Yiddish – The Forgotten European Language?

Yiddish is a language spoken only by certain groups. But there is a revival and also all kinds of hope for this European language.

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Yiddish today is a language one rarely hears in the world and might only be able to catch some of it when visiting places with a significant Jewish community like New York, Antwerp or Jerusalem. Nevertheless the language isn’t dead although the Shoah and migration among other factors have significantly decreased the number of Yiddish speakers. But it is well worth a look where this sometimes strange sounding language comes from.

Yiddish – a jigsaw-puzzle of languages

To understand what Yiddish is, one must first look at the origins of the language. The sound of the language will make most German speakers happy, as well as those who understand Slavic languages. Yiddish originated about a thousand years ago when Jews who settled in German-speaking lands borrowed the language of their surroundings and combined it with the language they spoke. Later, when they migrated eastward, such as to Krakow, the language acquired a Slavic component. Jews also did this with other languages and other environments, for example Ladino or Judeo-Arabic.

Yiddish grammar and words – German parents and many colorful children

The language grammar of Yiddish is reminiscent of German, with a more flexible word order. However, the words come from German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and even a little from French. Nowadays, there are a lot of English words in the language of Orthodox Jews from Brooklin. Slavic and English words mostly describe everyday life. For example, “truskavkes” (from Polish “truskawka”) means strawberries. “Skovorode” (from Ukrainian “skovoroda”) means frying pan. And Hebrew and Aramaic can refer mainly, but not exclusively, to the religious and traditional spheres. For example, bris (circumcision) or tfile (prayer).

Sometimes even several languages meet in one word. For example, “farganvenen” – to sneak in. “Ganef” comes from the Hebrew “ganav” (thief). The prefix “far” is similar to the German “vor”. German and Yiddish developed during this time and became less and less similar. Thus, Yiddish with some words like “meydl” can sound old-fashioned to German speakers. Unlike German, Yiddish does not capitalize nouns and most words are written in lower cases.

The Yiddish Alphabet – Not quite Hebrew

Yiddish uses the same letters as Hebrew and is also written from right to left. It has final letters. However, there are a few differences. Hebrew does not use vowels in its writing, Yiddish does. However, the words that come from Hebrew are written in the Hebrew way, without vowels. There are certain letter combinations that mean “ey”, “oy”, “ay” diphtongs and also “tsh” and “dzh” sounds.

Characters English Transcription Name (YIVO transcription)
א shtumer alef
אַ a pasekh alef
אָ o komets alef
ב b beys
בֿ w veys
ג g giml
ד d daled
ה h hey
ו u vov
וּ u melupm vov
ז s zayen
ח ch khes
ט t tes
י j yud
יִ i khirek yud
כּ k kof
כ ך ch khof, langer khof
ל l lamed
מ ם m mem, shlos mem
נ ן n nun, langer nun
ס ss samekh
ע e ayin
פּ p pey
פֿ ף f fey, langer fey
צ ץ z tsadek, langer tsadek
ק k kuf
ר r reysh
ש sh shin
שׂ s sin
תּ t tof
ת ss sof

The official orthography for the Yiddish language comes from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research which used to be called The Yiddish Scientific Institute. There was once also Soviet orthography with its own specific rules.

Language of women

In pre-modern Jewish society, women did not learn to read Hebrew. Thus, Yiddish was reserved as a non-sacred language for their books. One of the earliest examples was the “Women’s Bible” “Tsene rene” – an adaptation of Bible stories for women. The first secular book was “Bovo bukh” (1541) – a chivalric romance set in an unlikely world where all the kings, queens and knights are Jews. These books had the reputation of being feminine, but men also read them. Later, women became not only readers but also writers. Modernist women poets of the 20th century in Eastern Europe, such as Debora Vogel from Lviv or Hana Levin from Kharkiv, chose Yiddish as the language of expression, even if they themselves spoke Polish or Russian.

Is Yiddish a language at all?

Whether Yiddish is a real language was a real question in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although millions of Jews in Eastern Europe used Yiddish as an everyday language, the educated elites considered it jargon or gutter language and inferior to Hebrew or non-Jewish languages. The famous phrase “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes from the Yiddishist and linguist Max Weinreich. Jews did not have an army or their own state at that time. But some political leaders realized that it could be useful to use Yiddish. After all, it was a way to reach many people. In 1908, during the famous Chernivtsi Conference, Yiddish was declared the “national Jewish language.”

