The Origins of Yiddish—A Response to Philologos, Part Tsvey

Aug 23, 2014 by

[Many thanks to Merlin Dorfman for bringing the Philologos’ essay to my attention and to Martin W. Lewis for his helpful comments and corrections to this post! I am also grateful to Olaf Koeneman and George Walkden for their invaluable guidance through the maze of comparative Germanic syntax.]


In the previous post, I have outlined three viable theories about the origins of Yiddish: the Rhineland, Regensburg, and Sorbian scenarios. Before we consider the evidence for these three hypotheses, another important caution is in order: finding the same linguistic elements, constructions, or patterns in two or more languages does not necessarily prove that the languages are related through common descent or linguistic contact. I will use one (somewhat elaborate) example from the syntax of Yiddish to illustrate. The following will be a longer and more technical discussion than usual, but buckle your seatbelts and bear with me!

Let’s look at some word order patterns in Yiddish. As mentioned in the previous post, Yiddish exhibits Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order, complemented by the V2 phenomenon, which we shall examine more closely now. While long-time readers of this blog may recall our discussion of V2 in connection with Icelandic or even traces of V2 in English, a brief review of V2 is in order. No, it’s not a British punk rock band nor a type of early ballistic missile used in World War II that we are interested in here. In syntax, V2 means “Verb-Second”, that is the requirement that the verb appear in the second position in a clause. (More precisely, the V2 requirement concerns the finite verb, i.e. the verb that carries tense, be it an auxiliary or lexical verb.) As illustrated with the German examples below, the verb in the second position can be preceded by the subject Martin in (1) or by a non-subject phrase such as a temporal adverb gestern ‘yesterday’ in (2), but not by both, as in (3). (For ease of presentation, the relevant verb is shown in boldface, and the element in the first position preceding the verb is underlined. The second line of non-English examples, in italics, is the word-by-word gloss, which may make it easier to follow the foreign-language examples. Asterisk in front of a sentence means it’s not a grammatical/acceptable sentence in the language.)

(1) Martin hat das Buch gelesen.

Martin has the book read

‘Martin has read the book.’

(2) Gestern hat Martin das Buch gelesen.

yesterday has Martin the book read

‘Yesterday, Martin has read the book.’

(3) *Gestern Martin hat das Buch gelesen.

yesterday Martin has the book read

‘Yesterday, Martin has read the book.’

The V2 pattern characterizes all Germanic languages, with the exception of English. (In fact, English is in many ways “the penguin of Germanic languages”, as discussed in detail by John McWhorter in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.) In Icelandic, Swedish, and Danish, as well as in Dutch, Afrikaans, and Norwegian, the verb must appear in the second position, just like in German (in the following examples, from Koeneman and Neeleman 2001: 205, the first position is occupied by the direct object):




(4) Icelandic:

Bókina keypti Jón ekki. bought John not

‘The book, John didn’t buy.’

(5) Swedish:

Boken köpte Ulf inte. bought Ulf not

‘The book, Ulf didn’t buy.’

(6) Danish:

Denne film har børnene set.

this film have the.children seen

‘This film, the children have seen.’

Yiddish is no different: like any “well-behaved” Germanic language, it too has the V2 requirement, so that the verb has to appear in the second position even if the first position is occupied by a non-subject (e.g. the object in the following example, also from Koeneman and Neeleman 2001: 205):

(7) Yiddish:

Dos bukh shik ikh avek.

the book send I away

‘The book, I sent off.’

Let’s take stock: Yiddish is like most other Germanic languages in its V2 requirement. However, thus far we have looked only at main clauses—but what about subordinate (or in technical lingo, “embedded”) clauses? Here, Germanic languages (again, leaving aside English, which has no productive V2 at all) fall into two categories: those that do not have V2 in embedded clauses and those that do. German exhibits no V2 in embedded clauses; the finite verb appears at the end. (The following example, from Santorini 1994: 88 can be construed as a continuation for, say, ‘Martin asked…’. For ease of presentation, the relevant embedded clauses are bracketed.)

(8) … ob [ich gestern einen Schreibtisch gakauft habe]

if I yesterday a desk bought have

‘…if I bought a desk yesterday.’

