The Ashkenazic Communities
Gradually, the Jews spread from the areas formerly belonging to the Roman Empire through the rest of Europe. The first group of Ashkenazim were Jewish traders who had followed the Roman Legions into Gaul (France), where they settled along the Rhine Valley and later in northern France.
Who are the Ashkenazim?
The Ashkenazim or Ashkenazic Jews are those who settled in Germany, France, and later in Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazim share a common language, Yiddish, as well as Yiddish culture. The term Ashkenaz is the Hebrew word for “Germany.”
When Charlemagne the Great established the Carolingian Empire in 800 that ruled for the next 200 years over Western and Central Europe, Jews were encouraged to settle as traders. Following Charlemagne's death, his son, Louis the Pious, placed the economic activities and the properties of Jewish merchants under the protection of the monarchy. By the turn of the millennium, numerous Jewish communities were established along European trade routes. In 1066, following the Norman Conquest, some French Jews had also arrived in England.
The Jewish communities were generally small and homogeneous villages where many Jews were artisans and craftsmen. The Jewish communities were governed by an elected board known as the Kahal or Kehillah. Biblical and Talmudic studies were undertaken with intensity, and a number of eminent scholars and literary figures emerged at this time. Probably the most famous of his age was Solomon ben Isaac of Troyer (1040–1105), also known as Rashi.
A New Language Emerges
It wasn't long before the Ashkenazic Jews began to converse in their own language. Originally, they spoke in a combination of Hebrew and Old French; later, German dialects were incorporated as well. When the Jews migrated to Austria, Bohemia, and northern Italy in the twelfth century, they took this new language, Yiddish, with them. When they were later invited to enter Poland to engage in commerce, Yiddish also absorbed the influence of Polish, Czech, and Russian.
In its more recent form, Yiddish is composed mostly of Middle/High German, with a measure of Hebrew and touches of Slavic tongues and Loez (a combination of Old French and Old Italian). In its written form, Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet.
Yiddish became the language of Ashkenazic Jewry. It served them well because it was an adaptable and assimilative language that was flexible enough to incorporate some traits of the tongues spoken in the places Jews lived.