Max Weinreich (right) with his wife, Regina (first from left), and his in-laws in his apartment, Vilna, 1921. (Second from right) Regina’s father, Tsemaḥ Szabad; (third from left) mother, Stefania; and brothers Zhozya and Yasha. (YIVO)

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Weinreich, Max

(1894–1969), Yiddish linguist, literary scholar, and public intellectual. Born in Kuldiga, Latvia (then in Russia; Ger., Goldingen), Max Weinreich grew up in a German-speaking home and first took an interest in Yiddish as a teenager. His native region, Courland, had a large German population as well as a significant number of German-speaking Jews, although the historical language of the Jewish community was Yiddish. Weinreich attended Saint Petersburg University and did graduate studies in linguistics at Marburg University, where he completed his doctorate in 1923. His dissertation is entitled “Studien zur Geschichte und dialektischen Gliederung der jiddischen Sprache” (Studies in the History and Dialect Distribution of the Yiddish Language, published in 1993 with the title Geschichte der jiddischen Sprachforschung [History of Yiddish Linguistics]). In 1923, Weinreich also published his first book in Yiddish, based on his dissertation and titled Shtaplen (Rungs). It includes four essays on the history of Yiddish philology and literature.

Sofia Weinreich, mother of scholar Max Weinreich, with his sons, Uriel and Gabriel, in Kuldiga, a town in the Courland region, 1932. (YIVO)

While Weinreich was first and foremost a linguist, other topics he wrote about included psychology (he translated Freud into Yiddish), sociology, economics, theater studies, literary history, education, ethnography, and philosophy. He had a second career as a writer of popular articles in the Yiddish Forward, frequently under the unlikely pseudonym Sore Brener. His linguistic interests included the history of linguistics, orthography, grammar (he coauthored an early Yiddish grammar), etymology and the etymological components of Yiddish, dialectology, stylistics, and the influence of traditional Jewish culture in all its facets on the development of the Yiddish language.

In 1925, on the initiative of the linguist Nokhem Shtif, the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Research Institute; YIVO) was founded in Berlin and began its work in Vilna; its first headquarters was located in a room in Weinreich’s apartment. Weinreich quickly became the driving force behind the new institute (which was originally to have been known as an academy, but Weinreich insisted on institute). Although YIVO may not have been Weinreich’s brainchild, it was his child in every other way, even after it acquired its own building on Wiwulski Street in Vilna.

When World War II broke out on 1 September 1939, Weinreich and his elder son, Uriel (who would become a renowned linguist in his own right), happened to be in Denmark, on the way to a linguistics conference. The two made their way to New York; Weinreich’s wife, Regina (daughter of Tsemaḥ Szabad), and his younger son, Gabriel, followed the next year. Once it became clear that YIVO would not be able to function in Vilna for the duration of the war, Weinreich saw to it that the American branch, which had been founded at the same time as the institute itself, now became the de facto main branch. Weinreich served as research secretary of the Linguistic Section of YIVO in 1925; as a member of the board of directors in 1929; and as research director from 1940 to 1950. He was also professor of Yiddish at City College in New York City.

Cornerstone-laying ceremony at the site of YIVO's new building on Wiwulski Street, Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lith.), 1929. Marching bands and school children parade; crowds listen to speeches by (in order) Tsemaḥ Szabad, Max Weinreich, Elye Tsherikover; unidentified, Perets Hirshbeyn. Others in the crowd include: Zalmen Reyzen (man with cigarette coming toward camera) and Zelig Kalmanovitch. (Amateur film shot by American Jewish travel agent Gustave Eisner.) (YIVO)

Weinreich was the impetus behind an impressive series of academic publications in Yiddish both before and after the founding of YIVO, beginning with Yidishe filologye (1924) and followed by the three volumes of Filologishe shriftn, which were published by the Linguistic Section of YIVO, and the numerous volumes of Historishe shriftn, published by the Historical Section; Ekonomishe shriftn, published by the Economic-Statistical Section; and Psikhologish-pedagogishe shriftn, published by the Psychological-Pedagogical Section; YIVO’s short-lived popular linguistic journal, Yidish far ale; and YIVO’s general academic journal, YIVO-bleter. He was also an editor of and contributor to many of these publications.

In America, Weinreich continued to contribute to YIVO-bleter, as well as to a new popular linguistic journal, Yidishe shprakh; he published his incisive study of German academic collaboration with the Nazis, Hitler’s Professors (first published in Yiddish in YIVO-bleter, then in book form in English [1946] and Yiddish [1947]); and he published numerous articles on linguistics in English-language journals. Weinreich’s entire life’s output formed the basis of his monumental, four-volume Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language; two volumes of text, two of copious footnotes), which he completed shortly before his death. The Yiddish original was published posthumously by YIVO in 1973; a partial English translation (of the text only) appeared in 1980, and a complete translation, including the notes, was published in 2008.

Participants and instructors in a refresher course for Yiddish teachers at YIVO, Vilna, 1938. (Front row, left to right) Khayim Shloyme Kazdan, J. Shapiro, Max Weinreich, and Zelig Kalmanovitch. (YIVO)
Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh, 1,500 pages long, deals with the history of Yiddish in the broadest sense. It is the first, and quite possibly the only, attempt to trace the entire development of Yiddish from both a historical–cultural and a linguistic—in particular, a phonological—point of view. Weinreich was the first scholar to fully address the question of the region where Yiddish came into being—and of what languages were spoken by the future Ashkenazic Jews before the birth of Yiddish.

