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Yiddish Language

Encyclopedia Judaica:
Yiddish Language

Yiddish: Table of Contents | Development | Yiddish Theater

YIDDISH LANGUAGE, language used by Ashkenazi Jews for the past 1,000 years. Developed as an intricate fusion of several unpredictably modified stocks, the language was gradually molded to serve a wide range of communicative needs. As the society which used it achieved one of the highest levels of cultural autonomy in Jewish history, the Yiddish language too became an unusually vivid record of Jewish cultural specificities.

The Speech Community

From its beginnings in the tenth century and until the end of the 18th, Yiddish was the virtually uncontested medium of oral communication among Jews from Holland to Ukraine, from Livonia to Romania, as well as in the Ashkenazi communities in Italy, the Balkans, Palestine. Alongside Hebrew, it was also an important medium of literary and other written communication (see *Yiddish Literature ). Then, in response to the Emancipation, there arose a strong interest in converting Ashkenazi society from the use of Yiddish to that of other, non-specifically Jewish vernaculars. This striving, successful in most of the German-language sphere and in Holland, had only marginal effects in Eastern Europe. There, on the contrary, the number of Yiddish speakers increased rapidly as the Jewish population burgeoned, and a new flowering of Yiddish literature, contemporary with the rebirth of Hebrew literature, took place. The great migratory movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries caused the Yiddish community to expand among Ashkenazi immigrants around the world (South America, U.S., Canada, Australia, etc). The development of an active press, a theater, secular educational systems through the secondary-school level, teacher training institutes, and research institutions caused the language to be utilized in a great variety of new functions. Official prohibitions on the public use of Yiddish virtually disappeared in Europe after World War I; in some areas, notably in former U.S.S.R., the language was even granted official status.


The actual number of Yiddish speakers at any time is difficult to calculate because of poor or non-comparable statistics; the best estimates on the eve of World War II reckon with 11 million speakers. This number was drastically reduced by the Holocaust and by a massive shift to other primary languages. In the Americas and in Israel, the shift seems to have been largely voluntary, although encouraged by official organs; in former U.S.S.R., it was coupled with severe, official repressive measures – the closing of schools and other institutions in the 1930s, the liquidation of literature, press, and theater in 1949, with only a limited revival in the post-Stalin period. However, among traditionally multilingual Ashkenazi Jews everywhere, knowledge of Yiddish, at least as a second language, continues to be widespread. In fact, while the use of the language as a primary vernacular has been declining, interest in it, both sentimental, seriously intellectual and in universities, has been rising. Yiddish language is still spoken in the ultra-Orthodox world and among secular Jews in the main communities in the world. This development must be related to the growing ability of Jews in many parts of the world to integrate their European past with the modern European, American, or Israel culture. Thus the measurement of the present knowledge of Yiddish, and its novel place in the Jewish cultural economy, requires tools far subtler than those of ordinary censuses.


Over the centuries, Yiddish in its vast territorial scattering became regionally differentiated, but for written communication fairly uniform standards were maintained. This was true of the old literary language, which held sway until the early decades of the 19th century, and is true again of Modern Standard Yiddish, which developed as a supraregional formation from the middle of that century. The worldwide relative homogeneity of standard Yiddish is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that it developed without the aid of coercive forces such as are usually provided by a national state (especially through a unified school system); what uniformity there is must be attributed to the sheer centripetal, nation-forming will of the speech community. As in other languages, written usage has been standardized more fully than spoken discourse. However, with the literary language as a basis, standards of orthoepy have also evolved. (In some countries the theater cultivated a pronunciation tradition separate from that which prevailed in public life and in the Yiddish schools.) The structural sketch in the following sections is based mainly on the standard language, with only passing references to regional variations.

Sound System

In the main, the Yiddish sound system has been determined by those German dialects which contributed the bulk of its basic lexical stock. The language thus has a distinctive expiratory stress, which, though its place in a word is not fully predictable, nevertheless functions in several characteristic distributions. Secondary stresses seem to be less prominent than in German – possibly as a result of Slavic influence. The vowel system is of the triangular type, with three degrees of opening and two positions of articulation:

Yiddish Language

i u
e o

The most frequent diphthongs are made up of I following e, a, or o. Glottal stops generally do not occur. Consonants form a highly symmetrical array:

Yiddish Language

m n n'
b d d' g
p t t' k
v z z' ž r
f s s' š x h
l l'

Unlike German, the subseries of stops and fricatives are distinguished not by tenseness, but by voicing – probably an influence of the Slavic languages, which also contributed the palatal order. Unlike German, too, is the occurrence of voiced consonants at the ends of words. The influx of vocabulary from Hebrew-Aramaic and Slavic sources has created numerous word-initial clusters unknown in standard or dialectal German (bd-, px-, for example).

