Review of Lea Schäfer’s Syntax and Morphology of Yiddish Dialects

Rachel Steindel Burdin

Lea Schäfer. Syn­tax and Mor­phol­o­gy of Yid­dish Dialects: Find­ings from the Lan­guage and Cul­ture Archive of Ashke­naz­ic Jew­ry. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2023. 478 pp. 88.00 €.

When I was a graduate student, I was tasked with the terrifying job of driving William Labov around as a part of his visit to our department. Labov, who was a student of Uriel Weinreich’s at Columbia University, is a towering figure in the field of modern sociolinguistics. We got to talking about my research interests, which include variation in Yiddish, and I brought up the Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ). The project, helmed by U. Weinreich in the 1950s, aimed to document linguistic variation in Yiddish as it existed before the Holocaust, before it was too late. Extensive interviews, consisting of up to 3581 questions targeting various structures in the language, were conducted with Yiddish speakers who had been born in Europe, and, for the most part, migrated to the United States prior to the Holocaust (see Schäfer 2023, pg. 14 and 23 for a summary of demographic information of the participants). The interviews were recorded, and extensive field notes were taken by the interviewers as well. Labov listened, and then said that, in his opinion, the LCAAJ had the same problem as other large scale dialectology projects: the data was out there, and available, but not enough was actually being done with it.

I encountered my own frustrations with trying to work with materials from the LCAAJ. I explored the EYDES (Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies) website, which had digitized the reel-to-reel tapes, but encountered the same issues documented by Schäfer (2023): the recordings were of poor quality, and fragmented, making it difficult to listen to one all the way through, and difficult to search through. In particular, there was no good way to listen through all of the answers to one specific question in the questionnaire. As I was interested in prosodic variation, such a feature would have been ideal, but the amount of labor needed to get the data in a usable format seemed insurmountable. There was also a lack of written material to go along with the recordings: the archive containing the original field notes from the project was housed at Columbia University, but they were not digitized, and the prospect of finding funding for an extended stay to work in the archives was daunting. I put the LCAAJ aside, and focused on other things.

But, things have changed since the early 2010s. Columbia finished digitizing the field notes, and now hosts them and other materials associated with the project (now the “archive”, rather than the “atlas”) online, in a searchable database, and someone has done something with them, the first large-scale project using the LCAAJ in over 20 years. Lea Schäfer’s monograph, Syntax and Morphology of Yiddish Dialects: Findings from the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry represents a massive achievement in both Yiddish dialectology and the study of syntactic and morphological variation more generally. She modestly notes, in the introduction, that the book “only presents what was doable within the scope of a short-term research project” (pg. 1). That includes research into 27 separate linguistic phenomena, all of which include several subparts that had not previously been examined in prior work using the LCAAJ, and a total of 139 figures, mainly maps and charts created by Schäfer, showing the geographical distribution of each phenomenon studied. For comparison, the LCAAJ published and compiled 148 maps in the massive third volume of The Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry: The Eastern Yiddish-Western Yiddish Continuum; this project took about 40 years. 1 1 Marvin Herzog et al. The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, Volume 3: The Eastern Yiddish-Western Yiddish Continuum. Tubingen and New York: Max Niemeyer, 2000. For another comparison, the World Atlas of Linguistic Structure (WALS), which Schäfer cites as an inspiration, has 193 maps with data from 2,662 languages. WALS was the work of 4 editors, managing 55 authors.

While Schäfer was working with data from “only” 758 informants, the comparison becomes even more staggering when you consider that the WALS editors and authors were generally drawing on already published grammatical analyses. Schäfer had the task of first sorting through the questionnaire to find the structures she was interested in, not all of which were directly or clearly elicited by the fieldworkers. Then, she had to decipher the notes of the fieldworkers, which are often fragmentary and incomplete, and written in a specialized transcription system, without the benefit of things like word breaks. Then she had to analyze, code, and map the data. She credits four assistants for their help, but by any yardstick, the book represents a staggering feat of data processing and analysis.

