The History and Development of Yiddish
By David Shyovitz
For nearly a thousand years, Yiddish was the primary, and
sometimes only, language that Ashkenazi Jews spoke.
Advertisement for New York performance
of King Lear in Yiddish, early 1900s.
Unlike most languages, which are spoken by the residents
of a particular area or by members of a particular nationality, Yiddish -
at the height of its usage - was spoken by millions of Jews of different
nationalities all over the globe. The decimation of European Jewry during the Holocaust in the mid-twentieth century marked
the end of Yiddish as a widely spoken language and of the unique culture
the language generated. Today, select groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to use Yiddish as their
primary language. Yiddish language is now widely studied in the non-Jewish and academic worlds.
Development of Yiddish: Four Stages
Linguists have divided the evolution of Yiddish into four amorphous
periods. Over the course of the greater part of a millennium, Yiddish
went from a Germanic dialect to a full-fledged language that incorporated
elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages, and Romance languages.
Because no decisive dates are known that contributed to modifications
in the languages, the history can be charted using general dates as
turning points: 1250, 1500, and 1750.
Beginning in the tenth century, Jews from France and Northern Italy began to establish
large communities in Germany for the first time. Small communities had existed, and spoken German,
for some time, but the new residents along the Rhine river arrived speaking
a Jewish-French dialect known as Laaz. The new arrivals punctuated their
German speech with expressions and words from Laaz; additionally, they
probably reached into Scriptural and Rabbinic literature and incorporated
idioms into their daily speech. Thus, a modified version of medieval
German that included elements of Laaz, biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew,
and Aramaic came to be the primary language of western European Jews.
The collective isolation that came to characterize Jewish communities
in the aftermath of the Crusades probably contributed to the shift from
regular German to a modified, more Jewish form.
In the thirteenth century, the Jews tended to migrate
eastward to escape persecution. Thus, Yiddish arrived in eastern Germany, Poland, and other eastern
European territories for the first time. The exposure of Yiddish
to the Slavic languages prevalent in the east changed it from a Germanic
dialect to a language in its own right. Consequently, a division began
to develop between the eastern Yiddish of the Jews living in Slavic
lands, and the western Yiddish of the Jews who had remained in France and Germany.
By the sixteenth century, eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had become the center
of world Jewry. Thus, the language of the Jews increasingly incorporated
elements of Slavic, and the divide between the two main dialects of
Yiddish grew. It was also in this period that Yiddish became a written
language in addition to a spoken one. Yiddish was, and is, written using
After about 1700, western Yiddish began a slow and
inevitable decline, and the eastern dialect became the more important
and widely spoken one. The ebbing of the former was due in large part
to the Haskalah and emancipations
sweeping through western Europe,
while the latter was aided by the Yiddish culture that flourished primarily
in eastern Europe. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the Holocaust and the repression of Soviet
Jews under Stalin resulted in the dramatic decline in the usage
of either strain of Yiddish.
of Yiddish in Jewish History
The central role of Yiddish played in Jewish life,
and its eventual decline, are in part attributable to important events
and trends in Jewish history.
For example, in the aftermath of the First
Crusade in 1096, and the rampant persecution of Jews that followed,
Jews increasingly isolated themselves from non-Jewish society. This
isolation simultaneously facilitated and was aided by the role of Yiddish
in Jewish society. The fact that the Jews had a language of their own
that was not understood by outsiders made it easy to separate themselves
by developing a highly centralized economic and cultural life. The common
language allowed them to live in the same areas, trade amongst themselves,
and maintain vast international networks among the numerous Yiddish
speaking Jewish communities in Europe. At the same time, the development
of Yiddish itself was affected by the new self-segregation. Without
interference from non-Jews, and unaware of the linguistic trends of
the secular languages, Yiddish moved off in directions of its own, while
maintaining many elements of medieval German that were no longer to
be found in the outside world.
Students studying in an east-European Yiddish school.
The decline of Yiddish in western Europe was largely
a result of contemporary historical trends as well. The Haskalah,
which began in the late eighteenth century and gathered steam throughout
the nineteenth, promoted secular education and acculturation to the
outside society. As a result, German Jews began to enter secular schools
where the language of instruction was German; to work in professions
that required a knowledge of secular language in order to communicate
with non-Jews; and to look down on Yiddish as a product of the insular,
unworldly Jewish Shtetl, a product to be disdained and discarded as
soon as possible. One maskil put it this way: "Yiddish grates
on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable in fact of expressing
sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a
heritage of the dark Middle Ages."1 This prevailing attitude also led to the resurgence of the long dormant Hebrew language, which
was seen as a "purer language."
The attitudes of the western European Jews, who were
desperate to be integrated into their surroundings, were largely informed
by the non-Jewish attitude toward Yiddish. Because the language was
incomprehensible to them, and because of the general hatred of Jews
throughout Europe, Yiddish had long been regarded with suspicion. In
the eyes of the masses, it had come to symbolize the "moral corruption"
of the Jews. In a letter, the maskil David Friedlaender described
this phenomenon: "Given this frame of mind (the speaking of Yiddish)....
the intellect and most likely the manners of the people were increasingly
Eager to escape this stereotype, the Jews were more
than happy to give up the language. Of course, it should be noted that
the Haskalah, and the accompanying
disdain for Yiddish, existed in the east as well; many maskilim were
enamored with the Russian language in particular. However, two factors
ensured that Yiddish remained central to Jewish communities in the east.
