Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Bloomington, IN
Solomon Birnbaum was one of the most important scholars of Jewish languages in the twentieth century: in fact, as Erika Timm notes in her essay, ‘Solomon Birnbaum’s life and work’, Birnbaum ‘is the undisputed pioneer in two major, closely related fields of research: in historic Yiddish linguistics and in the palaeography of Hebrew and other Jewish languages’ (ix).
Volume 1, Linguistics, contains twenty-seven of Birnbaum’s articles and notes on the linguistics of Jewish languages, primarily Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, and Judeo-Persian. Erika Timm opens the volume with a survey, in German, of Birnbaum’s life and work and a bibliography of his writings. The first article in this volume is a survey of Jewish languages, which Birnbaum wrote for Encyclopedia Judaica in 1970. This is followed by a twelve-page table of Jewish languages and scripts. An essay on the pronunciation of the Talmud by the Ashkenazi Jews follows these two pieces. Eighteen of Birnbaum’s articles on the history and sociolinguistics of Yiddish come next. They cover a very wide range of topics about Yiddish, from historical ones, as in ‘Old Yiddish or Middle High German?’ and ‘The age of the Yiddish language’, to questions of linguistic influence, as in ‘Hebräisch und Jiddisch’, as well as etymological studies of Yiddish words. The final seven articles of the first volume examine Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Persian, offering useful surveys and analyses of these languages along with specimen texts and a Judeo-Persian vocabulary.
Volume 2, Palaeography, begins with an English translation of Erika Timm’s essay. The first section of this volume consists of six essays that examine the Palaeo-Hebrew script. The second section of the volume contains twenty-nine essays and notes covering the paleography of the Hebrew script from its beginnings through to the modern period. After a general article ‘The development of the Hebrew scripts’, which includes a long section of sample texts of the script from its various periods and an article entitled ‘Methodology in Hebrew palaeography’, the articles and notes in this section turn to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls and later Hebrew texts, then to Yiddish paleography, and, finally, to three more articles on Hebrew paleography.
This is a very good collection of Birnbaum’s writings. One quirky aspect of Birnbaum’s work that is worth noting was his effort to rename some of the Jewish languages. He disliked the prefix ‘Judeo-’, but none of his proposed new names for the languages has taken. However, the continued importance of Birnbaum’s work is undeniable, and it deserves the attention of linguists interested in Jewish languages, Hebrew and Yiddish paleography, or the relationship between Yiddish and German.