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, 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, incorporating also many Hebrew words.

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 Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), Yiddish is generally written using an adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet. However, Yiddish itself is not linguistically related to Hebrew, despite containing a large component of Hebrew vocabulary.

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, which is apparently cognate with the same term that gave English the word benediction; while davnen, meaning 'pray', is thought to be descended from the same root as the English word devotion. There are a handful of other words which also derive from Old French, the most common of which, tsholent (a Sabbath stew) probably derive 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 Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers
3 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 United States, the Yiddish language bound together Jews from many countries, whose ethnic identities were as important as their Jewish identity. Within some families, marrying across national origin lines was seen as equivilant to marrying out of the faith. American Yiddish music 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. In some ways this was a continuation of the conflict between Hebrew (and Zionism) and Yiddish (and Internationalism) as the means of defining emerging Jewish nationalism.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Yiddish was displaced by Modern Hebrew. This was associated with a major battle between religious and secular forces. The larger, secular group wanted a new national language to foster a cohesive identity, while traditionally religious people desired that Hebrew be respected as a holy language reserved for prayer and religious study.

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 Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, especially in Brooklyn, as well as in some smaller Ultra-Orthodox communities in other cities such as London. Among the European Ultra-Orthodox 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.

Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers

Yiddish loanwords

Yiddish idioms used in English
  • "Enough already"
  • "My life"
  • "OK by me."

External Links

National Yiddish Book Center