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Sociolinguistics Symposium 19: Language and the City

Sociolinguistics Symposium 19

Freie Universität Berlin | August 21-24, 2012

Programme: accepted abstracts

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Abstract ID: 401

Part of Session 120: Sociolinguists on Facebook on the Indigenous Languages in the City (Other abstracts in this session)

Documenting Poland’s heritage languages: the particular challenge of Polish Yiddish

Authors: Hornsby, Michael (1); Wicherkiewicz, Tomasz (2)
Submitted by: Hornsby, Michael (Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, Poland)

Yiddish was spoken in pre-war Poland by just under 3 million people (Birnbaum 1979: 41) and thrived as a literary, theatrical, cinematic and political language in addition to being the daily vernacular of the majority of Polish Jewry. Today, a few native speakers of the Polish dialect of Yiddish remain in Poland but are more likely to be found in centres of Jewish culture around the world, such as London or New York. The status of Yiddish as an endangered language worldwide is well established (Brenzinger 2007: 2) and thorough attempts to document its characteristics have already been carried out (cf. Birnbaum 1979; Jacobs 2005; Weinrich 2006). However, the Polish dialect of Yiddish, despite its pre-war numerical superiority (only the Soviet Union came close to matching the number of speakers in Poland, with more speakers of Polish Yiddish than Yiddish speakers in Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Lithuania combined (Birnbaum 1979: 41)) faces even greater endangerment in the face of a drive to revitalise the language based on the notion of ‘standard’ language. Illogically, the Northern form of Yiddish (Latvian and Lithuanian Yiddish) was used for the basis of standard Yiddish by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York (despite having fewer speakers) and this is the form used in textbooks and summer schools around the world to teach the language. As a result, descendants of holocaust survivors who wish to connect with their Polish inheritance via the Yiddish language are exposed to non-Polish Yiddish phonological and lexical features, which can alienate them in their attempts to reconnect to the language (Hornsby 2010: Fieldwork).

In a recently launched project funded by the Polish government to document the heritage languages of Poland (Dziedzictwo językowe Rzeczypospolitej. Baza dokumentacji zagrożonych języków), tracking suitable texts and surviving native speakers of Polish Yiddish has proved a major challenge for the project leaders. The associated difficulties of reconciling a previously rural language of the shetl (as well as in major Polish cities of course) to an overwhelmingly urban (and in some cases, L2) language associated more with Western Europe and North America than its traditional Eastern European heartland is outlined in this paper.

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