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Uriel Weinreich

(1926 – 1967)

Uriel Weinreich was a Yiddish and general linguist, editor, and educator. Despite his early death, he left behind him the equivalent of several lifetimes of research and creativity – an unbelievably wide range of investigations.

Born on May 23, 1926, in Vilna, the son of Max Weinreich and a well-known editor-educator, Regina Weinreich (Szabad), the young Weinreich was exposed from earliest childhood to the best Vilna had to offer intellectually. Uriel Weinreich went to the United States in 1940 and as a linguist he was an immediate success (“The twenty minutes that it took him to read, before a well-attended annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, his paper ‘Sabesdiker Losn: A Problem of Linguistic Affinity’ transformed a practically unknown young man into an enthusiastically applauded leader of the new generation” [Y. Malkier]). The monograph Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems (1952), based on his doctoral dissertation, became a standard reference work in its field; the textbook College Yiddish: An Introduction to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture (1949) went through five editions and ten printings within a 10-year span. Appointed professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University in 1959, Uriel Weinreich was also chairman of the university’s Department of Linguistics (1957–65).

His extraordinary teaching capabilities are attested to by the fact that some of his students became leading linguists at various universities. Equally impressive were Weinreich’s achievements as editor of, for example, the U.S. State Department’s Problems of Communism (1950–51), of the linguistic journal Word (1953–60), of the first three volumes of The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore, and Literature (1954, 19632, 19693), and of the Yivo’s Yidisher Folklor (1954–62). He was the editor of the Yiddish section in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s World Language Dictionary (1954). Special mention should be made of his Yiddish Language and Folklore (A selective bibliography for research) (1959), compiled jointly with his wife, Beatrice Weinreich.

Uriel Weinreich’s research papers, written and published in Yiddish, English, Hebrew, French and Russian, ranged topically from a cultural history of Yiddish rhyme through such fields as phonology, grammatical theory, bilingualism, language standardization, dialectology, semantics, and lexicology. Almost every research paper and lecture of his was a trail-blazing venture, greeted by acclaim on all sides.

The two crowning achievements in Uriel Weinreich’s work are the pioneering Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (at Columbia University, 1950– ) – one of the world’s largest collections of spoken language – and the Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary (1968). The atlas, initiated, organized and directed by U. Weinreich under a grant from the National Science Foundation, is an ongoing, large-scale project designed to record and study Yiddish dialects by harnessing the methods of advanced linguistic research and computer data processing. The dictionary is a climax in the history of Yiddish lexicography, both in its unsurpassed scholarly quality and its immediate wide popularity.

Weinreich died on March 30, 1967.


LNYL, 3 (1960), 366–7; Marvin I. Herzog, in: Language, 43 (1967), 607–10 (a bibliography); L. Kahn, in: Yugntruf, no. 17/18 (1969), a bibliography; Y. Malkiel, in: Language, 43 (1967), idem, in: Romance Philology, 22 (1968), 128–32; M. Schaechter, in: Goldene Keyt, 66 (1969).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.