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Yiddish (Yid. ייִדיש, yidish) is a Germanic language spoken by about three million people throughout the world, predominantly Ashkenazic Jews. The name Yiddish itself is Yiddish for "Jewish" (compare German jüdisch) and is likely an abbreviated rendition of yidish-taytsh (ייִדיש־טײַטש), or "Jewish German". In its earliest historical phase (13th-14th centuries), Yiddish is referred to by linguists as Judeo-German; occasionally this term is used for later forms of the language as well.
From Judeo-German to Old Yiddish
The Jewish presence in the lands of present-day Germany goes back at least to the time of the Roman Empire. By the 10th century, a distinctive Jewish culture had developed in Central Europe known as Ashkenazi, or Germanic Jewry. (Ashkenaz was the medieval Hebrew name for Germany, derived from a reference in Genesis 10.3.) The Medieval Jewish cultural areas did not coincide with the Christian principalities; thus Ashkenaz included Northern France, and bounded on the Sephardic area: the Sephardi, or Spanish Jews, who inhabited also southern France. Later the Ashkenazi territory would spread into Eastern Europe also.
The every-day language of the European Jews in the later Middle Ages was identical with the vernacular of the Christian community, which for most of the Ashkenazi territory was German. They also used Hebrew of course, and no doubt peppered the vernacular with Hebrew lexemes. From the 13th century they began to write Middle High German in Hebrew characters. This move into vernacular literacy is seen by linguists as the beginning of the development of Yiddish, though in this early phase the language is usually referred to as Judeo-German, as it is merely German with a Jewish colouring, a jargon, hardly distinct enough to be called a dialect. Occasionally it is also referred to as Proto-Yiddish.
The oldest surviving literary document in Judeo-German is a rhyming couplet in a Hebrew prayer book datable to 1272/73. Transcribed, it reads:
- gut tak im betage
- se waer dis machasor in bess hakenesseß trage!
- ("May he be granted a good day / who carries this prayer-book into the synagogue")
Already this brief rhyme indicates the status of the language: this is more or less standard Middle High German, but the words machsor 'prayerbook' and bet ha-kenesset 'meeting house' are Hebrew.
In the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, songs and poems in Judeo-German, and also macaronic pieces in Hebrew and German, began to be written. These were collected by the late 15th-century Menahem ben Naphtali Oldendorf . In the same period, a tradition seems to have emerged of Jewish singers singing for the Jewish community their own versions of German secular literature. The earliest Judeo-German epic poem of this sort is the Dukus Horant which survives in the famous Cambridge Codex T.-S.10.K.22. This 15th-century manuscript was discovered in the genisa of a Cairo synagogue in 1896, and also contains a collection of narrative poems on biblical and haggadic themes.
Apart from the obvious use of Hebrew words for specifically Jewish artifacts, it is very difficult to decide how far this 15th-century Judeo-German differs from the standard Late Middle High German of the period. A lot depends on how the phonetic values of the Hebrew characters are interpreted, especially with regard to the vowels. There seems, however, to be a consensus that by this period, Judeo-German would have sounded distinctive to the average German, even when no Hebrew lexemes were used. In university faculties, the literature of this period is studied both in departments of Yiddish studies and in departments of Medieval German.
The 16th century sees an upswing in writings in what can now be referred to as Old Yiddish. The development of the printing press will have contributed significantly to the improved rate of survival of these writings. The most popular work of the 16th century was the 650-stanza Bovo-Bukh, composed by Elia Levita (1469-1549) in 1507–1508, which has gone through at least forty print editions, beginning in 1541. [Liptzin, 1972, 4-5] Levita, the earliest named Yiddish author, also wrote Paris un Vienne. Another Judeo-German retelling of a courtly novel which presumably also dates from the 15th century, though the manuscripts are from the 16th, is Widuwilt , also known as Kinig Artus Hof, an adaptation of the Middle High German romance Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg . Another significant Old Yiddish writer is Avroham ben Schemuel Pikartei whose paraphrase on the Book of Job dates from 1557.
