Yiddish

Description by William F. Weigel

Uriel Weinreich, a legendary linguist who studied Yiddish and language contact.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band performing Yiddish songs in Boston, USA

Yiddish poster announcing a protest and meeting in Mexico, 1944

Yiddish has historically been the language of the Ashkenazim, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants around the world. At its peak, in the years immediately preceding the Holocaust, there were perhaps ten or eleven million Yiddish speakers worldwide, making Yiddish the most widely spoken Jewish language. As a combined result of genocide in Europe, cultural assimilation in America, and official and unofficial pressure to shift to Hebrew in Israel and Russian in the Soviet Union, today there are probably fewer than two million speakers, most of whom no longer use it as their primary language. With the rare exceptions of young Yiddish activists, it is only in certain Orthodox and Hasidic communities that Yiddish remains the language of everyday discourse and is still learned by children. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in Ashkenazic culture generally in recent decades, and Yiddish courses are now offered by many universities and Jewish cultural organizations.

The great Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich described it as a 'fusion language' that combines elements from Germanic, Slavic, Semitic, and other languages. This is certainly true, but most linguists would agree that at its core Yiddish is a West Germanic language, and thus a close cousin of English, and an even closer relative of German. A sample sentence that illustrates the mixture of components is the following: Der zeyde hot gebentsht khanike likht ('The grandfather blessed the Chanukkah candles'). The basic grammar is Germanic, as are the function words der and hot, the past tense markers ge-and -t, and the word likhtZeyde is Slavic, khanike is Semitic, and bentsh is from the Romance component. Sentences like this are quite common in Yiddish.

The name yidish in Yiddish means simply 'Jewish'. In the past, various designations for the language were used that emphasized the close connection of German and Yiddish, such as the scholarly 'Judeo-German' and the Yiddish taytsh (cf. Ger. Deutsch), which survives in the modern Yiddish verb fartaytshn 'to translate [into Yiddish]'. The language has also been referred to by the originally derogatory term zhargon 'jargon' or the somewhat more affectionate mame-loshn 'mother tongue'. (The latter term contrasts with loshn-koydesh 'language of sanctity, [i.e., Hebrew and Aramaic]'.)

History and Dialects

The early history of Yiddish is a topic of uncertainty and controversy.

Origin

It is fairly clear that the Jewish populations that first began speaking what could be called Yiddish came from various locales, such as France, Germany, the Slavic lands, and the Mediterranean. The difficult question is which of these groups contributed most to the distinctive character of the language and culture. The traditional view, which is also probably still held by the majority of scholars who have studied the question, is that Yiddish was born of eastward migrations. In other words, Jews from France (and perhaps Italy) moved into Germanic-speaking territories and adopted some form of Middle High German (the ancestor language of both Yiddish and German). More recently, several linguists have suggested that the most important migrations were of Slavic-speaking Jews who moved westward. This debate hinges in part on theoretical issues about the nature of language-contact influences.

Date of Birth

Dating the birth of Yiddish also presents special problems. Although there were Jews living in West Germanic-speaking areas in the first millennium C.E., this does not necessarily mean that their language was a lineal ancestor of Yiddish. In a similar vein, there is no clear-cut criterion for determining the point in time at which the Jewish and non-Jewish varieties of a Middle High German dialect had become sufficiently different to be considered separate languages. It is likely that the migrations that first gave rise to Yiddish occurred at some time between the Crusades and the Black Death (i.e., between the late 11th and mid 13th century). For present purposes, the somewhat arbitrary birth date of 1300 C.E. has been chosen.

Dialects

The major dialect division is between Western and Eastern Yiddish. Western Yiddish was formerly spoken in Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, and Hungary, but had largely become extinct through assimilation by the end of the nineteenth century. It is most obviously distinguished from the Eastern dialect by the absence of significant Slavic influence. Some scholars have argued that it should be considered a separate language. Eastern Yiddish has many regional variants, but the primary dialect divisions are Northeastern, Mideastern, and Southeastern. Sometimes these dialects are called 'Lithuanian', 'Polish', and 'Ukrainian', respectively, but such geographical designations correspond more closely to historical boundaries and should not be confused with the contemporary borders of these states. The Eastern dialects differ from one another substantially in vocabulary and grammar, but most conspicuously in the pronunciation of certain vowels, e.g:

Speakers who grew up in the United States often use a variety of the language that is a mixture, to some extent, of various Eastern Yiddish dialects. In popular parlance, there are two linguistic and cultural regions of Eastern Yiddish speakers, consisting of the "Litvaks" and the "Galitsianers."