For an example of what Schäfer was working with, we can consider this answer in the field notes to the task of translating “I got a letter from father”: XOG3KRIGNABRIVFNTATN. There are often no clear word breaks, and the answers are written in a modified phonetic transcription system, using a mix of Roman characters, numbers, and other symbols (Schäfer 2023, pg. 48); I encourage the reader to take a look at the field notes themselves to get a sense here. This needed to be first transcribed to xo gekrign a briv fn tatn, “I got a letter from father” and then, tagged as showing the gekrign form for the past participle of krign “to get,” as opposed to gekrogen or gekrejgen, or, alternatively, if a participant said bakommen, derhalten, or gehat instead of a form of krign. Rinse, repeat, for all participants for whom an answer was recorded, and for all of the phenomena studied. The difficulty of working with the LCAAJ materials—or, really, any large dialectology project—can also be seen in the length of time it took from the conception of the project in the 1950s until the publication of the third volume of the LCAAJ. So, while Schäfer is correct that the book only scratches the surface of what can be done with these new digital tools, this is by no means a small project.

The book opens with Part I, which contains a short introduction, an overview of the LCAAJ project, and then an overview of the Syntax of Eastern Yiddish Dialects (SEYD) project, which includes Schäfer’s theoretical perspectives and frameworks. Then, part II contains ten chapters organized by a broad morphosyntactic theme (e.g. negation, case marking, voice), with each then broken into subsections.

Schäfer’s approach is a Germanic one, firmly placing Yiddish’s structures in the context of both the historical development of Old and Middle High German, as well as current non-standard German varieties. References to equivalent or similar Slavic structures are included throughout where relevant, but in general, Schäfer’s position, as stated in Part I, is followed: “Eastern Yiddish, which is often treated as an exotic language, fits into the system of Germanic languages. Yiddish speakers have left the Germanic language area, but have not stopped speaking a Germanic language” (pg. 45).

We can see this viewpoint in the section on Negative Concord (NC), or “double negatives.” Standard Yiddish, unlike Standard German or Standard English, obligatorily includes NC: keiner darf zix kejnmol nit ajln “No one has to hurry,” which structurally aligns with vernacular (and prescriptively incorrect) English “Don’t nobody never has to hurry.” Schäfer presents a skeptical view of the role of Slavic influence here, which has some negation structures analogous to Yiddish. She states that the development of NC in Yiddish “is one of the most striking examples of unnatural influence of language formation. Yiddish probably included the expression of NC in the standard language especially to emphasize its distance from German .... Nevertheless, many special negation structures ... are suspected to have been influenced by the surrounding Slavic languages” (pg. 324).

Schäfer’s data shines new and interesting light on this question of Germanic-inheritance vs. Slavic-contact-influence. On the one hand, while perhaps as expected, we see a lack of NC structures in Western Yiddish; on the other hand, there is a striking amount of the same in Eastern Yiddish territory as well. At the very least, this shows that non-NC structures were an available variant in the vernacular, spoken language in Eastern Yiddish. However, Schäfer does note that the overwhelming structure in EY is NC, particularly in Polish speaking areas, but not Ukrainian or Belarusian ones. Schäfer also shows evidence here of interference in the responses here not from Standard English (where we would expect a lack of NC), but from vernacular English, in the sporadic use of code-switched never in Yiddish by a handful of informants, and notes here that this is more general evidence for the existence of contact-induced variation in this syntactic realm. Unfortunately, though, the text lacks the direct structures in the Slavic languages for comparison, and so the Germanic-focus here means we end up missing part of the picture. In the end, while those who are more sympathetic to a larger role of contact with Slavic in the development of EY may quibble with Schäfer’s framing, the data is presented fairly, and thus, the book, and the methods therein, could certainly be of use to someone approaching the question from a different perspective.

