I reread a book recently I had bought in the Strand Bookshop in New York (supposed to be the world’s largest second hand store atmospheric by the bucket). It is ‘Outwitting History’ the story by Aaron Lansky of the rescue of books in Yiddish.
He was born 1955 and had done a program in Yiddish studies and found it very difficult to get books in the language. He was then offered volumes in the language and proceeded to gather books in the language. At the time it was estimated that there were around 70,000 books in existance. The truth as set out in the book was that there were in excess of 1.5 million and the story of rescuing the volumes from tumbling house and skips is fascinating. He now heads the National Yiddish Book centre one of the fastest growing Jewish cultural groups i the world.
In one episode they go to retrieve the books from Altran Houe a New York centre for Yiddish studies now closing down. On the last day when all the books were almost collected he came across avery olm man behind a roll top desk, he was 92 and his name was Yud Shin Hertz the author of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund in Europe. Lansky was amazed, he was aware of the author but assumed he was long dead.
The episode brought to mind the book by the Folklore collector, Michael Murphy Tyrone Folk Quests documenting his time in the Sperrins in 1949. He describes meeting the last native speakers of Irish about 40, in the Glenhull area most had not met together until Murphy introduced them, mainly elderly all were gone when he returned twelve years later.
When he initially reported back to the Folklore Commission the reports were brought to the attention of Heinrich Wagner, a Swiss based at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Dublin. He refused to believe there were still native speakers in Tyrone and suggested they were immigrants from Donegal which of course they were not.
There are similarities between Yiddish and Irish both languages of wandering races. I don’t know if Yiddish is still spoken but it probably had about the same number of speakers as Irish in 1840 say 4 million. Both languages since have continued an inexorable decline. The Yiddish culture still exists in Russia in the descendants of the Yiddish immigrants to the USA. The Irish have switched to English and it is hard to say if irish can survive as a spoken language. I suppose we must remember that the Irish have a habit of ditching languages, Irish displaced the pre Celtic language of Ireland about 2,000 years ago.