While Hebrew always remained the official Jewish liturgical language, the Hasidim mixed considerable Yiddish into their Hebrew, and were also responsible for a significant secondary religious literature written in Yiddish. For example, the tales about the Baal Shem Tov were written largely in Yiddish. In addition, even beyond the Hasidim, Ashkenazic Jewish women traditionally were not literate in Hebrew; women were the main audience of works like the Bovo-Bukh, but there was also a large body of Yiddish-language religious works written for (and often by) women, such as the Tseno-Ureno, the memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, and the tkhines. [Liptzin, 1972, 4-17]
The modern Haskalah
Use of the Western Yiddish dialect began to decline in the 18th century, as The Enlightenment and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) led German Jews to view Yiddish as a "corrupt German". Between assimilation to German and the beginnings of the revival of Hebrew, Western Yiddish was largely squeezed out, surviving mainly as a language of "intimate family circles or of closely knit trade groups such as the cattle-dealers of the Eifel Mountains. [Liptzin, 1972, 2]
Farther east, where Jews were not surrounded by German speakers, the Eastern Yiddish dialect continued to thrive. The late 19th century and early 20th century are widely considered the Golden Age of secular Yiddish literature; this period also coincides with the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, and the revival of Hebrew literature. Some Modern Hebrew words began to find their way into Yiddish, as well.
The three great founders of modern Yiddish literature were Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz. Solomon Rabinowitz, better known as Sholom Aleichem (1859–1916), is known as one of the greatest Yiddish authors and humorists, the Yiddish equivalent of Mark Twain. A collection of his stories about Tevye the Milkman was later the basis of the Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof.
The 20th century
At the start of the 20th century, Yiddish was emerging as a major Eastern European language. A rich literature was being published, Yiddish theater and film were booming, and it had even achieved status as one of the official languages of the Belorussian SSR. Educational autonomy for Jews in several countries (notably Poland) after World War I led to an increase in formal Yiddish-language education, standardized pronunciation and spelling, and to the 1925 founding of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, later YIVO Institute for Jewish Research . [Liptzin, 1972, 3] Yiddish emerged as the national language of a large Jewish community in Eastern Europe that rejected Zionism and sought to obtain Jewish cultural autonomy in Europe. It also contended with Modern Hebrew as a literary language among Zionists.
On the eve of World War II, there were 10 million Yiddish speakers, overwhelmingly of the Eastern dialects. [Liptzin, 1972, 2] However, the Holocaust led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were largely destroyed. Although millions of Yiddish speakers survived the war (including nearly all Yiddish speakers in the Americas), further assimilation in countries such as the United States and the status of Modern Hebrew as the official language of Israel led to a decline in the use of Eastern Yiddish similar to the earlier decline in Western Yiddish.
Ethnologue estimates that in 1991 there were 3 million speakers of Eastern Yiddish, but Western Yiddish, which had only "several tens of thousands" of speakers on the eve of the Holocaust, is now "nearly extinct".
In the Soviet Union, much effort was invested in promoting the use of Yiddish during 1920s. Yiddish was then regarded as the language of "Jewish proletariat"; at the same time, Hebrew was considered a "bourgeois" language and its use was generally discouraged. Starting in the 1930s, growing anti-Semitic tendencies in Soviet politics drove Yiddish from most spheres; few Yiddish-language publications survived (among them are the literary magazine Sovetish Heymland and the newspaper Birobidzhaner Shtern ). Most Soviet Jews themselves were keen to integrate into the larger Soviet society, and favoured Russian over Yiddish.
In the United States, the Yiddish language bound together Jews from many countries, whose national origin was often as important as their Jewish identity. Within some families, marrying across national origin lines was seen as equivalent to marrying out of the faith. Yiddish language newspapers, such as The Forward served as a forum for Jews of all European backgrounds. In 1925, it was one of seven Yiddish-language New York daily newspapers. [Melamed, 1925] American Yiddish music, derived from Klezmer, was another binding mechanism. Michel Gelbart, a very prolific composer, probably best known for "I Have A Little Dreydl," wrote music that was very Jewish and very American. Thriving Yiddish theatre in New York City and (to a lesser extent) elsewhere kept the language vital. Many "Yiddishisms," like "Italianisms" and "Spanishisms," continue to enter spoken New York English, often used by Jews and non-Jews alike without consciousness of the language of origin of the phrases. In the United States, most Yiddish speakers tended not to pass on the language to their children who assimilated and spoke English.
Largely because of the influence of Jewish entertainment figures in the United States, many Yiddish words have entered the American English lexicon. In 1968, the modern American writer Leo Rosten (1908–1997) published The Joys of Yiddish (ISBN 0743406516), an introduction to words of Yiddish origin used in the English of the United States. See also "Yinglish."