Because it has never been the official language of a sovereign state, there is no official dialect of Yiddish. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, a de facto literary dialect called 'Standard Yiddish' (yidishe klal-shprakh) has evolved and been adopted by many writers. It is based largely on the grammar of Southern Yiddish and the pronunciation of Northeastern Yiddish. It is the dialect usually taught today and used in most modern publications, even though it probably does not exactly correspond to anyone's native speech.

Contact with Other Languages

Yiddish and Hebrew

Hebrew (and to a lesser extent, Aramaic) words abound in Yiddish. These include not only religious and learned terms, but a large number of ordinary words as well. Most such Semitic borrowings are nouns, but there are also a significant number of adverbial words and phrases, such as bifrat 'in particular', beys 'while, during' and mistome 'probably'; and many formulaic expressions, such as olev hasholem 'peace [be] on him' (added after the name of a deceased person) and borekhabo 'welcome' [lit. 'blessed is the one who comes'] (used to greet guests). The prominence of the Hebrew/Aramaic component in Yiddish varies according to speaker/writer, audience, and genre. In scholarly or religious writing, Semitic loan words can comprise 25% or more of the lexicon. As an example, in the following sentence from Max Weinreich's Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (vol. 1, p. 196), five of the twelve words include Hebrew material: "di ashkenazishe talmide-khakhomim hobn fun der tayne nit gekent nispoel vern" ('the Ashkenazic scholars could not be impressed by this claim').

There is a large class of Yiddish periphrastic verbs that consist of a Hebrew noun or participle (i.e., a form corresponding to the Modern Hebrew present tense) plus a form of a basic verb such as zayn 'to be' or hobn 'to have'. Examples include maskem zayn 'to agree', khasene hobn 'to marry', and nispoel vern 'to be impressed' from the sentence above.

Over the last century Yiddish has exerted noticeable influence on Israeli Hebrew. The sound system of Israeli Hebrew is based on Yiddish phonology, and the stress system and the realization of certain vowels and consonants are based on Sephardic Hebrew. Also, although resisted by language purists, many Yiddish words, loan translations, and grammatical constructions have found their way into colloquial Hebrew. For example, the Israeli greeting Ma nishma? (lit. 'What is heard?') is a calque or literal translation of the Yiddish Vos hert zikh?Some scholars have gone as far as to say that Israeli Hebrew is equally or more influenced by Yiddish than by ancient Hebrew.

Yiddish and the Slavic Languages

In most cases the coterritorial non-Jewish language with which Yiddish speakers came into contact was one of the Slavic tongues, such as Polish, Belorussian, or Ukrainian, and Yiddish/Slavic bilingualism among Jews was the rule rather than the exception. This contact resulted in widespread Slavic influences on Yiddish at every level. Some examples include:

  • A Slavic-type rule of anticipatory (regressive) voicing assimilation, as in fus + benkl => fu[zb]enkl;

  • A system of verbal aspect highly influenced by the semantics of Slavic aspect, as in the prefix tse-;

  • A number of borrowed derivational morphemes, such as the agentive -nik (as in nudnik 'bore' from nudne 'boring') and the diminutives -tshik and -ke;

  • Numerous borrowed verbs, with an especially high proportion of verbs that distinguish manner of action, such as shushken 'whisper', kvitshen 'scream', and mlien 'simmer'. These borrowed Slavic verbs constitute a separate morphological class in Yiddish;

  • Numerous borrowed nouns, especially terms of a culturally or geographically specific nature (plant and animal names, foods, etc.). This part of the lexicon varies considerably by region;

  • Slavic kinship terms adopted for several major categories, e.g., zeyde 'grandfather', bobe 'grandmother', and plemenik 'nephew'.

Yiddish and English

Yiddish has had a quite noticeable influence on American English over the last century. The English of Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their children was of course heavily spiced with Yiddish words and phrases, many of which have worked there way into mainstream English. Some of these (e.g., bagel, shmooze, shtick, kosher, kvetch, etc.) remain identifiably 'Jewish' (either for phonological or semantic reasons), while many others (e.g., glitch, maven, mishmash, tush, klutz) have quietly merged with the rest of the English lexicon. A number of Yiddish idiomatic constructions have also entered colloquial English, such as the pattern I don't know from ___ (ikh veys nit fun ___), idioms (such as "From your mouth to God's ear"), and the dismissive shm-reduplication (Oedipus Shmoedipus: a boy shouldn't love his mother?). In addition, the English of many Orthodox Jews in America today maintains a number of Yiddish influences at all levels of the grammar.

