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Yiddish Will Survive As a Living Tongue Declares Marshall in Interview

July 25, 1928
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The opinion that Yiddish as the language of the great mass of Jews will survive, is expressed by Louis Marshall in an interview with the representative of the New York Yiddish daily “The Day,” during Mr. Marshall’s stay in London. Commenting upon the proposed Yiddish chair at the Hebrew University, Mr. Marshall is quoted by the interviewer as having said:

“Ever since my youth I have read Yiddish. I learned it was essential in my work.

“Yiddish will never die,” he continued. “It will continue as long as Jewry will continue. In itself, it has properties which may make it endure beyond the life of any given people or race.”

Mr. Marshall ridiculed the assertions that it was a Goluth dialect, a gathering of remnants from all languages, but essentially a corrupted German, with no individual beauty or strength.

“There are few people,’ he continued, “who realize what a great and brilliant literature has been written in Yiddish. It is immense. This literature is like none other. It isn’t German; it isn’t Russian; it isn’t French; it sn’t American. It is Yiddish.”

Marshall paused. Then he said: “When I think of this literature I am convinced that the medium in which it is written cannot disappear.’

“But.” I ventured to remark, “you, too have probably heard anti-Yiddishists argue: Yiddish is a dialect. It has no grammar. How, without a grammar, can you call anything a language? Further-more, they argue, Yiddish, like a sponge, takes unto itself expressions and idioms from every country in which it is spoken.”

Mr. Marshall smiled–serenely and calmly–as if he had heard all this said, not once, but countless times, as if he had carefully weighed all these considerations with his analytical mind and found them unture and punctured with logical flaws.

“Yiddish,” he said. “in all of this, is very much like English. None would deny that English is a language. English also has no grammar. It is based on Anglo-Saxon, Norman, French, plus proverbs and adages.

“Richard Grant White called his authoritative book on English. ‘The Grammarless Tongue. And rightly so. Mr. White, it should be pointed out, is one of the great authorities in the field.

“A language just grows. It is a living thing–anything but dead. Anti-Yiddishists fall into the fallacious habit of thinking of language as inanimate and without its own life.

“The outstanding property of any language is that it borrows and takes–unscrupulously. It doesn’t waste thought on whether this belongs to it or doesn’t. In this way English has constantly become richer and deeper. In the same way Yiddish grows. Even in such a centralized geographical area as the United States, sectional divisions have already formed, each with its own peculiarities and its own inflections.

“When this occurs, it doesn’t mean the language is no language. This occurs because it is a language.

“While Hebrew was not used, it remained pure and untouched and isolated. When it became a vital medium of speech, it began to absorb, from many sourcs, hundreds and hundreds of new words. This assimilation is not new. Several years ago I made it possible for an assistant professor at Johns’ Hopkins University to do research work in original Hebrew manuscripts at the Vatican. In the course of his work, he ran across hundreds of obsolete French words in the text. For making them public, he was officially honored by one of the important French academies. Even in the Hebrew new words filtered in.

“Have you ever tried to read Chaucer in the orginal? But why go back as far as that? Shakespeare is comparatively a modern. You will run across many obsolete and unintelligible phrases. Should you be able to understand him, it will be anything but smooth reading. And English, to repeat, is admittedly a language. Life creates new expressions. Slang is picturesque, but it does all kinds of tricks with speech. Should an ethnologist, years hence, examine the phrase ‘Now you are shouting’, which is used to imply ‘now you are coming to the point’, they will be mystified. ‘Shouting’ according to the root, means ‘talking loud Living language does not always obey root laws.”

“In establishing a chair for the study of Yiddish at the Hebrew University, Mr. David Shapiro, publisher of ‘The Day’ did a wise and commendatory deed. He showed vision and foresight, and should be highly praised for his generosity.

‘If the Hebrew University is to train scholars and historians of Israel, it will discover that Yiddish is an essential language. Millions of Jews have written in it; more millions have spoken it; and millions have thought in it. Without a knowledge of Yiddish, it would be impossible to understand Yiddish life in the medieval and modern ages. Any scholar, with even a scant interest in the Jews, would find himself very much handicapped, if he were ignorant of the language.

“It is not intended that Yiddish should supplant Hebrew in Palestine. The establishment of the Chair only indicates that Yiddish, the language of the Jews for centuries, will have been added. If Yiddish should be forgotten, cultural movements of Jewry, which are important and valuable, would be forgotten.”

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