Meanwhile, in Israel, Yiddish was displaced by Modern Hebrew. In part this reflected the conflict between religious and secular forces. Many in the larger, secular group wanted a new national language to foster a cohesive identity, while traditionally religious Jews desired that Hebrew be respected as a holy language reserved for prayer and religious study. However, this conflict also reflected the opposing views among secular Jews worldwide, one side seeing Hebrew (and Zionism) and the other Yiddish (and Internationalism) as the means of defining emerging Jewish nationalism.
Many of the older immigrants to Israel from the former USSR (usually those above 50 years of age) speak or understand some degree of Yiddish.
In religious circles, it is the Ashkenazi Haredi Jews, particularly the Hasidic Jews and the Mitnagdim of the Lithuanian yeshiva world who continue to teach, speak and use Yiddish, making it a language used intensely by hundreds of thousands of Haredi Jews today. The largest of these centers are in Bene Beraq and Jerusalem.
Haredi Orthodox Jews
The major exception to the decline of spoken Yiddish can be found in the Haredi Jewish communities all over the world. In the United States, within some of New York State's close-knit religious communities Yiddish is spoken as a home and schooling language, especially in Brooklyn's Borough Park and Williamsburg and outside of the city in Monsey, Kiryas Joel, and New Square. Yiddish is also widely spoken in some smaller Haredi communities in other cities such as London and Montreal. Among most Haredim all over the world, Hebrew is generally reserved for prayer and religious studies, while Yiddish is reserved as a home and business language.
Haredi educational use of Yiddish
Hundreds of thousands of young children have been, and are still, taught to translate the texts of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy into Yiddish. This process is called "taytsching" or "translating" (Yid. טיַיטשן taytshn). Most Ashkenazi yeshivas' highest level lectures in Talmud and Halakha are delivered in Yiddish by the Rosh yeshiva's as well as ethical talks of mussar. All Hasidic Judaism rebbes use only Yiddish to converse with their followers and to deliver their various Torah talks, classes, and lectures. The linguistic style and vocabulary of Yiddish have influenced the manner in which many Orthodox Jews who attend yeshivas speak English. So much so, that it has been dubbed "Yeshivish".
Status of Yiddish as a Germanic Language
The status of Yiddish as a Germanic language is occasionally challenged from two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that Yiddish is unrelated to German—that it is instead a Semitic, Slavonic, or Romance language, or even that it is a derivative of Basque; for example, the linguist Paul Wexler uniquely claims that Yiddish was originally a Slavic language whose vocabulary was replaced with German words. These views, although propounded frequently and enthusiastically, can be readily refuted by a study of historical records and linguistic structures.
At the other extreme there are those who suggest that Yiddish is merely a dialect of German, not different enough to be classed as a separate language. Yiddish and German share a large portion of their respective vocabularies, and a number of similar grammatical structures. Some German speakers are reportedly able to understand spoken Yiddish, considering it similar to German spoken by Slavs. These observations lead some observers to describe Yiddish as a German dialect rather than an independent language.
However, most linguists consider Yiddish and German to be distinct Germanic languages, pointing out that:
- Both languages have written standards, and even use different alphabets;
- The two languages are generally not mutually comprehensible (this is especially true for German speakers trying to understand Yiddish);
- 20 to 30 percent of Yiddish vocabulary is not shared with German, including a number of basic words;
- Some of the grammar of Yiddish differs substantially from that of German, having been influenced by contact with other (e.g. Slavic) languages;
- The two languages are geographically and culturally distinct. 
The distinction between a "language" and a "dialect" is poorly defined. Languages like Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, considered universally to be separate and distinct languages, have a high degree of mutual intelligibility. Max Weinreich writing in the Yivo-Bleter in 1945, remarked that "A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot": "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy".
The view that Yiddish is a dialect may be a matter of opinion, but the consensus is that Yiddish is more than simply a dialect. The Eastern and Western dialects of Yiddish are themselves sufficiently distinct that some linguists have suggested they should both be considered separate languages.
Yiddish and other languages
Yiddish eventually split into Western (German) Yiddish and Eastern Yiddish. The latter in turn split into North-Eastern (Litvish) Yiddish, Central/Mid-Eastern (Polish/Galician) Yiddish, and South-Eastern (Ukrainian) Yiddish. The Eastern Yiddish dialects and Modern Yiddish contain a great many words derived from Slavic languages.