In Yiddish, on the other hand, the V2 requirement applies equally in main clauses (as we have seen above) and in embedded clauses (the following examples from Santorini 1992: 597-598 can be construed as a continuation of, say, ‘I wonder…’). Once again, the verb vet ‘will’ can follow the subject dos yingl ‘the boy’ or the adverbial oyfn veg ‘on the way’, but not both:

(9) … oyb [dos yingl vet oyfn veg zen a kats].

whether the boy will on-the way see a cat

‘…whether the boy will see a cat on the way’

(10) … oyb [oyfn veg vet dos yingl zen a kats].

whether on-the way will the boy see a cat

‘… whether on the way the boy will see a cat’

(11) … *oyb [oyfn veg dos yingl vet zen a kats].

whether on-the way the boy will see a cat

When it comes to word order in embedded clauses, most Germanic languages—Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish—pattern with German in not having the V2 requirement. There is only one Germanic language besides Yiddish that exhibits the V2 phenomenon in all types of embedded clauses—Icelandic.* (The following example, originally from the work of Höskuldur Thráinsson, is cited from Santorini 1994: 89.)

(12) Ég spurði hvar [henni hefðu flestir að dáendur gefið blóm].

I asked where her had most fans given flowers

‘I asked where the most fans had given her flowers.’

Let’s recap: of all the Germanic languages with V2 (i.e. all Germanic languages minus English), only two exhibit V2 in (all types of) embedded clauses—Yiddish and Icelandic. But this is not all: the plot thickens when we consider two more word order patterns in embedded clauses—subject postposing and transitive expletives (both of which are explained below). As we shall see, these two syntactic patterns are found only in two Germanic languages, Yiddish and Icelandic.

First, let’s look at subject postposing. Provided that some element (in technical lingo, “constituent”) appears in the first position and the verb appears in its required second position, the subject may appear at the very end of the (embedded) clause. We find this pattern in both Yiddish, as in (13), and Icelandic, as in (14), but not in other Germanic languages. (In the following examples, from Santorini 1994: 94, the postposed subject is ‘so many ships’.)

(13) Ikh hob nit gevust, az [haynt geyn keyn Grinland azoy fil shifn].

I have not known that today go to Greenland so many ships

‘I didn’t know that today, so many ships went to Greenland.’

(14) Ég vissi ekki að [i dag færu til Grænlands svona mörg skip].

I knew not that today went to Greenland so many ships

‘I didn’t know that today, so many ships went to Greenland.’

There has come a time to look at the so-called transitive expletive construction. The term “expletive” means a pronoun that does not refer to anything, such as it in It rains or there in the preceding sentence. It is the counterparts of the English there in other Germanic languages that we shall focus on. All Germanic languages have sentences with a there-expletive and (certain) intransitive verbs, counterparts of the English There has come a time to…. But if the verb is transitive (i.e. has an object, e.g. ‘eat’), the expletive possibilities are curtailed: in English we don’t say *There has someone eaten an apple.** The counterpart of this sentence is possible in German, Icelandic, and Yiddish but not in Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, or Afrikaans (see the German example below and its ungrammatical Danish counterpart, from Koeneman & Neeleman 2001: 211, 206).

(15) German:

Es hat jemand einen Apfel gegessen.

there has someone an apple eaten

‘Someone has eaten an apple.’

(16) Danish:

*Der har nogen spist et œble

there has someone eaten an apple

If we turn to embedded clauses, even fewer languages allow the transitive expletive construction. It is not possible in German (or in Dutch, Afrikaans, or Mainland Scandinavian languages), and is permitted in only two Germanic languages. You guessed it: Yiddish and Icelandic! (The following examples, from Koeneman & Neeleman 2001: 211, are to be construed as a continuation for ‘I know…’.)

(17) German:

*…dass [es jemand einen Apfel gegessen hat].

that there someone an apple eaten has

‘…that someone has eaten an apple.’

(18) Yiddish:

…az [es volt imitser gevolt esn der epl].

that there will someone would eat an apple

‘…that someone would eat an apple.’

(19) Icelandic:

… að [Það mundi einhver hafa borðað Þetta epli].

that there would someone have eaten this apple

‘…that someone would have eaten this apple.’