Firstly, the maskilim there, knowing that they were dealing with a population
that was by and large less educated and worldly than their western counterparts,
were more willing to maintain Yiddish, and use it as a means of convincing
the Jews that the other elements of the Haskalah should be adopted.
Second, Yiddish culture was so rich in the east that the language had
fewer detractors, and was seen as being more central to Jewish identity,
than it was in the west.
Culture in Eastern Europe
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Yiddish became
more than merely a language of utility, used in everyday speech and
writing. Jews' creative energy, which had no outlet in the surrounding
society, began to be expressed through literature, poetry, drama, music,
and religious and cultural scholarship. For the first time, the language
became a means of expressing and describing the vibrant internal life
that had developed in the ghettos and Shtetls of eastern Europe. Yiddish,
and to a lesser extent, Hebrew, were the media of choice for this fledgling
Yiddish literature had existed to some extent for hundreds
of years, in the form of folk tales, legends, and religious homilies.
The nineteenth century literature differed in that novels, poetry, and
short stories were now being written for the first time. A more important
difference, however, was the self-consciousness of the new authors,
who recognized from the outset that they were creating a brand new literary
culture, not merely writing stories. For example, Russian born Sholem
Jacob Abramowitz, popularly know by the pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim
("Mendele the bookseller"), is today considered the "father
of Yiddish literature." He wrote his stories, he said, in order
to "have pity for Yiddish, that rejected daughter, for it was time
to do something for our people."3
Other important Yiddish authors of the nineteenth
century included Shalom Aleichem,
and Isaac Leib Peretz. Today, they are considered important literary
figures by non-Jewish and Jewish critics alike.
Yiddish drama was another important new development
in this era. Numerous drama troupes traveled throughout Russia and Poland,
performing in big cities and tiny Shtetls to universal accolades. Their
performances ranged from popular plays translated into Yiddish (ironically,
works as decidedly non-Jewish as The Merchant of Venice were
translated and performed), to specifically Jewish pieces written and
performed only in Yiddish.
The Yiddish press was perhaps the most widespread manifestation
of the language's prominence in this period. Yiddish periodicals ranged
from the daily newspaper The Forward to various scholarly journals,
which dealt with political, religious, and social issues. More so than
literature or drama, Yiddish journalism also spread to locations outside
of eastern Europe, where the majority of Yiddish speakers lived. The
American Jewish community in New York, for example, quickly founded
their own newspapers within a short period of immigrating, several of
which, most notably The Forward, are published to this day.
In certain cases, Yiddish and the culture it spawned
became the bases of important Jewish political movements as well. The
Bund, for example, a Russian Jewish socialist party, considered the
retension of the Yiddish language, as opposed to Russian or Hebrew,
to be a central part of its platform
The six million European Jews who died in the Holocaust comprised the majority of the world's Yiddish speakers. Thus in a period
of six years, between 1939 and 1945, Yiddish was dealt a near mortal
blow. The majority of those Jews who escaped Europe and made it to Israel or to the United States soon learned the local language and made Yiddish
their secondary tongue, at best. The large number of Yiddish-speaking
Jews who remained in the Soviet Union found Yiddish outlawed by Stalin
during and after the Holocaust. Because
of the Holocaust and these repressive
Soviet measures, Yiddish came to an almost immediate standstill. The
post-Holocaust generations were being taught the local vernaculars,
not Yiddish. It was predicted that Yiddish would quickly become a dead
Despite these obstacles, Yiddish is today enjoying
a resurgence. Several populations use it as their main language: primarily
the generation that lived during and immediately after the Holocaust,
and the ultra-Orthodox populations living in New York and parts of Israel.
But more significantly, Yiddish is today receiving attention from the
non-Jewish scholarly community as a real language, and not as the "corrupted
tongue" that it was considered throughout history. Many universities
worldwide offer courses and even degree programs in Yiddish linguistics,
and the literature of the Yiddish cultural period is receiving attention
for its astute depiction of contemporary Jewish existence. Even linguists
of the German language are learning Yiddish, because the development
of the German language, is related to the medieval versions of it that
today are manifested only in Yiddish.
1. Osip Aronowich Rabinowich [Russia Our Native
Land: Just as We Breathe Its Air We Must Speak Its Language], Razsvet,
no. 16 (Odessa, 1861), pp. 200. Translated by R. Weiss.
2. David Freidlaender, Sendschreiben an seine Hochwuerdigen, Herrn
Oberconsistorialrat und Probst Teller zu Berlin, von einigen Hausvaetern
juedischer Religion (Berlin 1799), pp. 27. Translated by S. Weinstein.
3. In A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russian and the Soviet
Union, 1881 to the Present. Zvi Gitelman. Indiana University Press,
Zvi Gitelman. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russian and the
Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Judah Reinharz. The
Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. Oxford University
Press. New York, 1995.
Photos courtesy of Bergen
County (NJ) Public Schools.
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