Yiddish (ייִדיש) belongs to the Western group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is likely that the language developed in central Europe from Middle High German varieties in the 11th-13th centuries AD and has been spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants around the world ever since then. The name yidish in Yiddish means ‘Jewish.’ Although Yiddish developed from a dialect of German, the two languages are not mutually comprehensible for a variety of reasons: (1) Yiddish grammar is quite different from that of German as a result of contact with Slavic languages; (2) Yiddish is culturally distinct from German; (3) Yiddish and German have not shared the same territory for many centuries.
Today, Eastern Yiddish is spoken in a number of countries of the Jewish diaspora by some 860,000 people. The figures below taken from Ethnologue is based on outdated data and, most probably does not reflect the large number of East European Jews who emigrated to Israel in the past several decades.
Among European Jews Yiddish contended with Modern Hebrew as a literary language. In the years before the Holocaust, there were probably 10-11 million Yiddish speakers worldwide. As a result of the Holocaust, cultural assimilation in America and in the USSR, and shift to Hebrew in Israel, today there an estimated 3 million speakers left, most of whom no longer use Yiddish as their primary language. It remains the everyday language only in a few Orthodox and Hassidic communities. In recent years, as a result of renewed interest in Ashkenazi culture, Yiddish language courses are being taught in universities and Jewish cultural organizations. There are hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and websites in Yiddish worldwide. In the United States, most Yiddish speakers tended not to pass the language to their children who assimilated and spoke English, with the possible exception of some Orthodox Jewish communities, especially in Brooklyn.
Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Yiddish is spoken in the U.S.
Yiddish has two main branches: Eastern and Western. Most references to the language apply to Eastern Yiddish.
- Eastern Yiddish has several regional varieties. Speakers who grew up in the United States often speak a language that represents a mixture of various Eastern Yiddish dialects. These dialects differ from one another in vocabulary and grammar, but most significantly in the pronunciation of certain vowels, e.g., ‘dove’ is toyb in Northeastern, toub in Mideastern, and tub in Southeastern varieties.
- Northeastern, or Lithuanian, spoken in the Baltic region, Belarus, and adjacent areas;
- Mideastern, or Polish, spoken in Poland and other areas of Central Europe;
- Southeastern, or Ukrainian, spoken in Ukraine and the Balkans.
- Western Yiddish was formerly spoken in Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, and Hungary, but had largely become extinct through assimilation and the Holocaust. Unlike Eastern Yiddish, it was not influenced by Slavic languages.Because it has never been the official language of a sovereign state, there is no official dialect of Yiddish. Since the end of the 19th century, however, a de facto literary dialect called Standard Yiddish has evolved, based largely on the grammar of Southeastern and the pronunciation of Northeastern Yiddish. It is the dialect that is usually taught in schools and used in most modern publications, even though it does not exactly represents anyone’s native speech.
The sound system of Yiddish is very similar to that of Standard German. Some of the main differences between the two languages are listed below:
|long /a:/, as in Fater ‘father’||/o/ as in foter ‘father’|
|umlaut /ö/, as in schön ‘beautiful’||/ey/, as in sheyn|
|umlaut /ü/, as in Brüder ‘brothers’||/i/, as in brider|
|/au/, as in kaufen ‘to buy’||/oy/, as in koyfn|
|/oi/, as in Deutsch ‘German’||/ay/, as in daytsh|
|/pf/, as in Pferd ‘horse’||/f/ , as in ferd|
|no assimilation||regressive voicing assimilation, e.g., zogt ‘says’ is pronounced as /zokt/|
|final devoicing, e.g., Brod ‘bread’ is pronounced with a final /t/.||no devoicing, e.g., Brod ‘bread’ is pronounced with a final /d/.|
|no syllabic consonants||syllabic /m, n, l/, e.g., koyfn ‘to buy’|
|uvular trilled /r/||either uvular or alveolar trilled /r/|
|/p, t, k/ are aspirated||/p, t, k/ are not aspirated (as in Slavic languages)|
|/t, d, n/ are alveolar||/t, d, n/ are dental (as in Slavic languages)|
The position of stress varies according to the origin of the word. For example, stress in words of Germanic origin normally falls on the first syllable of the root, while stress in words of Slavic and Semitic origin falls usually falls on the penultimate syllable.
Yiddish and German share a number of similar grammatical structures but there are also significant differences between the two languages.
Yiddish nouns are marked for the following categories:
- There are three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter. For the most part, gender is not predictable from the form of the noun and has to be memorized.
- There are two numbers: singular, and plural. Plural forms of Germanic nouns are -n or -s, plural forms of Hebrew nouns are –im or –es.
- There are three cases: nominative, accusative, and dative. Nouns are not inflected for case, but definite articles, demonstratives, and some adjectives are.
- Yiddish verbs are inflected for person and number only in the present tense.
- Yiddish has no simple past tense which is formed by the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ plus the past participle, e.g., Ikh hob gezungen ‘I sang, I have sung.’
Word order in Yiddish sentences is the same as the word order in German. It is best described in terms of the position of the verb in Yiddish clauses. It occupies final position in subordinate clauses, and first or second position in main clauses. The position of all other sentence constituents is relatively free.
Yiddish and German share a large proportion of their vocabularies. In addition, Yiddish has borrowed a large number of Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic words, including religious, scholarly, and everyday items. Later, when most European Jews moved eastward, Yiddish borrowed words from Slavic languages. Yiddish/Slavic bilingualism resulted in widespread Slavic influences on Yiddish at every level.
|Hello (daily greeting) When meeting a person for the first time.||Gut-morgn, Sholom-aleykhem|
|Good bye||Gutn tog|
|Please||Zay azoy gut|
|Thank you||A dank|
|Excuse me, I am sorry||Zayt moykhl|
Below are the Yiddish numerals 1-10 in Latin and Hebrew script. The numerals were borrowed from German.
Yiddish is written with the 22-letter square Hebrew alphabet, although the Latin alphabet is sometimes used for electronic communications. The Hebrew alphabet originally had letters for consonants only, but it was later adapted to indicate vowels. Words of Aramaic and Hebrew origin are written using the traditional orthographies of the source languages. Orthography has varied from place to place, and has changed over time. A standard orthography promulgated by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has only recently gained general acceptance.
Click here to see the modern Yiddish alphabet.
Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Yiddish and Standard German for comparison. .
Yiddish in Hebrew square script
|Yiddish in transliteration
Yeder mentsh vert geboyrn fray un glaykh in koved un rekht. Yeder vert bashonkn mit farshtand un gevisn; yeder zol zikh firn mit a tsveytn in a gemit fun brudershaft.
Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.
|All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.|
Yiddish has had a noticeable influence on American English with many Yiddish words and phrases having worked their way into everyday speech. Among them are these familiar words:
Some borrowings are no longer perceived as Yiddish words, e.g., glitch (from Yiddish glitsh ‘a slip’) and maven (from Yiddish meyvn ‘one who understands’). A number of Yiddish idiomatic constructions have become part of mainstream American English, for example, I don’t know from … (from Yiddish Ikh veys nit fun… ). The pejorative shm-reduplication, e.g., artsy-shmartsy, is now part of everyday American English.