Yiddish and German

Yiddish has sometimes been described as a dialect of German, probably because in many cases the Yiddish and German versions of a word are similar, if not almost identical, and because the two languages have a common ancestor in Middle High German. But other factors make it clear that Yiddish is a separate language:

  • In general, the two languages are not mutually comprehensible (this is especially true for German speakers trying to understand Yiddish);

  • A large part of Yiddish vocabulary (perhaps as much as 1/3) is not shared with German;

  • Much of the grammar of Yiddish differs substantially from that of German, having been acquired from contact with other (mostly Slavic) languages;

  • The two languages are geographically and culturally distinct.

In modern times some Yiddish speakers and writers have borrowed words freely from Modern German. Such use of Germanisms, called daytshmerish, was widely criticized by many stylists.

Selected Points of Grammar

Orthography

Since its inception, Yiddish has been written in the Hebrew alphabet. In modern times the familiar 'Square Aramaic' version of the alphabet is nearly always used, but before the nineteenth century a version of the 'Rashi script' (the font typically used for Rashi's commentaries on the Bible) was more common. The exact spelling system used has also varied considerably with time and place, the main differences being in the representation of vowels and, in modern literature, the use of "superfluous" letters imitating German orthography. A standard spelling promulgated by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has only recently achieved general acceptance. (For example, the leading U.S. Yiddish weekly newspaper Forverts only fully adopted YIVO orthography in the 1990s.)

All modern Yiddish orthographies provide a fairly complete and consistent representation of the phonemes of the language. However, Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords (which are quite common) are spelled as they were in their language of origin (e.g., with most vowels omitted) rather than phonemically. This can create a problem for the language learner, since the pronunciation of these words is usually not predictable from their spelling. (This is true even for many Hebrew speakers: Yiddish and Israeli Hebrew pronunciations of the same word are often quite different.) Because of Soviet policies, Yiddish books that were published in the former Soviet Union represented Semitic words phonemically rather than with their original spelling.

Today Yiddish is still printed in Hebrew letters. One notable exception is Yiddish email, which is often rendered in Latin characters.

Sound Inventory

The phoneme inventory of Yiddish does not differ greatly from that of other West Germanic languages, but a few points are worth noting:

  • The voiceless stops (p, t, k) are relatively unaspirated (i.e., have a very short voice onset time), unlike English and German.

  • The coronal sounds (t, d, n) are dental rather than alveolar, probably as a result of contact with Slavic languages.

  • Like English, Yiddish lacks front rounded vowels (ü, ö). Hence sheyn 'beautiful' (cf. Ger. schön) and brider 'brothers' (cf. Ger. Brüder).

  • As with many European languages, there is considerable dialectal and individual variation in the pronunciation of the phoneme /r/. Articulation as a voiced uvular or velar fricative is probably most common, but an alveolar flap or trill is also often heard.

 
Phonology

Stress. The incidence of stress varies. Stress in Germanic words usually falls on the first syllable of the word's root. Slavic and Semitic loanwords usually have penultimate stress. Unstressed vowels (especially those after the stressed vowel) are typically reduced (usually to something close to a lax e).

Phonotactics. As a result of language-contact influences, Yiddish allows a number of consonant clusters that do not occur in other West Germanic languages, for example dlonie 'palm (of hand)', mruk'grumbler' (Slavic borrowings); tkhum 'enclosure, pale', and gzeyre 'evil decree' (Hebrew borrowings).

Morphology

Nominal Morphology

Gender. Nouns in Standard Yiddish (as well as most other dialects) are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Gender is not usually predictable from the form of the noun, although there are some general patterns.

Number. The most common and productive plural suffixes are -s for nouns ending in a vowel, and -n for nouns ending in a consonant, but there are several others. Hebrew nouns usually retain their original plural forms in -im or -es (the latter derived from the historical Hebrew -oth feminine plural suffix). Plural forms of Germanic and Semitic nouns also often display changes in stem vowels: fus/fis'foot/feet', kholem/khaloymes 'dream/dreams'.

Case. There are three nominal cases: nominative, accusative, and dative. The definite article, demonstratives, and (in some constructions) adjectives are fully inflected for case, but most nouns bear no case-marking. An oblique (accusative and dative) case suffix -n/-en is used only with proper nouns and kinship terms, and a few other nouns such as rebe/rebn 'Hasidic rabbi' and yid/yidn 'Jew'.

