Rare Book & Manuscript Library


The History of the Yiddish Atlas Project at Columbia University

An effort has been initiated to bring to the Web information about the Yiddish language, and digitized samples of varieties of Yiddish speech, derived from the LCAAJ: the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, and the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry.

by Marvin Herzog

The LCAAJ--A Living Archive of the Yiddish Language

Since European Jews were largely destroyed during World War II, and the surviving minority was displaced by emigration and internal migration, it was a matter of the greatest urgency to reconstruct the geography of Ashkenazic folk culture and of European Yiddish while reliable testimony could still be gathered from emigrant informants. Uriel Weinreich wrote:

". . . what is familiar in one year may be thrust to the brink of oblivion in the next. . . . What was too obvious for study only yesterday has suddenly become precious. . . . what we do not collect in the coming decade or so will be lost forever."

What we "collected" now constitues the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ). The Archive, which resides in Butler Library at Columbia University in the City of New York, is one of the products of a long term investigation designed by Uriel Weinreich and directed by him at Columbia University until his death in 1967. Since then it has been directed by Marvin Herzog.

The LCAAJ - An Atlas of the Yiddish Language

The investigation was designed to yield a multi-volume Atlas - books of maps based on materials selected from the archive and displaying the distribution of the language and culture variants that characterized the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II.

The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ) is being prepared by an Editorial Collegium [Marvin Herzog, Editor- in-Chief, and Andrew Sunshine in New York; Ulrike Kiefer, Robert Neumann, and Wolfgang Putschke in Germany]. It is being published by the Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tuebingen, Germany, and copublished by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Volumes I and II of the Atlas have appeared. Volume III is in press. Volumes IV-XI are in preparation.

Contents of the Archive

The archive consists of approximately 6,000 hours of spoken Yiddish recorded in Israel, Alsace, the USA, Canada, and Mexico from emigrant speakers native to more than 600 communities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. It is the largest and geographically most diverse record of living Yiddish - an irreplaceable repository pertaining to all aspects of Ashkenazic Jewish language and culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.

For Whom Are These Materials of Special Interest?

The selected materials in the published atlas volumes, and the vast corpus of materials in the archive, are of interest to scholars, students, and the lay public:

Among scholars and researchers, they are of interest to linguists specializing in dialectology, in Yiddish, in Hebrew and Aramaic, in the Germanic, Slavic, and other European languages; to ethnographers, folklorists, ethnomusicologists; to Jewish historians and historians of Central and Eastern Europe. Since many of the recorded speakers are themselves Holocaust survivors, some of the recorded biographical material may be relevant to Holocaust history as well.

The dialectologist will find in the LCAAJ the first Atlas investigation based on the principles of Structural Dialectology as first explicated by Uriel Weinreich in 1954. Since Yiddish was the "language-in-contact" par excellence, everywhere coterritorial with another European language, the LCAAJ also provides an unparalleled opportunity for the study of Bilingual Dialectology, the comparative study of variation in languages occupying the same geographic area.

The scholar of Semitic languages will discover in Yiddish the linguistic vehicle that sustained a significant body of Hebrew and Aramaic materials as part of every-day discourse among Ashkenazic Jews throughout the European period in Jewish history.

The particular significance of the LCAAJ for Germanic studies arises from the fact that Yiddish is the only Germanic language that shares the medieval forerunners of German, and that it developed its distinctiveness during centuries of coterritorial contact with German on German language territory.

Both the Germanist and the Slavist must share an interest in the fact that Yiddish provided a centuries-long transition--a bridge between German and the Slavic language-area to the East. The materials of the LCAAJ will also provide fuel for the recently renewed controversy over the status of Yiddish as a Slavic rather than a Germanic language.

The archive will provide teachers and students of Yiddish with a wide variety of "living" models of the spoken language that are increasingly difficult to find anywhere else, and are nowhere available in the same place.

The lay public, along with scholars, teachers, and students will delight in the surprising variety of regional pronunciations, little-known words, unexpected variation in the meanings of common words, differences in cuisine, in holiday ritual and celebrations, rites of passage, beliefs and practices, songs and games, etc.