Like Judæo-Arabic and Ladino (Judæo-Spanish), Yiddish is written using an adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet. However, Yiddish itself is not linguistically related to Hebrew, even though it absorbed thousands of Hebrew and Aramaic terms taken from the Tanakh, Mishna, Talmud, and Jewish tradition.
Curiously, Yiddish uses Latin derivatives for many of its words relating to religious rituals, apparently borrowing the terminology from Old French as spoken in Alsace. The presumed path of entry into Yiddish is that the famous rabbi Rashi (1040-1105), and his descendants and disciples the Tosafists, used hundreds of Old French words in their rabbinical writings. Study of Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch and the Talmud was widespread among medieval Jews; Rashi has also been used by modern scholars as a reliable source for thousands of Old French words. As an example, 'say grace after meals' is, in Yiddish, bentshn (בענטשן), which is cognate with the same term that gave English the word benediction; and Western-Europe dialects of Yiddish use the word orn, derived from Latin orare, to mean 'pray'; and some scholars believe that davnen (דאַװנען), the Eastern European Yiddish word for pray, has a Romance language origin. Other Yiddish words with Romance backgrounds include leyenen (לײענען) 'to read' and tsholnt (טשאָלנט) 'a Sabbath stew' (spelled cholent in English). Many of the Old French words incorporated into Yiddish happen also to have been similarly used by the Catholic Church.
In the native Germanic vocabulary of Yiddish, the differences between German and Yiddish pronunciations are mainly in the vowels and diphthongs. One example is that German long a, as in Vater 'father', corresponds to o in Yiddish (foter); German long e and long o are diphthongized in Yiddish to oy and ey. Yiddish lacks the German front rounded umlaut vowels ö and ü; they are replaced in Yiddish by e and i respectively. Diphthongs have also undergone divergent developments in German and Yiddish. Where German has merged the Middle High German diphthong ei and long vowel î to ei (pronounced [ai]), Yiddish has maintained the distinction between them as ey and ay respectively. German au (as in kaufen 'buy') corresponds to Yiddish oy in Yiddish (as in koyfn); lastly, the German eu (pronounced [oi], as in deutsch 'German') corresponds to ay in Yiddish (as in daytsh).
Consonantal differences between German and Yiddish include the smoothing of the German affricate pf to plain f in Yiddish, and the fact that Yiddish (but not German) allows word-final voiced obstruents.
Although it uses the same alphabet as the Hebrew language, Yiddish uses some digraphs as well as letters modified with diacritics, all of which are considered separate letters in Yiddish orthography. The Yiddish language is an entirely different language than Hebrew, with a different phonology and grammar. When two forms of a letter are shown, the second one (on the left) is called lange and is the form that is used at the ends of words. Unlike Hebrew, where typically only consonants are shown, vowels are represented fully in Yiddish, using the letters alef, vov, yud, and ayin (see below).
The Yiddish alphabet is:
|Shape||YIVO Transliteration||IPA Transcription||Name||Notes|
|א||(no transcription)||(silent)||shtumer alef||Written before initial י and ו when they function as vowels|
|בֿ||v||v||veys||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
|וּ||u||ʊ||melupm vov||Only used when adjacent to ו or before י|
|ח||kh||x||khes||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
|י||y, i||j, i||yud||y adjacent to vowels; i otherwise|
|יִ||i||i||khirik yud||Only used adjacent to another vowel|
|כּ||k||k||kof||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
|כ ך||kh||x||kof, lange kof||Lange kof is used at the end of a word|
|מ ם||m||m||mem, shlos mem||Shlos mem is used at the end of a word|
|נ ן||n||n||nun, lange nun||Lange nun is used at the end of a word|
|פּ||p||p||pey||Unlike fey, does not change form at the end of a word.|
|פֿ ף||f||f||fey||The second form is used only at the end of word|
|צ ץ||tz||ts||tsadek, lange tsadek||Lange tsadek is used at the end of a word|
|שׂ||s||s||sin||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
|תּ||t||t||tof||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
|ת||s||s||sof||Only used in words of Semitic origin|
Yiddish also employs several digraphs:
|ײַ||ay||aj||pasekh tsvey yudn|
Throughout this article, the YIVO transcriptions will be used alongside the Yiddish alphabet.
|Nominative||דער der||דאָס dos||די di||די di|
|Accusative||דעם dem||דאָס dos||די di||די di|
|Dative||דעם dem||דעם dem||דער der||די di|
The indefinite article is אַן an before a word beginning with a vowel and אַ a everywhere else.