The book’s chapters deal with the linguistic development of each etymological component of the language (Hebrew, Romance, German, Slavic); the influence of the Talmud and the Talmudic mentality on the Yiddish language and on its speakers; the relationship of Yiddish to other Jewish languages, and of Ashkenazim to other Jewish communities; the relationship of Yiddish to Hebrew in the framework of traditional Jewish bilingualism; the effect of Jewish settlement history on the development of Yiddish; and the processes by which distinct components were fused (Weinreich’s term) into a unitary language. Among the main theses of the work are that:

  • Yiddish was not formed in isolation by Jews in ghettos. On the contrary, Jews must have been in constant contact with their non-Jewish neighbors in order for the German component, and later the Slavic component, of Yiddish to come into play.
  • Moreover, Jews never spoke “pure German” (an anachronistic concept at best in the Middle Ages), but from the beginning of their settlement in the Rhineland spoke their own language. Thus, although there was constant contact with non-Jews there, it could not have been very close.
  • Yiddish is a fusion language (Weinreich’s term): the various etymological components are integrated phonologically, morphologically, and grammatically.
  • Yiddish came into being when Jews who spoke Loez, a language based on Old French and Old Italian with a Hebrew–Aramaic component, settled in the Rhineland.
  • Yiddish is permeated with the influence of Jewish history and of the Talmud. In various articles and in his Geshikhte, Weinreich elaborated on this thesis. In one article, “Vos heyst shraybn yidishlekh?” (What Does It Mean to Write Jewishly? [called in the journal’s English table of contents “Mendele’s Yiddish Translation of Pinsker’s Autoemanzipation”], Yidishe shprakh 2 [1942]: 97–112), he analyzed a late nineteenth-century translation from German into Yiddish and demonstrated how the stock of metaphors in the two languages was almost entirely different, reflecting the different worlds in which Christians and Jews lived at the time. (Weinreich also discusses how much the two worlds have converged since then, speculating with regard to how a translation made at the time when his article was written—the mid-twentieth century—would most likely contain many turns of phrase resembling those in the original.) Weinreich also notes that modern Eastern Yiddish has many more metaphors and phrases in common with the Slavic languages than with Western European languages—which also makes a point about language contact between Jews and Christians.

From Max Weinreich in Vilna to Abraham Liessin, editor of the Yiddish-language journal Tsukunft, in New York, 3 February 1928, regarding the former's efforts to get the authorities to lift a ban on Tsukunft in Poland. Weinreich has a contact in the ministry in Poland, but there are bureaucratic delays and he must now have all English-language material they have submitted translated into Polish despite the fact that many people in the ministry are capable of reading English. It may be that Liessin will need to send examples of the publication to the ministry to demonstrate that it poses no threat to the Polish government; if so, he will send Liessin a one-word cable: "Send." Yiddish. RG 201, Abraham Liessin Papers, F419 Weinreich. (YIVO)

Since the original publication of Weinreich’s History in 1973 and particularly since the publication of the partial English translation in 1980, many scholars in the field have debated his theory of the origins of Yiddish. There is no doubt, however, that the History is the benchmark by which all later scholars measure their work and the point of departure for their own theories.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Weinreich was strictly an academic. In addition to all the aforementioned research interests, he was intensely preoccupied with the problems of Jewish identity, in particular with respect to young people. His Der veg tsu undzer yugnt (The Road to Our Youth; 1935) is an attempt to understand the problems of growing up Jewish in Poland in the interwar period. Weinreich conceived of and directed two autobiographical contests—the first among Jewish teenagers in Poland in the 1930s, the second among middle-aged and elderly Jewish immigrants in the United States in the 1940s.

Moreover, Weinreich was an activist—a member of the Jewish Labor Bund, the largest Jewish political party in the interwar period. In 1927, he founded the youth movement Bin (Bee). It was intended to be a nonpartisan movement, in contrast to the several other party-sponsored youth movements, and according to its bylaws, was intended to develop Jewish youth who would be “loyal to the ideal of the working man and devoted to modern Yiddish culture.” Weinreich was the leader of this organization for its entire existence. As time went on, political influences, especially Communist ones, began to infiltrate the movement, and Weinreich eventually dissolved it, in 1932. However, both in Poland and later in the United States, he continued to seek ways to address the entire Jewish community, to make YIVO a mainstay of Jewish life, and to include younger generations in his work and his vision.

Max’s son Uriel (1926–1967) had a meteoric career: he published his classic Yiddish textbook, College Yiddish, in his early twenties; became professor of linguistics and Yiddish, holding the Atran Chair at Columbia University, at the age of 26; and published widely in English and Yiddish on general and Yiddish linguistics and folklore. His career was cut short by his early death from cancer.

Suggested Reading

Dina Abramowicz, Abraham Brumberg, Eleanor Gordon-Mlotek, Gabriel Weinreich, Beatrice Silverman-Weinreich, and Joshua A. Fishman, “Zikhroynes vegn Dokter Maks Vaynraykh,” in YIVO-bleter: Naye serie 3 (1997): 328–353; Zaynvl Diamant, “Vaynraykh, Maks (Meyer),” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 3, cols. 378–383 (New York, 1960); Eleanor Gordon-Mlotek and Shmuel Goldenberg, “Hoysofe tsu der Maks Vaynraykh-bibliografye,” in YIVO-bleter: Naye serye 3 (1997): 370–440; Leybl Kahn, “Bibliografye fun Maks Vaynraykhs verk,” in Maks Vaynraykhn tsu zayn zibetsikstn geboyrn-tog, pp. 226–253 [Yiddish pagination] (London, Paris, and The Hague, 1964).