Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

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Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

And if it's a secret language to make sure us outsiders don't listen in, why the huge lexical elaboration? It's not invented languages that have wild lexical profusion; it's languages like English that slowly evolved over millennia of wide diffusion and much contact with linguistic and ethnic diversity.

The anti-Semitic drift of all this is rather clear. If you buy this story, the Ashkenazic Jews don't come from Europe, they didn't arrive in Slavic lands till the 9th century, they have no historic connection to Israel or Jerusalem, they maintained a "monopoly" in buying and selling, they created a secret language (those shifty merchants, with their sneaky language-invention exclusionary practices); and to cap it all, they traded in slaves. We can send them all back to northern Turkey with a clear conscience.

The Wikipedia article on the Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi origin gives some sense of the complexity of the historical situation. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that anyone with any historical education at all would believe that you could take a people as diverse as the Jews and a millennium of history as complex as that of Eurasia and a language as lexically mixed as Yiddish and come up with any credible origin claim that ties it all down to four villages, based mainly on phonetic similarity of some village names. It's not so much that this pseudo-science has come up with the wrong answer (though genetic and mitochondrial DNA studies do seem to give it no support); it's that you'd have to be thoroughly ignorant of history, economics, anthropology, linguistics, and genetics to give any credence to the idea of working on a question as simplistic as this one, whether it had anti-Semitic overtones or not.

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