj homoj estas denaske liberaj kaj egalaj laŭ digno kaj rajtoj. Ili posedas racion kaj konsciencon, kaj devus konduti unu la alian en spirito de frateco.

Similarities can be seen between “igual” and “egala(j)”, “dinyidad” and “digno”, “razo” and “racio(n)” and so forth, although Ladino is clearly a natural language compared to the simplicity and regularity of Esperanto.

Two final points. I’ve concentrated on three languages associated with the Jewish community here but there are many others as well as Hebrew, notably Judaeo-Arabic, about which I know very little but would be interesting as Hebrew and Arabic are already very close. Also, the way Hebrew is spoken colloquially today is quite influenced by Yiddish, with a uvular R rather than the traditional alveolar trill, different values for the schwa vowels and, whether this is an influence or not, apparent loss of pharyngeal consonants, so what we hear today sounds odd to me because it’s kind of pronounced with a German accent, and I find that sad because Ancient Hebrew is closer to Arabic and that seems purer.

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