Time to recap. Yiddish exhibits three relatively unusual word order patterns in embedded clauses: V2, subject postposing, and transitive expletives. Although some of the other Germanic languages may have these patterns in main clauses, only one other Germanic tongue has them in embedded clauses—Icelandic. In other words, Yiddish and Icelandic share not one, not two, but three (!) rare syntactic patterns. Does this mean that Yiddish and Icelandic are historically related, through common descent or linguistic contact? Such a conclusion is hardly justified, as it is well-known that Ashkenazi Jews, who gave birth to Yiddish, neither originated nor sojourned in Iceland.

Our reluctance to conclude that Yiddish and Icelandic are particularly closely related is further supported by the fact that, on closer inspection, the three shared phenomena (V2, subject postposing, and transitive expletives in embedded clauses) have different histories in the two languages. In Icelandic, even the earliest stages of Old Norse prose display embedded V2, although in poetry it is apparently absent (Þorgeirsson 2012). As for Yiddish, “verb-second subordinate clauses in Yiddish are attested from the first half of the 1600’s, but only in East Yiddish” (Santorini 1989: 77). The appearance of embedded V2 in East(ern) and not West(ern) Yiddish will be of utmost importance in following post.

For now, the Take-Home Message is: not all shared linguistic patterns are evidence of common descent or linguistic contact. Based on this principle, we have to reject Paul Wexler’s Sorbian scenario: although Yiddish shows some similarities with Sorbian, it cannot be seen as a Slavic language, or even as a Slavic language re-lexified into a Germanic one. As discussed in greater detail in an earlier post, it is not that Yiddish merely has numerous words of Germanic origin, but rather that its grammar is also quintessentially Germanic. The V2 and related syntactic patterns we’ve examined in this post—entirely absent from Sorbian and other Slavic languages—are only the tip of the grammatical “iceberg” that places Yiddish squarely in the Germanic family.

Yet Slavic influences on Yiddish are also undeniable—and will be discussed in the following post. We shall see that (unrestricted) V2 in embedded clauses in Yiddish may be a result of linguistic contact—not with Icelandic but with its Slavic neighbors.



*Things are actually more complicated than presented here. In German and Dutch, V2 is found in embedded clauses which lack overt complementizers. Faroese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Afrikaans all have V2 in an even wider range of embedded clauses than German and Dutch, including complements of the so-called “bridge verbs”; see Biberauer (2002), Julien (2007), and Wiklund et al. (2009). Also, the generalization that Icelandic (and by extension, Yiddish) has V2 in all types of embedded clauses has been challenged by Hrafnbjargarson & Wiklund (2009) although it remains clear that Yiddish and Icelandic have the least restricted embedded V2.

**Interestingly, transitive expletive construction is attested in late Middle English and Early Modern English (14th-16th century); see Tanaka (2000) for a detailed discussion.



Biberauer, Theresa (2002) Verb second in Afrikaans: is this a unitary phenomenon? Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics 34: 19-69.

Hrafnbjargarson, Gunnar Hrafn & Anna-Lena Wiklund (2009) General Embedded V2: Icelandic A, B, C, etc. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax 84: 21–51.

Julien, Marit (2007) Embedded V2 in Norwegian and Swedish. Ms., University of Lund.

Koeneman, Olaf & Ad Neeleman (2001) Predication, verb movement and the distribution of expletives. Lingua 111: 189-233.

McWhorter, John (2008) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Gotham Press.

Santorini, Beatrice (1989) The Generalization of the Verb-Second Constraint in the History of Yiddish. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Santorini, Beatrice (1992) Variation and Change in Yiddish Subordinate Clause Word Order. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 10: 595-640.

Santorini, Beatrice (1994) Some similarities and differences between Icelandic and Yiddish. In: Norbert Hornstein and David Lightfoot (eds.) Verb movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 87-106.

Tanaka, Tomoyuki (2000) On the development of transitive expletive constructions in the history of English. Lingua 110: 473-495.

Wiklund, Anna-Lena; Kristine Bentzen, Gunnar Hrafn Hrafnbjargarson, & Þorbjörg Hróarsdóttir (2009) On the distribution and illocution of V2 in Scandinavian that-clauses. Lingua 119(12): 1914-1938.

Þorgeirsson, Haukur (2012) Late placement of the finite verb in Old Norse fornyrðislag meter. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 24: 233–69.


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