Possession

Possession can be marked in several ways. There is a morphological possessive marker -s that is attached to the dative form of the noun phrase and which works much like the English possessive -'s. The following possessive constructions use the nouns der zeyde '(the) grandfather' (masculine noun) and dos kind 'the child' (neuter noun):

  • dem kinds ketsl 'the child's kitten'

  • dem zeydns ketsl 'grandfather's kitten'

A highly unusual variation of the possessive combines it with the indefinite article (a/an, comparable to English) to form an indefinite possessive construction:

  • dem kinds a ketsl 'one of the child's kittens'

  • dem zeydns a ketsl 'one of grandfather's kittens'

 

Verbal Morphology

Yiddish verb stems are directly inflected for person and number only in the present tense:

  • ikh zing 'I sing'

  • du zingst 'you sing'

  • er, zi, es zingt 'he, she, it sings'

  • mir zingen 'we sing'

  • ir zingt 'you sing'

  • zey zingen 'they sing'

(Note that Yiddish has the distinction between familiar singular and formal singular or unmarked plural 'you' (du vs. ir) found in most European languages other than English.)

Unlike English and German, Yiddish has no preterite or simple past tense. The past tense is instead formed by the auxiliary 'to have' (or 'to be' for a few verbs) plus the past participle, e.g., Ikh hob gezungen 'I sang, I have sung'.

Syntax

Word Order. The usual Yiddish sentence follows the Germanic 'verb-second' rule, viz., the inflected verb (or auxiliary) is the second constituent in the sentence, although the inflected verb or auxiliary appears first in certain constructions, such as yes/no questions and consequent clauses. Otherwise, word order is relatively free ('free' in the sense that order may be used to express discourse relations such as topic or contrast, rather than to code the meaning of the sentence.)

Literature

Before the 19th century, Hebrew rather than Yiddish was usually considered the proper medium for serious writing in the Ashkenazic world. Thus much of the Yiddish material that survives from that period was intended for women or men who lacked fluency in Hebrew. The flowering of modern Yiddish literature began in the mid-19th century and is most closely associated with the three founding figures of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem-Yankev Abramovich), Y. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich). Since that time, hundreds of thousands of Yiddish books have been published, including belles lettres, scientific and philosophical works, and translations of much of the European canon. Literary works of all genres were published in books and periodicals on five continents. Some of the stars of Yiddish literature include Avrom Goldfaden, Morris Rosenfeld, Avrom Reisen, Dovid Bergelson, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Yankev Glatshteyn, Itsik Manger, Chaim Grade, Avrom Sutzkever (currently residing in Israel), and Chava Rosenfarb (currently residing in Montreal). In 1978, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Selected Bibliography

General
  • Weinreich, U. et al. (eds.). 1954-1993. The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Yiddish Language, Folklore, and Literature. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York. [Five important collections of papers about Yiddish.]

  • Goldsmith, E. S. 1976/1997. Modern Yiddish Culture: The Story of the Yiddish Language Movement. New York: Fordham University Press. [Important resource on the Czernovitz conference and four major Yiddishists.]

  • Bratkowsky, J. 1988. Yiddish Linguistics: A Multilingual Bibliography. New York: Garland. [One of the few useful annotated bibliographies on the subject.]

1 Reference Resources
1.1 Grammar
  • Katz, D. 1987. Grammar of the Yiddish Language. London: Duckworth. [This is an excellent short reference grammar. Unfortunately the print quality is low, making the (mostly untransliterated) Yiddish material difficult to read.]

  • Birnbaum, S. A. 1979. Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [This book includes samples of Yiddish from various times and places, including (unlike most modern works) a substantial treatment of Western Yiddish. The author does not acknowledge Standard Yiddish, and the system of Roman transliteration he employs will strike many readers as bizarre and difficult to use.]

  • Mark, Y. 1973. גראַמאַטיק פֿון דער ייִדישער כּלל-שפּראַך. New York: Congress for Jewish Culture. [This grammar of Yiddish in Yiddish is more comprehensive than any available in English. The learner who has completed an intermediate Yiddish course should be able to work through this grammar with the aid of a dictionary.]

