April 23rd is UNESCO World Book Day and this year their focus is on Indigenous languages. If you’ve read my books, you know my main characters speak Yiddish, which is in fact an indigenous language. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to speak about the history of Yiddish.
If you were to literally translate Yiddish, it means “Jewish”. Linguistically, it refers to the language spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews, or the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. It comprises a variety of languages like medieval German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romance languages.
It is very difficult to pinpoint the origins of the Yiddish language. The most widely accepted theory is during the 10th century there was a great migration of Jews from France and Italy to the German Rhine Valley. The belief is to find common ground to communicate amongst these different groups, the Yiddish language emerged.
In most Ashkenazi communities they used Hebrew as their language of study for the Bible and prayer, and Yiddish was used for their everyday communication.
Twentieth Century Yiddish
The first international conference on Yiddish language met in 1908. It was there they declared Yiddish to be the “national language of the Jewish people.” This was the beginning of establishing cultural institutions and standardization within the Jewish community to preserve the integrity of the language.
After that organizations around the world sprung up to offer schools, literature, theater and research to further Yiddish expression. Unfortunately, this screeched to a halt during the years leading up to WWII. Soon Yiddish writers were censored and arrested or even executed. Yiddish institutions were shut down. Eventually Yiddish was outlawed in many places completely.
The Holocaust destroyed much of the Yiddish speaking population. Those remaining were often scared to speak the language. Many who immigrated to America were also facing intense pressure to acclimate.
Hope for the Future
But Yiddish has experienced a resurgence in the last half century. It is again being studied as a serious academic discipline. Yiddish literature has been recognized and even awarded a Nobel Prize!
Preservation efforts thrive and the importance of remembering and sharing the language are being brought to the forefront.
The importance of UNESCO and other indigenous language preservation efforts
However, there is more work to be done. At present, 96 percent of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are spoken by only 3% of the population. Estimates suggest that more than half the world’s languages will become extinct by 2100. Other calculations suggest that 95% of the world’s languages will become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of this century.
It’s important to remember that these indigenous languages are not only methods of communication. They’re also expressions of culture and knowledge accumulated over millennia. They are central to identity. When these languages are under threat, so too are the indigenous people themselves.
Check out literature by Indigenous Authors
The Yiddish Book Center Digital Library can be visited HERE.
Explore 25 books that highlight beauty of Indigenous literature HERE.
Celebrate and Share Indigenous Peoples’ Day on August 9th