The origins of the Yiddish language have been traced to north-eastern Turkey, according to results from a DNA analysis tool.
By analysing the genetics of Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers, researchers from the University of Sheffield were able to calculate that the language originated from four villages in north-eastern Turkey. Established theory had suggested Yiddish was first spoken in Germany.
“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,” Eran Elhaik, the leader of the research, told WIRED.
Using a Geographic Population Structure (GPS, not to be confused with the global positioning system used by sat-navs), the team found that Iranian and Ashkenazic Jews likely invented the language as they traded on the Silk Road. The language is thought to have been invented by Jewish traders who didn’t want others to understand what they were saying.
The four villages – named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz, and Ashkuz – all derive from the word ‘Ashkenaz’, which is the root of the word ‘Ashkenazic’. According to Elhaik, north-east Turkey is the only place where the four place names exist.
Elhaik said the link between the places and Ashkenaz indicated where the the language could have existed 1,500 years ago. He continued to say that the results were initially “surprising” as the area does not have a “rich history of Jews”.
The latest research, which has been published in the journal Genome Biology, contradicts earlier theories that Yiddish is an old German dialect.
“We conclude that AJs [Ashkenazic Jews] probably originated during the first millennium when Iranian Jews Judaized Greco-Roman, Turk, Iranian, southern Caucasus, and Slavic populations inhabiting the lands of Ashkenaz in Turkey,” the research paper concludes.
“Our findings imply that Yiddish was created by Slavo-Iranian Jewish merchants plying the Silk Roads between Germany, North Africa, and China.”
The tool works by triangulating geographic coordinates to find out where DNA was forged and which gene pools came together to create a person.
“It calculates the origin of the unknown DNA by comparing it to a registry of known geographical origins of other DNAs obtained from different regions in the world,” Elhaik says in an FAQ. The system then converts genetic distances, between unknown and known DNAs, into geographic one and “puts the new unknown DNA between populations of known geographic origins.”
For most Europeans, the tool can analyse population data for around 1,000 years. But Elhaik is now working on a new system that can work with much older data.
“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.
Updated 20/04/16, 20:50: This article has been updated to reflect an incorrect external link describing GPS.