Is Ashkenaz the ancestor of the Germans

Yiddish: Wasn't it made in Germany?

Surprising roots: Until now, Germany was generally considered to be the origin of Yiddish. But new analyzes of the genome of Ashkenazi Jews now point to completely different roots of this language: It could have originated around 1,000 years ago in northeastern Turkey - in a trading center on the Silk Road that is inhabited by many Jews. Researchers report that it was only their descendants who brought this language to Central Europe.

Yiddish, the original language of the Ashkenazi Jews, has been spoken for more than a thousand years and combines many German as well as Hebrew and Slavic words and language elements. However, it is still not clear where the roots of this language lie. According to current theory, however, Yiddish developed from Middle High German - this should explain the many German similarities to German.

But Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield and his colleagues have now discovered indications for a completely different origin of this language. They support the assumption that Yiddish does not come from Germany, but from the Middle East - which the grammar, which is more closely related to Slavic and Iranian, could speak for.

Following the trail of genes

"Language, geography and genetics are closely linked," explains Elhaik. When people and tribes spread or migrate in the course of their history, they take their language with them as well as their genes. For their study, the researchers therefore analyzed the genome of 367 Ashkenazi Jews who had participated in a family tree project. Around half of the participants came from purely Yiddish-speaking ancestors, the other half did not.

In the genome of these participants, the researchers compared DNA sequences that are typical for certain populations. "Put simply, our system inferred a person's geographical ancestry by comparing the proportions of their genetic mix with those of reference populations that are known to have lived in a region at a specific time," explain Elhaik and his colleagues.

According to the genetic data, the ancestors of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim come from northeastern Turkey. © Map: NASA

Roots in northeast Turkey

The surprising result: the common ancestry of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim could largely be traced back to an area in the northeast of what is now Turkey. The genetic data indicate that these Jews are very similar to Iranians, Turks and residents of the southern Caucasus. "Interestingly, our system locates almost all of the ancestors of these Ashkenazim near the area previously inhabited by the Scythians," the researchers report.

As they explain, this agrees well with the theory that the Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars, a people who lived in the northern Caucasus and the Caspian Sea from 700 AD. In Babylonian sources they are called "Askuza". This term was later changed to "Scythians" and referred to the nomads who later lived in the former territory of the Khazars.

Secret language as protection from competition?

This region of origin of the Yiddish Ashkenazim was at an important intersection of the Silk Road with other trade routes, as the researchers report. Many Byzantine traders lived in this commercial center, but also members of the Radhanite Jewish traders' guild, who at times dominated trade on the European part of the Silk Road.

According to the scientists, it stands to reason that they wanted to protect their monopoly in this trade from competition. "To achieve this, they invented Yiddish - a secret language that few except the Jews understood," explains Elhaik. “That could explain why Yiddish has 251 different words for 'buy' and 'sell'. Because that is what you would expect from a language used by traders.

Telltale place names

And there is another indication: In this area there were four villages at that time, which were named Iskenaz, Eskenaz, Ashanaz and Ashkuz. Scientists speculate that they could have got their name from the term "Ashkenazi". "Northeast Turkey is the only area in the world where these place names exist," says Elhaik. This suggests that many Ashkenazi Jews lived there at the time.

When the descendants of these Jewish traders moved to Central Europe, they also took up German terms and gave Yiddish the form we know today. (Genome Biology and Evolution, 1016; doi: 10.1093 / gbe / evw046)

(University of Sheffield, April 21, 2016 - NPO)

April 21, 2016