New genetic research conducted by a team from the University of Sheffield in the UK has found that Yiddish, the language spoken by Eastern European Jews, may have originated in northeastern Turkey.
Prevailing wisdom argues Yiddish was developed as a distinct language by Ashkenazic Jews who lived in Germany, likely as a way to preserve cultural identity and provide a layer of protection against the routinely negative treatment medieval and early modern Jews were subjected to in Europe. However, an analysis of the genes of Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers traced the language to a quartet of villages in Turkey instead.
In an interview with WIRED, research leader Eran Elhaik said that the study involved 367 individuals who each had two Ashkenazic Jewish parents, divided into two main groups: those whose parents spoke Yiddish exclusively and those who did not. The team then made use of a DNA analysis tool known as Geographic Population Structure, discovering that Yiddish was developed by Ashkenazic and Iranian Jews trading and traveling the Silk Road as a way to converse among themselves without the risk of others eavesdropping on their conversations.
The four villages in Turkey, the names of which are derived from the root word “Ashkenaz,” are known as Ashkuz, Ashanaz, Eskenaz, and Iskenaz. Elhaik recounted how these four place names exist exclusively in northeastern Turkey. Additionally, the researcher added that Yiddish could have been in existence around 1,500 years in the past, based on the link between the Ashkenaz root and its four namesake villages. With the region not being known for having a strong Jewish history, Elhaik said he and his research team were quite surprised at first.
Geographic Population Structure works through triangulation, correlating geographic coordinates to trace where specific DNA examples first came together through predecessor’s gene pools. Unknown DNA samples are compared to a database of other DNA with known geographic origins from several different regions of the world. Genetic distances between these known and unknown DNA are then converted into a geographic distance. The results place newly discovered unknown DNA between populations where the geographic origins are known.
There are some limitations to this genetic tool, as it can only successfully trace the majority of European DNA back by around 1,000 years. However, Elhaik is currently hard at work on a newer system that can trace back even further, possibly as far back as 10,000 years in the past. The researcher said that availability of DNA from these particular time periods is high enough to facilitate such a far-reaching analysis.
In the new research paper, Elhaik and his team concluded that Yiddish likely originated sometime during the first millennium when Jews from Iran “Judaized” Slavic, southern Caucausus, Iranian, Turkish, and Greco-Roman populations living within the lands of Ashkenaz in Turkey. This implies that the language was developed by Slavo-Iranian Jewish merchants traversing the Silk Roads between China, North Africa, and Germany, the paper concludes.
The new research study, which was recently published in the journal Genome Biology, can be found online at www.oxfordjournals.org