Yiddish at Columbia

Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry

The purpose of the LCAAJ was to compare linguistic differences in Yiddish words based on geographic location.  The linguists directing the project thus sought very specific words to hear how an interviewee would pronounce particular sounds.  To do that, they compiled an extensive questionnaire. Interviewees would consult the Kontrolirke, a list of items necessary for the interview, to make sure they had all the required prompts (1). Two of those visual aids are shown here: various plants and berries (2) as well as fabric with three different kinds of enclosures (3). The fabric was sewn together by Uriel Weinreich’s mother, who was also interviewed as part of the project.

The collection of data for the LCAAJ was an evolving process. In the first years of the project, answers were recorded on university “blue books,” (4) with multiple books for each interview. Blue books were quickly replaced by the more efficient “answer sheets,” (5), which standardized the process. The page shown here, 082, includes question 010, which pertains to the word for “candle.” 

The LCAAJ project was one of the earliest “digital humanities” projects at Columbia.  As seen from early correspondence with the Center for Computing at Columbia (6), the aim of the project was to compile the linguistic data digitally for research and analysis.   A handwritten draft of a proposal in the archives indicates that the computer use was expected to begin in February 1961. Wita Ravid was the resident computer expert for the LCAAJ in the 1960s, and her name is on many of the computer cards in the archive (7).  Ravid left the project following Uriel Weinreich’s untimely death in 1967. The “printout,” (8) shows the first page of results for the question about “candle.” Data could then be plotted on the map (9) for analysis.

In December 2017, Columbia Libraries was able to revive the digital portion of the project, completing a website containing 140,000 images of the transcribed data collected over the course of the project.

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