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Customer Review

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich, vivid and fascinating book, 22 Sept. 2008
This review is from: Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (Paperback)
I am neither Jewish, nor a Christian interested in Jewish customs. I'm an atheist interested in languages and literature. I didn't know what to expect with this book, which I bought largely on spec. It turns out to be a fascinating history not just of the Yiddish language, but of Ashkenazi culture in general. Katz is a professional linguist with a passion for literature, and not the least interesting thing about this book is that it has so much fascinating information about Yiddish literature, which is - let's face it! - not the most widely read canon in the world. The idea that there is an entire literature out there, full of gems that I haven't read yet, is very exciting.

Yiddish itself is a fascinating language, built on the structure of German but using a vocabulary which is drawn from German, Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, and it's unique in being the only Germanic language which is not normally written in Roman script. It occurs to me, as someone studying Hebrew in his spare time, that some preliminary study of Yiddish should perhaps be recommended to the elementary student of Hebrew, at least if that student knows German. Because Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet, it's a little easier to learn that alphabet in the first place if you know that the word you are trying to decipher is a Germanic one and not a Semitic one. But then Yiddish uses the alphabet slightly differently to Hebrew (especially in the treatment of vowels) so maybe it's just me who finds it useful that way.

Yiddish, along with some other aspects of Judaica, is currently having a bit of a revival. Katz makes out a good case that it is a language with a genuine history, and certainly something worth treasuring and using. Yiddish is added to the long list of languages that I want to learn someday, and I can't wait to read some of the books that Katz talks about. I recommend this book to anyone interested in European history from AD 1000-2000; the Jews are famously a people of the Book, whose relationship with language is essential to their sense of themselves as Jews, and so a history of their spoken vernacular can hardly fail to enrich everyone's sense of the last thousand years.
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