Yiddish was invented by Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews as a "cryptic trade language" used by merchants working along the Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago, researchers have discovered. Using a DNA "GPS", linguists have been able to trace back where the ancient language came from, showing it emerged from villages in north-eastern Turkey.
The origin of Yiddish has long been debated by scholars. It incorporates German, Slavic, and Hebrew elements, leading some to believe it had German beginnings. An alternative theory is that it is Slavic in origin, and that over time German words were introduced.
It has been spoken by Ashkenazic Jews since around 900 AD. This group is found across central and eastern Europe, but because their exact geographical origin is unknown, working out where the language came from has remained a mystery.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Tel Aviv University used a Geographic Population Structure tool that allows scientists to find the ancestral coordinates of DNA. Publishing their research in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, the team was able to use the DNA of sole Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers to predict where the language came from.
Findings traced the language back to four ancient villages in north-eastern Turkey. These villages, close to the crossroads of the Silk Roads, all have names that appear to derive from the word Ashkenaz.
Study leader Eran Elhaik said: "Language, geography and genetics are all connected... North-east Turkey is the only place in the world where these place names exist – which strongly implies that Yiddish was established around the first millennium at a time when Jewish traders who were plying the Silk Road moved goods from Asia to Europe wanted to keep their monopoly on trade. They did this by inventing Yiddish, a secret language that very few can speak or understand other than Jews.
"Our findings are in agreement with an alternative theory that suggests Yiddish has Iranian, Turkish, and Slavic origins and explains why Yiddish contains 251 words for the terms 'buy' and 'sell'. This is what we can expect from a language of experienced merchants."
The team believes Ashkenazic Jews may have moved into Europe after the fall of the Khazarian Empire in the 13th century, when international trading networks broke down. At this point, the language began to incorporate new words from other cultures, while retaining its Slavic grammar.
"Yiddish is such a wonderful and complex language, which was inappropriately called 'bad German' by both its native and non-native speakers because the language consists of made-up German words and a non-German grammar," Elhaik said.
"Yiddish is truly a combination of familiar and adapted German words using Slavic grammar. In a sense the language uses the same premise as Yoda from the Star Wars movies. For example, Yoda's language consists of common and made-up English words like 'Wookie' or 'Jedi' but the grammar is different – the words are used in a different order to what we are familiar with."