UC Berkeley Linguist Awarded $470K Grant to Analyze Yiddish-Language Testimonies in Visual History Archive

Thu, 07/28/2022 - 4:49pm

A University of California linguist has been awarded a $470,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to analyze Yiddish-language testimonies contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Headed by Dr. Isaac L. Bleaman, an assistant professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, the project “Documenting and Analyzing Sociolinguistic Variation in the Speech of Holocaust Survivors" has three principal aims: to create a new publicly available Corpus of Spoken Yiddish in Europe (CSYE); to assess how the Yiddish language spoken widely in Europe before World War II was impacted by the Holocaust; and to create a suite of educational materials for language programs that will familiarize students with the voices of native speakers of endangered Yiddish dialects.

More than 80 percent of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. The number of native speakers declined further after the Holocaust as survivors immigrated to countries outside of Europe.

Dr. Bleaman and his team will analyze speech patterns in several hundred of the VHA’s Yiddish-language testimonies to gain a better understanding of what was lost linguistically after survivors were displaced to countries with different majority languages.

“A genocide of unprecedented scale, the Holocaust had a devastating effect on Yiddish and other minority languages in the region,” Dr. Bleaman said. “Because the survivors come from the entire territory in which Yiddish was spoken, their testimonies are an invaluable resource on the language as it was transmitted from generation to generation before the Holocaust.”

The five-year NSF grant will enable Dr. Bleaman and his team to transcribe approximately 40 Yiddish-language testimonies per year that will be added to the CSYE. The resulting collection of transcripts, media files, and metadata from VHA testimonies will be made available to the public.

“Few Yiddish instructors or students have access to the VHA through their academic libraries,” Dr. Bleaman said. “The planned corpus will make the Yiddish-language testimonies of the VHA accessible to researchers, students, teachers, and community members who will be able to use them for language revitalization and Holocaust education and commemoration.”