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Yiddish language
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Yiddish language

Yiddish (ייִדיש, Jiddisch) is a Germanic language spoken by about four million Jews throughout the world. The name Yiddish itself means 'Jewish' and is originally short for yidish daytsh (ייִדיש־דײַטש), or 'Jewish German'; an older term in English is Judaeo-German. The language arose in central Europe between the 9th and 12th centuries as an amalgam of Middle High German dialects (about 80 percent of the vocabulary is recognizably German) that also borrowed heavily from Hebrew/Aramaic terms found in traditional Jewish literature and from the Romance languages.

Yiddish eventually split into West and East Yiddish. The latter in turn split into Northeast and Southeast Yiddish. Modern Yiddish, and especially East Yiddish, contains a great many words derived from Slavic languages.

Like Judaeo-Arabic and Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), Yiddish is written using an adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet. However, Yiddish itself is not linguistically related to Hebrew, even though it absorbed hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic terms taken from Jewish tradition.

One curious aspect of the language is that it uses Latin derivatives for many of its words relating to religious rituals, apparently borrowing the terminology from Old French as spoken in Alsace and used by the Catholic Church. As an example, 'say grace after meals' is, in Yiddish, bentshn (בענטשן), which is apparently cognate with the same term that gave English the word benediction; while davnen (דאַװנען), meaning 'pray', is thought to be descended from the same root as the English word devotion. The Yiddish verb leyenen (לײענען) 'to read' also reflects a Romance background. There are a handful of other words which also derive from Old French, the most common of which, tsholnt (טשאָלנט) (a Sabbath stew, spelled cholent in English), probably derives from the French words chaud (hot) and lent (slow).

Largely because of the influence of Jewish entertainment figures, many Yiddish words have entered the American English lexicon. In 1968, Leo Rosten (1908 - 1997) published his seminal The Joys of Yiddish (ISBN 0743406516), a highly entertaining introduction to words of Yiddish origin used in the English of the U.S.A. See also "Yinglish".

Table of contents
1 History
2 Orthography
3 Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers
4 See also
5 Books
6 External links


The late 19th century and early 20th century are widely considered the Golden Age of Yiddish literature; this period also coincides with the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, and the revival of Hebrew literature.

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.

At the start of the 20th century, Yiddish seemed to be 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 Byelorussian S.S.R. 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. In mid-century, 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.

In the Soviet Union, much effort was invested to promote 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, the growing anti-semitic tendencies in Soviet politics have driven Yiddish from most spheres; only few Yiddish-language publications have survived (among them are the literary magazine Sovetish Heymland and the newspaper Birobidzhaner Shtern).

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. 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. A thriving Yiddish language theatre in New York city kept the language vital.

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 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.

In the United States, most Yiddish speakers tended not to pass on the language to their children who assimilated and spoke English. The major exception to this can be found in the Haredi Jewish communities in New York, especially in Brooklyn, as well as in some smaller Haredi communities in other cities such as London and Montreal. Among the European Haredim Hebrew is generally reserved for prayer and religious studies, while Yiddish is reserved for daily life.

In 1978 Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in literature.


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. The four digraphs are:

sound shape name
[v] װ tsvey vovn
[oy] ױ vov yud
[ey] ײ tsvey yudn
[ay] pasex tsvey yudn

The modified letters are:

sound original Hebrew letter modified Yiddish letter name
[a] א pasex alef
[o] א komets alef
[v] (only in words of Semitic origin) ב veys
[u] ו melupm vov
[i] י xirik yud
[k] (only in words of Semitic origin) כ kof
[p] פ pey*
[f] פ fey
[t] (only in words of Semitic origin) ת tov

*Unlike the original Hebrew letter, pey does not change shape at the end of a word.

Additionally, the Yiddish letter sin (שׂ) is always written with a dot to distinguish it from shin (ש), whereas in Hebrew this frequently is not the case.

Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers

See also: List of English words of Yiddish origin

Yiddish idioms used in English

See also

Yiddish Typewriter


External links