I admittedly know little about Yiddish. My great-grandmother spoke it. My grandma can understand it. I used to get called a chazer (pig) on account of my messy room. But I had to pause when I saw this interview with K. David Harrison. A linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, he had this to say about disappearing languages:
“Only some cultures erect grand built monuments by which we can remember their achievements. But all cultures encode their genius in their languages, stories, and lexicons.
Each language is a unique expression of human creativity…We would be outraged if Notre Dame Cathedral or the Great Pyramid of Giza were demolished to make way for modern buildings. We should be similarly appalled when languages—monuments to human genius far more ancient and complex than anything we have built with our hands—erode.”
In regards to Yiddish, which is undoubtedly on the decline, Harrison’s eloquent explanation gave me a new perspective. Never had I really considered the inherent value of words. They give us meaning, but they also represent entire cultures. That is what makes their disappearance tragic.
Yiddish was severely crippled by the Holocaust, which sadly wiped out large Yiddish-speaking populations. In modern times, the paramountcy of other languages within many Jewish communities does not help its survival. But given Yiddish’s intimate links with much of the Jewish Diaspora, learning to speak it would essentially be an attempt to preserve part of our heritage. Still, the prospect of that seems somewhat unlikely. Many college-aged Jews would presumably prefer to acquire a more pragmatic language (of which there are many) for future success in a globalized world.
Thankfully, Yiddish does still exist. In isolated pockets of the Jewish world and in academia, the language lives on. It probably (hopefully?) has enough momentum to keep from going completely extinct. But whether it mounts a slight recovery or just barely hangs on remains to be seen.