|First Person||Second Person||Third Person|
|Nominative||איך ikh||מיר mir||דו du||איר ir||ער er||עס es||זי zi||זײ zey|
|Accusative||מיך mikh||אונדז undz||דיך dikh||אײַך aykh||אים im||עס es||זי zi||זײ zey|
|Dative||מיר mir||אונדז undz||דיר dir||אײַך aykh||אים im||אים im||איר ir||זײ zey|
Yiddish verbs are conjugated for person and number. The present tense of verbs is conjugated thus:
|קױפֿן koyfn 'buy'||פֿאַרלירן farlirn 'lose'|
|איך ikh||קױפף koyf||פֿאַרליר farlir|
|דו du||קױפֿסט koyfst||פֿאַרלירסט farlirst|
|ער er/זי zi/עס es||קױפֿט koyft||פֿאַרלירט farlirt|
|מיר mir||קױפֿן koyfn||פֿאַרלירן farlirn|
|איר ir||קױפֿט koyft||פֿאַרלירט farlirt|
|זײ zey||קױפֿן koyfn||פֿאַרלירן farlirn|
Yiddish, unlike German, has ceased to use the inflected past tense, and the perfect tense, constructed with forms of האָבן hobn 'have' (or זײַן zayn 'be') and the past participle of the verb, has taken over its function. Hobn and zayn are conjugated irregularly:
|האָבן hobn||זײַן zayn|
|איך ikh||האָב hob||בין bin|
|דו du||האָסט host||ביסט bist|
|ער er/זי zi/עס es||האָט hot||איז iz|
|מיר mir||האָבן hobn||זײַנען zaynen|
|איר ir||האָט hot||זײַט zayt|
|זײ zey||האָבן hobn||זײַנען zaynen|
For example, the past tense of איך קױף ikh koyf 'I buy' is איך האָב געקױפֿט ikh hob gekoyft, and the past tense of איך קום ikh kum 'I come' is איך בין געקומען ikh bin gekumen 'I came'.
The past participle is used extensively in Yiddish. The majority of verbs (weak verbs) form the past participle with the addition of -גע and ט- to the stem, e. g. געקױפֿD8; gekoyft 'bought.' However, there are also a group of verbs, called strong verbs, which form the past participle with -גע and נ-, accompanied by a vowel change, e. g. געהאָלפֿן geholfn 'helped' from the stem -האָלפֿ helf- 'help.' The vowel change is unpredictable and simply must be learned.
There is no way to tell from the infinitive whether a verb is strong or weak.
The inflected past tense has fallen out of use, having been replaced with the periphrasitic perfect tense, formed with the appropriate form of האָבן 'hobn' or זײַן 'zayn' and the past participle. Certain verbs will take האָבן 'hobn', while others will take זײַן 'zayn'. There is no way to tell which verbs take which auxilliary.
Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers
- See related articles:
Yiddish-derived idioms used in English, particularly in the United States:
- "Oy Vey"
- "Enough already"
- "OK by me"
- "I need this like a hole in the head"
- Cohen, David (Rabbi). Yiddish: A Holy Language. New York, NY: Mesorah Publications. Hebrew language.
- Katz, Dovid (Professor), Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish" 2004
- Liptzin, Sol, A History of Yiddish Literature, Jonathan David Publishers, Middle Village, NY, 1972, ISBN 0-8246-0124-6.
- Weinreich, Uriel. College Yiddish : an introduction to the Yiddish language and to Jewish life and culture. (6th revised ed. New York : YIVO Institute for Jewish Research , 1999.) ISBN 0914512269.
- Melamed, S.M., "The Yiddish Stage", New York Times, Sep 27, 1925 (X2)
- Weinreich, Max, "Der yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt" ("'Yivo' and the problems of our time"), Yivo-bleter 25.1.13. (1945), cited at .
- Jewish Language Research Website: Yiddish
- On-line Yiddish dictionary
- National Yiddish Book Center
- The Yiddish Voice
- The Jewish Book Center of The Workmen's Circle
- Spoken Yiddish Language Project (Columbia University)
- Eastern Yiddish in Ethnologue
- Western Yiddish in Ethnologue
- Forverts -- The Yiddish Forward
- The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring
- Collection of Yiddish prints from the 16th to the 20th century
- Bibliotheca Iiddica Small encyclopedia on Yiddish. Home page is in Latin, most of the rest is in transliterated Yiddish.
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