When numerous Jews started settling in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a language war that aimed to establish Hebrew as the only language. A language police even persecuted people who spoke Yiddish or other languages.

The saddest book in history

And even later, unfortunately, the fate of Yiddish was rather sad. Thus, the conversation book, “Say it in Yiddish”, written by Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich and published in 1958, can probably be called the saddest book in history. It is full of useful phrases and sentences, starting with how to get food or buy a movie ticket. It is sad because there is no Yiddish speaking country where you could use these phrases properly. Many of the Jews who spoke Yiddish perished in the Holocaust, and those who survived began speaking mainly English, Hebrew or Russian. Yiddish is not dead, but it is an endangered language.

Yiddish and Yiddish advertisments
Yiddish can only be found as a pale reminder on facades in many Eastern European cities, like here in Lviv, Ukraine.

Who speaks Yiddish now?

However, to this day there are Yiddish speakers. They are not always visible, but there are ultra-Orthodox communities living in Israel, the USA or Belgium who use Yiddish as a spoken language. Even in cities like Vienna, there is still a community of Jewish people who use Yiddish for their everyday communication. They publish newspapers, books for adults and children, and even games like “Monopoly” in Yiddish. The language has changed since they started living among English or Hebrew speakers. They absorbed English and Hebrew words that describe the environment.

The most useful Yiddish phrases

Since it’s still possible for you to meet Yiddish speakers, it’s good to know some of the most useful phrases and Yiddish. Try them out!

Yiddish Transliteration English
שולם-עליכם sholem-aleikhem Greeting (literally “May peace be with you”)
וואָס מאַכסטו vos makhstu How are you?
ווי הייסטו? vi heystu? What is your name?
איך הייס… ikh heys…. My name is …
לאָמיר טרינקען אַ לכיים! lomir trinken a lekhaim! Let’s drink!
וווּ וווינסטו? vu voynstu? Where do you live?
איך וווין אין… ikh voyn in… I live in…
עס מאַכט נישגט אױס es makht nisht oys It does not make a difference.
אַ שיינעם דאַנק! a sheynem dank! Thank you!
זײַ געזונט! zay gezunt! Good bye! (literally “be healthy”)
אַבי געזונט abi gezunt Stay healthy!

Yiddish and its post-vernacular status

Yiddish also has reached some fame and is used for certain things and in certain environments even though many people might not even speak it. The term post-vernacular means that the people do not use language for communication, but it serves instead as a symbol. One can find numerous funny things, like mugs and t-shirts with Yiddish jokes, magnet poetry in Yiddish or other souvenirs. Yiddish usually is associated with funny accents and the eccentric lifestyle of first-generation immigrants to the USA.

And Yiddish still appears in klezmer culture, folk songs and performances. There are even films that are entirely or partially in Yiddish, such as the Netflix series “Unorthodox” (2020), the Israeli drama “Shtisel” (2013) or the lesser known “Menashe” (2017). These films show us the life of ultra-Orthodox communities. A more recent trend is Instagram profiles in Yiddish.

Where to learn Yiddish

Although the language is endangered, you can learn it in surprisingly many places. During the last decades, Yiddish had a revival in the academic world. There are numerous programs, Summer schools, speaking clubs that create an environment and Yiddish speaking community. Popular events like Yiddish-vokh (Yiddish week) in the USA bring together people who want to use language and find similar-minded friends.

Useful resources for learning Yiddish, including online

Also, for those of you who want to learn the languages, there are many useful online resources where you can learn Yiddish. Many of them are even free.


Books about the Yiddish language

Jewish culture is rich and fortunately there are a lot of books on the Yiddish language. Here we present you a selection.

Born to Kvetch is a entertaining and short introduction into the Yiddish language.

Colloquial Yiddish is a course to teach yourself to use common Yiddish for conversations.

Jeffrey Shandler gives an in-depth insight into the evolvement of the Yiddish language into what it is today.

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Vladyslava Moskalets is a historian and lecturer at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. She speaks Yiddish and has a huge heart for the language and Jewish culture.

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