The Yiddish Language: History and Fundamentals

James R. CoffeyStarred Page By James R. Coffey, 3rd Mar 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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Yiddish is a Germanic language with about three million speakers worldwide, primarily Ashkenazic Jews (the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants), in the US, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and many other countries.

Language of the Ashkenazic Jews

The name Yiddish is probably an abbreviated version of ייִדיש־טײַטש (yidish-taytsh), which means "Jewish German.”

A hybrid of Hebrew and medieval German, Yiddish takes most of its vocabulary from German, but borrows liberally from Hebrew and many other languages from the many lands where Ashkenazic Jews have lived through the centuries. Although it has a grammatical structure all its own, and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters. Many scholars classify Yiddish as a Germanic language, though some linguists have questioned that classification.


It is generally believed that Yiddish became established as a language some time between 900 and 1100 CE, but it is difficult to be certain because in its early days, Yiddish was primarily a spoken language rather than written.

Since the word "Yiddish" literally means "Jewish," it is technically correct to refer to the Yiddish language as "Jewish" (though it is never correct to refer to Hebrew as "Jewish"). At the turn of the twentieth century, American Jews routinely referred to the Yiddish language as "Jewish," however, that usage has become unfashionable in recent years and people are likely to think you are either ignorant or bigoted if you refer to any language as "Jewish." Likewise, the Yiddish word "Yid" simply means "Jew" and is not offensive if used while speaking Yiddish or in a conversation using Yiddish terms.

Yiddish was never a part of Sephardic Jewish culture (the culture of the Jews of Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East). In those areas of the world an international language known as Ladino or Judesmo is prevalent, a hybrid of medieval Spanish and Hebrew in much the same way that Yiddish combines German and Hebrew.

A language of unique qualities

Through the centuries, the Yiddish language has grown farther away from the German language, developing its own unique rules of grammar. Yiddish has also developed a rich vocabulary of terms for the human condition, expressing strengths and frailties, hopes, fears, and longings, many of which have found their way into the English language.

Terms like shlemiel (a person who suffers due to his own poor choices or actions), shlimazl (a person who suffers through no fault of his own), and nebech (a person who suffers because he makes other people's problems his own) are used by many cultures of the US.

Yiddish is a language full of humor and irony, expressing subtle distinctions of human character that from the Jewish perspective, other cultures barely recognize let alone put into words.

A language nearly lost

Less than a century ago, Yiddish was understood by an estimated 11 million of the world's 18 million Jews, with many speaking Yiddish as their primary language. But subjected to both cultural assimilation and genocide, today less than a quarter of a million people in the United States speak Yiddish, about half of whom reside in New York.

Today, most Jews know only a smattering of Yiddish terms, most of which are considered unsuitable for polite company. But in recent years, Yiddish has experienced a resurgence and is now being taught at many universities including Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford, with many Jewish communities providing classes in the Yiddish language. Many Jews today want to regain their heritage through this nearly-lost language.

Yiddish is referred to as "mame loshn" (loshn rhymes with caution), which means "mother tongue," and was the traditional language of women and children, contrasted with “loshn koydesh,” the holy tongue of Hebrew that was studied only by men. From the earliest days of the Yiddish language, there were a few siddurim (prayer books) for women written in Yiddish, but these were mostly just translations of existing Hebrew siddurim.

The first major work written originally in Yiddish was Tsena uRena (Come Out and See), more commonly known by a slurring of the name as Tsenerena. Written in the early 1600s, Tsenerena is a collection of traditional Biblical commentary and folklore tied to the weekly Torah readings. Written for women (who generally did not read Hebrew and were not as well-versed in Biblical commentary), it is an easier read than some of the Hebrew commentaries written for men. Translations of this work are still in print and available from Artscroll Publishers.

Yiddish literature and newspapers

In the mid-1800s, Yiddish newspapers began to appear, such as Kol meVaser (Voice of the People), Der Hoyzfraynd (The Home Companion), Der Yid (The Jew), Di Velt (The World) and Der Fraynd (The Friend), as well as socialist publications like Der Yidisher Arbeter (The Jewish Worker) and Arbeter-Shtime (Workers' Voice). Some Yiddish language newspapers exist to this day, including Forverts (the Yiddish Forward), founded in 1897 and still in print, both in English and Yiddish versions.

The Yiddish writer perhaps best known to Americans is Solomon Rabinovitch, who wrote under the name Sholem Aleichem, a contemporary of Mark Twain who is often referred to as "the Jewish Mark Twain," although Jewish legend contends that upon meeting Sholem Aleichem, Mark Twain described himself as "the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Structure and use

Although Yiddish is written with Hebrew letters, the letters are used somewhat differently. The Yiddish alphabet is called the alef-beyz for its first two letters. The biggest difference between the Hebrew alphabet and the Yiddish alphabet is in the use of vowels: in Hebrew, vowels and other pronunciation aids are ordinarily not written, and when they are written, they are dots and dashes added to the text in ways that do not affect the physical length of the text.

In Yiddish, however, many of the Hebrew letters have been adapted to serve as vowels and the pronunciation aids in Hebrew are reflected in the consonants. Vowels and other pronunciation aids are always written unless the Yiddish word comes from Hebrew, in which case the Yiddish word is written as it is in Hebrew, without the vowel points but with the dagesh (dot in the middle).

Additionally, some of the most common Hebrew letters are rarely used in Yiddish, being used only if the Yiddish word comes from Hebrew. For example, there are three different Hebrew letters that make the sound "s": samekh, sin and the soft sound of sav. The one used depends on the origin of the word; words borrowed from Hebrew use the original Hebrew spelling, but words brought in from other languages will always use samekh. Likewise, the word vaser (water from the German wasser) is spelled with a samekh, but the word simkhah (celebration, from Hebrew) is spelled with a sin and the word Shabbes (Sabbath, from Hebrew) ends with a sof.

To hear the Yiddish language, follow these links:


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Alef-Beyz, Ashkenazic Jews, Einstein, Freud, German, German Grammar, German Langauge, Germanic Language, Jewish, Jewish Language, Linguistics, Mame Loshn, Nebech, Shlemiel, Shlimazl, Siddurim, Tsena Urena, Yiddish

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar Denise O
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

I know I like many have been brought up hearing the word yidish but, I have never really looked into it. I had no idea it almost fell completely to the wayside. Very interesting read James. Well done.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar Jerry Walch
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

I learned much new information here.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

Thanks, Denise and Jerry.

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author avatar kaylar
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

One was never to use Hebrew except in prayer. Hence the Jews who lived in Moses' day spoke various languages, most well known was that of amaraic..(bad spelling, I know).

Ladino is very much like Spanish, "Bendigamous a el Altisimo," (Let us Bless the Highest).

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author avatar Retired
5th Mar 2011 (#)

well done, and in fact I have friends who speak Yiddish (which I do not) and yet, when I speak Saxon (which is an older dialect of German) we can undertsand each other pretty well. Brings it to mind, Many thanks.

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