Yiddish: A linguistic introduction. By Neil G. Jacobs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xix, 327. ISBN 052177215X. $96 (Hb).
Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia
The publisher’s description of this book as a broad yet comprehensive introduction that provides an authoritative overview of all aspects of Yiddish language and linguistics (i) is accurate. There are seven chapters: ‘Introduction’ (1–8), ‘History’ (9–56), ‘Dialectology’ (57–89), ‘Phonology’ (90–153), ‘Morphology’ (154–222), ‘Syntax’ (223–63), and ‘Sociolinguistics’ (264–306). The book concludes with a reference list (307–23) and an index (324–27). Jacobs describes his intended audience as general linguists, Germanic linguists, and scholars in Yiddish, Ashkenazic studies, and Jewish studies (1). He notes that there is a need for this book because none of its predecessors has treated the overall structure of Yiddish systematically, with general linguistic issues in mind.
Each chapter provides a detailed outline and discussion of its subject matter with full presentation of the relevant data culled from various sources, and includes, in addition, the author’s critical reaction to earlier treatments as well as his own analytic proposals. The chapter on morphology, organized by part of speech, treats derivation as well as inflection. The chapter on history deals primarily with phonology, but also includes commentary on script, orthography, and periodization. It should be noted that the presentations of synchronic structure are not entirely uniform in their theoretical orientation. J does not comment on matters of theory other than to mention that his discussion should be accessible regardless of the reader’s theoretical preference (1). In large part, the eclecticism in approach undoubtedly reflects J’s reliance on a number of existing discussions, which differ in approach, as his sources of data and points of departure. He is correct that, generally, there will be no difficulty for the reader with the concepts of phoneme, morpheme, and constituent, defined in the traditional sense that is adequate throughout most of the discussion. In the presentation of syllabic structure, stress, and intonation (121–53), however, he turns to metrical phonology, and also assumes familiarity with cyclic and lexical phonology. The exposition of syntax relies on an older, pre-government-and-binding generative framework in which transformations play a part.
This book is an introduction only in the sense that it does not focus on any single aspect of its subject matter, but offers discussion of all aspects, including dialectological and sociological. It is not an introduction in the sense of a simplified overview. It is a scholarly and detailed survey that will be of use to researchers and advanced students. J’s knowledge of his subject matter is comprehensive and the discussion is thorough. The book therefore offers a large amount of essential information, making it ideal as a point of entry for anyone wishing familiarity with the facts of Yiddish or previous treatments of them. Of particular use to morphologists are the several reference lists relevant to the discussion of derivational morphology (e.g. the list of verb stem-types, 207–12). Equally useful in this area is the discussion of nominal and adjectival compounds. For those whose interest goes beyond the structure of Yiddish to other Germanic and Slavic languages as they relate to, and have been involved in, the history of Yiddish, this book will be an invaluable source. It is certain to take its place as a reference of the first order in Yiddish studies.