Schäfer’s work is also important in that it is focused on morphology and syntax, and, in a broader view, in looking at Yiddish dialects as whole linguistic systems in their own rights, following Weinreich’s (1954) call for structural dialectology. 2 2 Uriel Weinreich, “Is a structural dialectology possible?” Word 10, No. 2-3: 388-400. Weinreich’s work laid an important foundation here in sociolinguistics, most notably through the work of his student, Labov, and today, scholars in the field do quite a bit of work on variation in vowel systems as opposed to just looking at the difference between one or two vowels in isolation. However, the number of scholars, and amount of work, on variation in morphosyntax is much smaller. Schäfer’s book makes moves towards this goal, particularly in the occasional summary maps within the chapters, showing, for example, the general rate of regularization or irregularization of verb forms. However, one can feel a missing conclusion here, in pulling all of the observations of the book together: what broader things can we say about the morphosyntax of different varieties of Yiddish? How do the different parts of these systems interact? What is the effect of a given change on the morphosyntactic system as a whole? This book is an important, and necessary, first step toward answering some of these important and daunting questions.

There are two major points of disappointment. The first is that the book is marred by substantial and persistent typos and a general lack of careful copy editing. One particularly egregious example, found on page 220 and 221, is reproduced here:

There are errors here in the gloss alignments (e.g., in (6d), the “fun” is not aligned under the “fin”); errors in the gloss translations (‘fin’ translated as ‘fun’ rather than “from”); inconsistencies in the glossing (“xo” glossed as both “have” and “I-have”; this inconsistency appears throughout the book) and an error in a place name (53238 is Lipsk, Poland, as correctly noted in 6b; where 6c came from, then, is unclear ), and what looks to be a typo (“brliv” instead of “briv”). In general, also, the glosses are quite broad (for example, tatn not explicitly glossed as a dative form), which might make the book more difficult to follow for non-Yiddishists and non-Germanicists. These issues persist throughout: one map, for example (Figure 9.22, pg. 303) has a key in untranslated German. In general, while the maps and data themselves are clear, these presentation issues can make it difficult to follow Schäfer’s arguments in places. The good news here, however, is again in the existence of the digitized archives: we can go back and check on the original field notes, and see that the underlying work by Schäfer is sound.

The other issue is that this is a monograph, and is hemmed in by the conventions of that genre. Schäfer helpfully gives a list of other publications under the SEYD project, and there is both a repository of the data, including the transliterations, used to make the book, available here as well as a simple map viewer here: . However, one wishes for something along the lines of WALS: a comprehensive, interactive digital resource. A resource like this would also come closer to the vision set out by Weinreich (1954) in looking at dialects as systems. Schäfer does her best, given the format. At several points, she does give summary maps, showing, for example, the total view of the inflection of kinship terms (Figure 9.22, pg. 303), with the variation mapping nicely with the traditional Yiddish dialect regions. A color version of this map, and all of the others, are available at above link. The online interface allows one to toggle between maps relatively easily, but one longs to be able to more easily cross reference or call up additional information: when a place is marked as having one kinship term that shows inflection, what is that term? Is there a particular term that is more or less likely to retain the dative form? There’s also the urge to be able to zoom in on one particular region, and more easily see what’s going on with all of the phenomena, and to get a view of the morpho-syntactic system as a whole in any given variety of Yiddish. I am well aware of the amount of work (and funding!) such a project would require, but I still hope that we will see the LCAAJ continue its move into the digital age. In the meantime, Schäfer’s book will be a valuable resource for Yiddishists, and those working on morphosyntactic variation more broadly, and deserves a place on their shelves, next to those three big blue volumes of the LCAAJ.

Burdin, Rachel Steindel. “Review of Lea Schäfer's Syntax and Morphology of Yiddish Dialects.” In geveb, January 2024:äfers-syntax-and-morphology-of-yiddish-dialects.
Burdin, Rachel Steindel. “Review of Lea Schäfer's Syntax and Morphology of Yiddish Dialects.” In geveb (January 2024): Accessed Feb 21, 2024.


Rachel Steindel Burdin

Rachel Steindel Burdin is Associate Professor of Linguistics in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire.