Monday, June 05, 2017

The inability of linguists to reach a consensus have led some to decry that the mystery of where Yiddish came from will never be solved. But now for the first time a pioneering tool that converts genome data into ancestral coordinates, is helping to pinpoint the DNA of Yiddish speakers...

Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz – the birthplace of Yiddish speakers

Did Ashkenazi Jews descend from ancient Turkey?

At 1,000 years, the search for the location of Ashkenaz – thought to be the birthplace of Ashkanazic Jews and the Yiddish language – is one of the longest quests in human history. It is perhaps second only in length to the search for Noah’s Ark which began in the 3rd century AD.

The place name Ashkenaz occurs three times in the Bible, but by the Middle Ages the exact origin of Ashkenaz was forgotten. Because of the migration of the Ashkenazic Jews it later became associated with Germany. This led to all German Jews being considered “Ashkenazic”, a term which was then applied to central and eastern European Jews who follow Ashkenazic religious customs and who speak Yiddish.

The Yiddish language – which consists of Hebrew, German, Slavic elements and is written in Aramaic – has been spoken at least since the 9th century AD, but its origins have been debated by linguists for several centuries. While some have suggested a German origin, others believe a more complex beginning for the language, starting in Slavic lands in Khazaria – the Middle Age Khazar Empire that covered present-day southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and parts of the Caucasus – and followed by Ukraine, and finally Germany. Although the language adopted a German vocabulary it retained its Slavic grammar – which is why Yiddish is often referred to as “bad German”.

The inability of linguists to reach a consensus have led some to decry that the mystery of where Yiddish came from will never be solved. But now for the first time a pioneering tool that converts genome data into ancestral coordinates, is helping to pinpoint the DNA of Yiddish speakers.

In the largest genomic study of Ashkenazic Jews, and the first one to study Yiddish speakers, we applied our Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool – which operates in a similar way to the sat nav in your car – to the genomes of more than 360 Yiddish and non-Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews.

DNA of Yiddish speakers could have originated from four ancient villages in north-west Turkey.
Surprisingly, our GPS honed in on north-east Turkey, where we found four primeval villages, one of which was abandoned in the mid-7th century AD.

These ancient villages identified by the GPS tool are clustered close to the Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes – and are named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz. And it is likely that these are the villages that mark the location of the lost lands of Ashkenaz.

The history of a people

Located on the cross roads of ancient trade routes, this region suggests that the Yiddish language was developed by Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews as they traded on the Silk Road from the first centuries AD to around the 9th century when they arrived in Slavic lands.

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language – with 251 words for “buy” and “sell” – to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

By the 8th century the words “Jew” and “merchant” were practically synonymous, and it was around this time that Ashkenazic Jews began relocating from ancient Ashkenaz to the Khazar Empire to expand their mercantile operations.

Two Jewish merchants in medieval dress
This Jewish migration led to some of the Turkic Khazar rulers and numerous eastern Slavs living within the Khazar Empire to convert to Judaism so they didn’t miss out on the lucrative Silk Road trade between Germany and China.

But the demise of Khazaria due to continued invasions and finally the Black Death devastated this last Jewish Empire of Khazaria. This led to the Ashkenazic Jews splitting into two groups – some remaining in the Caucasus and others migrating into eastern Europe and Germany.
The two groups still called themselves Ashkenazic Jews, however the name Ashkenaz became more strongly associated with Germany and the the European group – for whom Yiddish became their primary language.

A secret language

Since north-east Turkey is the only place in the world where the place names of Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz exist this strongly implies that Yiddish was established around the first millennium at a time when Jewish traders moved goods from Asia to Europe. This was done by developing the language of Yiddish, which very few can speak or understand other than Jews.
Further evidence to the origin of Ashkenazic Jews can be found in many customs – such as the breaking of a glass at a wedding ceremony and placing stones over tombstones, which were probably introduced by Slavic converts to Judaism.

By studying the origin of Yiddish using our GPS technology, combined with a citizen science approach, we were able to shed light on one of the most forgotten chapters of history and demonstrate the use of bio-geographical genetic tools to study the origin of languages. For Ashkanazic Jews these are the ties that bind their history, culture, behaviour, and identity.

University of Sheffield provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.
View all partners

Republish this article Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons license.


Anonymous said...

This is a very strange article, and should be read with great caution. You can get to the original study by clicking on some of the links.

The main author, Paul Wexler, is a VERY controversial figure in the field of Yiddish/Jewish studies - please look him up on Wikipedia, for starters.

Secondly, the idea that a group of 'only Yiddish speakers' - mainly Hasidim from Brooklyn - would give any special insight into the origins of Ashkenazi Jews (more so than any other group of Ashkenazi Jews) seems to me bizarre. The decision to speak Only Yiddish" is a politico-religious strategy, and nothing to do with preserving some pure tradition of Yiddish language. Analyzing the DNA of a random group of monoglot English speakers, or French speakers, would give a huge array or ethnic origins, but would tell you nothing about the origins of the English language.

Thirdly, the article itself is full of bizarre assertions about Jews, Jewish history and Yiddish. It clearly pushes the 'Jews are really Khazars' theory, which is politically-loaded and for which the evidence is less than even credible, let alone convincing. The fact that the first item in the bibliography seems to be from Gilad Atzmon is itself a danger sign.

This is a totally eccentric posting, with some rather nasty undertones. (Are there really "251 words for buy and sell" in Yiddish?? I'd like to see a list. But we all know that Jews are mad about money, don't we?) The origins of Ashkenazi settlement in Europe, and of the Yiddish language are well established by mountains of documentary and even archaeological evidence. Yiddish is hardly a "secret language', any more than dozens of other minority languages - but again, we're talking Jews and conspiracy theories, right? There is a question, discussed by serious historians, of the origins of the mass of Eastern European Jews in Poland/Russia. Khazaria is not an answer, nor are four villages in Northern Turkey.

Mr. Mendlowitz -- take it down!

(BTW - the familiar photo is of Jews in the Old Yishuv, taken in the 1880's or so. Nothing to do with Turkey.)

Garnel Ironheart said...

What I find interesting is how we're watching history repeat itself. Yeshivish is nothing but an English version of Yiddish except that while the masses embraced Yiddish, Yeshivish is still a private language for one part of the Jewish community at this point.

UOJ gets Results said...

For the next time Shafran & Zweibel say with a straight face that the Fressers follow Daas Torah:

Rav Liebes ztl in Shu"t Beis Avi 3:161

לא רק שמותר להתריע בכיוון זה רק מצוה לעורר את דעת העם את חומר הסכנה המרחפת על תושבי הארץ.

יש כח להבי"ד בזמן שרואין צורך השעה לענוש עונש מות אפילו בכל יום אפילו אם מן התורה פטורין הם כדי שעל ידי זה כל העם ישמעו וייראו ולא יזידון עוד.

מצוה וחיוב לעורר את דעת הקהל להתריע את בתי המשפט שיראו להעביר בכל המדינה משפט מות ולענוש בכל החומר הרוצחים והפושעים ואת מדינתינו ארצות הברית אשר מאמינה בתנ"ך יכולים לשכנע אותה ולהראות לה עד היכן תוה"ק מקפידה לבער את רשעי הארץ בתור חיוב ומצוה. ומש"כ כת"ר לחשוש דלפעמים ימצא רוצח יהודי א"כ אנחנו נהיה אשמים במיתתו זה אינו כלום . . . מוכח מזה דהמחוייב מיתה עפ"י דין המלכות מותר למסרו להם מטעם דינא דמלכותא. מובן ממילא שכל דברינו מוסבים רק על המדינות שיש להם שוויון הזכויות לכל אזרחיה בלי שום אנטישמיות ושנאת ישראל ולכן אם ח"ו יהודי נתפס באיזה עון ופשע הרי הוא נידון כמו כל אזרחי המדינה.

Talmid of the Pnei Yehoshua R' Avrohom Rappaport-Schrenzel Katz in Aison Hoezrachi, teshuva 45:


מאחר שניתן ביד גוים ערכאות הם יעשו בו משפט וידינו לא תהיה בו . . . ואפשר שעל נדון דידן נאמר מורידין מאחר שכתב הרב מהר"ד ה"ל האב"ד דק"ק ה"ל שדעתו לעשות כפרה והיה כל ימיו חוטא גדול ופושע, נאמר לישרי' ביה גודא רבא ואף אם יאמר שרוצה לעשות תשובה ולפי דעתי על אלו אמרו חז"ל אין נחת רוח בתשובתן של רשעים להקב"ה כי ראה עצמו ביד גוים רוצה לרמות אותנו, אבל להפריז ממון לפדות אותו בשביל שאומר שרוצה לעשות תשובה זה הוא חילול השם שיאמרו אין עונש שפיכות דמים אצל יהודים נחשב חטא והיה אם גוי יהרוג ח"ו ליהודי ג"כ לא ידונו לעשות נקמה. ותמיד אני צועק ככרוכיא על מנהיגי הדור שכל גנב או חוטא שבא למאסר עושין השתדלות לפדות אותו ע"י שחדים דבר זה בעו"ה מרבה פשעים וגניבות כל א' עושה מה שלבו חפץ ורבו פריצי הדור כאלו אנחנו רואים בעו"ה רוב גנבי ישראל ע"כ שלא לתת פרוטה לפוטרו ממות.


Tziyun Lenefesh Chaya 121 (son of the Zavlover Rov & father of the alter Pittsburgher R' Zev Wolf) poskens it is even assur to do anything to bail out criminals after they have been apprehended.