  • Jacobs, N. 2005. Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1.2 History and Dialectology
  • Weinreich, M. 2008. History of the Yiddish Language. Translated by S. Noble. New Haven: Yale University Press. [This is a translation of Weinreich's four-volume געשיכטע פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך. This is the standard reference work on the subject.]

  • Herzog, M., Weinreich, U. & Baviskar, V. 1992. The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. [Especially useful in this work are numerous maps showing the distribution of linguistic and cultural phenomena.]

  • Katz, D. 2004. Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books.

  • Katz, D. (ed.). 1988. Dialects of the Yiddish Language. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

  • Katz, D. (ed.). 1987. Origins of the Yiddish Language. Oxford: Pergamon Press. [These are collections of papers from two Oxford University symposia.]

  • Wexler, P. 1993. The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity. Columbus, OH: Slavica. [This book presents the linguistic arguments for the author's controversial views about the origins of Ashkenazic Jewry and Yiddish. It is an interesting collection of philological and ethnographic details even if one does not buy the conclusions.]

1.3 Sociology of Language
  • Fishman, J. A. (ed.). 1981. Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters. The Hague: Mouton.

  • Fishman, J. A. 1991. Yiddish: Turning to Life. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

2 Resources for Learners
2.1 Textbooks
  • Weinreich, U. 1971. College Yiddish. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. [This has long been the standard introductory Yiddish textbook. It also contains lots of material on Jewish culture and history.]

  • Zucker, S. 1994-2003. Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture 1-2. New York: Workmen's Circle. [This textbook may be more user-friendly than College Yiddish, especially for one trying to learn without a regular teacher. A set of 8 accompanying audiocassettes is also available, one of which includes samples of various Yiddish dialects.]

  • Schaechter, M. 20034. Yiddish II. New York: Yiddish Language Resource Center, League for Yiddish.

2.2 Dictionaries
  • Beinfeld, S. & Bochner, H. (eds.). 2013. Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [This is by far the best Yiddish dictionary for the English-speaking user.]

  • Schaechter-Viswanath, G. & Glasser, P. (eds.). 2016. Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Weinreich, U. 1968. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

  • Harkavy, A. 19882 [1928]. Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

  • Stutchkoff, N. 1950. דער אוצר פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

2.3 Language Courses

Yiddish courses are offered at many universities and colleges. Especially noteworthy are the intensive summer courses at various levels that are offered in New York City by the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture, sponsored by YIVO and New York University. In addition, there are summer courses in Tel Aviv, ParisVilna, London, and Warsaw. A list of summer programs can be found here.

3 Some Other Books
  • Harshav, B. 1990. The Meaning of Yiddish. Berkeley: University of California Press. [This is a good source for anyone who wants to learn about Yiddish. Especially noteworthy is its treatment of literary and poetic uses of the language.]

  • Matisoff, J. A. 20002. Blessings, Curses, Hopes, and Fears: Psycho-Ostensive Expressions in Yiddish. Stanford: Stanford University Press. [This fascinating book about Yiddish formulaic expressions of emotion is unusual in being accessible to the casual reader but also of interest to linguists and other scholars.]

  • Rosten, L. 1968. The Joys of Yiddish. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Rosten, L. 2001. The New Joys of Yiddish. New York: Crown Publishers. [As its author admits, this very popular and entertaining book is not actually about Yiddish, but rather about the interaction of Yiddish and English in America. The updated version, published posthumously, provides extra information about many entries.]

4 Sources for Books, etc.

The most comprehensive source for out-or-print Yiddish books is the National Yiddish Book Center.

Yiddish books are also published or distributed by the Jewish Book Center of the Workmen's Circle and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

The Yiddish Voice (Brookline, MA) is an online source for books, music, etc. It contains numerous links to other resources, including downloadable soundfiles of famous writers and scholars speaking in Yiddish.

 
5 Radio Programs
 
6 Newspapers

The weekly Forverts (The Yiddish Forward) is the widest-circulation secular Yiddish newspaper. In addition to the usual newspaper fare, it includes regular sections on Yiddish language and literature and articles designed to be accessible to children and language learners. Old issues can be found at the National Library of Israel's website.

In addition, the Hasidic world publishes a number of Yiddish newspapers (e.g., Der Yid, Dos Blat, Der Algemeyner Zhurnal), some of which can be found on newsstands in New York.

7 Theater

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene performs shows in Yiddish. Founded in 1915, it is the longest continuously-producing Yiddish theatre company in the world 

Online Resources

Online Courses

Online Dictionaries

Online Corpora

 

Online Sound Archives

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