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New DNA tech traces origins of Yiddish to… Turkey

Genetic data shows speakers of Jewish language came from ancient Silk Road crossroads and may have been traders, Israeli researcher says

The University of Sheffield's Dr. Eran Elhaik (YouTube screenshot)
The University of Sheffield's Dr. Eran Elhaik (YouTube screenshot)

New DNA analysis technology shows that Yiddish, the historic language of Ashkenazi Jews, may have originated in northeastern Turkey, according to a study by an Israeli-born researcher.

The study by the University of Sheffield’s Dr. Eran Elhaik, which was published recently in scientific journal Genome Biology, used a Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool to locate the origins of Yiddish speakers’ DNA.

“We identified 367 people who claim they have two parents who are Ashkenazic Jews and we divided them into people whose parents only speak Yiddish and then everyone else,” Elhaik told WIRED.

The researchers then used the GPS algorithms to analyze participants’ DNA and predict their most likely geographical origin.

The results, Elhaik said, showed that many of them came from the vicinity of four ancient villages in northern Turkey whose names are conspicuously similar to “Ashkenaz” — Askenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz — and which are all located near a crossroads of the ancient Silk Road trade route.

A map showing the apparent origins of Yiddish speakers based on DNA analysis, according to a study by Dr. Eran Elhaik (YouTube screen capture)
A map showing the apparent origins of Yiddish speakers based on DNA analysis, according to a study by Dr. Eran Elhaik (YouTube screen capture)

The researchers have surmised that the language may have been invented by Iranian and Slavic Jews who traded on the Silk Road around the 9th century.

“We were able to predict the possible ancestral location where Yiddish originated over 1,000 years ago — a question which linguists have debated over for many years,” Elhaik said.

“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 study suggests that as Jews spread throughout Europe, their language acquired words from other languages in the continent, mainly German.

“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.”

Elhaik told WIRED he hoped to be able to refine and improve the technology, which can currently analyze data from the last millennium or so.

“We’re probably going to do a really good job for 2,000 to 10,000 years ago due to the availability of the DNA from these time periods,” he said.

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