How to Lose a Language in Three Generations

I usually don’t include personal references in my blog entries. I try to keep allusions to my own life or my experience both as speaker and my role as a linguist to a minimum. However, in this post I am going to delve into a topic using my family as a case study.

My four grandparents arrived in South America around the same time from an Eastern Europe that was besieged by political and religious persecution. In addition to each of their mother tongues, at home they spoke Yiddish routinely and naturally. As I have been told, this language served a purpose similar to that of English today for myself and my contemporaries, i.e., as a way of accessing certain content without translation in my mother tongue. In addition, upon arrival to the new world, Yiddish served as a sort of link between Jewish immigrants, regardless of their country of origin.

My parents used to hear my grandparents speak Yiddish daily, mostly among themselves or with relatives. In this way they learned the language mainly orally as children. However, my parents never learned to read or write Yiddish. Once I even asked them what the Yiddish alphabet was, and I remember my mother’s hesitation and how my father struggled with a meager certainty, which didn’t quite leave me convinced.

When my grandparents wanted to exclude me from a conversation between they, my parents and I, they would often speak in Yiddish as a means of communicative exclusion; and boy did it work! However, my parents’ knowledge of this language was not enough for them to maintain a fluent conversation when the ulterior motive was to exclude me from the subject matter (to do that they spoke in English).

However, for as long as I can remember, Yiddish has been present in interjections, morphemes and idioms, which, even though I can barely even reproduce them, somehow or other they have managed to stick in my head. So much so that a few years ago when I was taking German classes (the first Germanic language I had ever studied), to my great surprise, there were many words that for some reason seemed familiar to me— not that I knew what they meant, but rather their root seemed somehow familiar.

As we can see, Yiddish went from being a language spoken fluently and often by my grandparents’ generation, to being spoken only at home/occasionally for my parents, and of which only a few expressions and remnants of words have been passed on to my generation. It is a real shame, as my abilities as a linguist would be much more vast and rich.