Regional varieties of Yiddish display much richer vocalic distinctions ranging from an opposition between short, open i and long, close i, to patterns with full parallel sets of short and long vowels. Also to be found in the dialects are front rounded vowels (ü) and diphthongs ending in -w. In the matter of consonants, on the other hand, it is the standard language which seems to incorporate the richest distinctions. Some regional varieties lack the h phoneme, some distinguish fewer palatals, and some, in Western Yiddish, collapse the voice distinction. The articulation of r fluctuates regionally between apical and uvular.

An important though still little studied feature of the Yiddish sound system consists of its intonational resources. Numerous syntactic-semantic distinctions are capable of being systematically conveyed by the melodic modulation of sentences.

Writing System

The graphic basis of Yiddish writing is the Hebrew *alphabet , with some standardized diacritics: שׂ ,פ ,פּ ,כּ ,יַי ,יִ ,וּ ,ב ,אָ ,אַ, and תּ. Most words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin retain the traditional orthography; the rest of the vocabulary is rendered in a system with generally excellent one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters or letter groups, but retaining, of course, the traditional Jewish conventions, such as those concerning final shapes of letters and initial silent א. (The letters תּ ,שׂ ,כּ ,ח ,ב, and ת occur only in words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin.) In the course of its evolution, Yiddish has witnessed the increasingly systematic use of א for a and latterly also for o, although the specialization of אַ and אָ is of mid-19th century origin. The use of ע as a vowel symbol – apparently an Ashkenazi invention, already attested in the 14th century – also became systematized in the course of time. The representation of diphthongs and unstressed vowels, and the conventions on word separation, have varied considerably through the centuries.

The present-day orthographic standards were promulgated in 1936. Although some publishing houses have not yet adhered to them in all details, the actual variations are relatively minor. In the first half of the 20th century, the historical-etymological spelling of words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin was abandoned in various countries, on grounds either of anti-traditionalistic ideology or of linguistic rationalism; here and there the tradition has been reinstituted. In former U.S.S.R. the use of special shapes of final letters was reintroduced in 1961.


The basic grammatical plan of Yiddish follows the German model, but a number of important innovations have developed. In syntax, the word order of main and subordinate clauses has been made uniform; the distance between nouns and their determiners, as well as between the subparts of verb phrases, has been decreased. On the other hand, new word order devices for expressing continuity of discourse and for the de-emphasis of epithets have emerged. The nominal system continues to be characterized by four cases and three genders; the genitive, however, has blossomed into a possessive while losing most other functions; after prepositions, the accusative has been eliminated. The German distinction between a weak and strong adjective inflection has been virtually abandoned, while a new distinction between inflected predicate adjectives has evolved. Many nouns have been distributed among the (mostly inherited) patterns of pluralization. The formation of diminutives, among adjectives as well as nouns, has flourished, apparently with a push from the Slavic languages. In the verb, all tenses and moods except the present indicative have come to be formed analytically. A fairly systematic distinction between perfective and imperfective aspect, as well as numerous new aspect-like and voice-like categories, has been developed in a completely un-German direction. The present participle of verbs, too, has been assigned novel functions. The morphological details of the conjugation have in many instances been subject to innovation, and new classes of periphrastic conjugation, especially for verbs of Hebrew origin, have grown up.

Of the regional variations in the grammar of colloquial Yiddish the most significant are related to changes in the case and gender system. In Central as well as in Northeastern Yiddish (see below dialectical differences) the distinction between dative and accusative has collapsed. In the northeast, this has been accompanied by a radical restructuring of the gender system, leading to an abandonment of the historical neuter and the evolution of a new system of four quasi-genders with a high degree of semantic motivation. In general, it appears that the eastern dialects have been the most innovating; it is there that the novel use of inflected adjectives in the predicate and the "sensitivity" of verbs to aspect distinctions have progressed farthest.


Yiddish vocabulary is characterized by its multiple origins: German, Hebrew-Aramaic, Romance, Slavic, and "international."


The mechanical attribution of Yiddish words to ultimate etymological sources, however, yields a highly unrealistic view of the specificities of the language. Thus the word mentsh is formally related to German Mensch, but some of its important meanings ("employee"; "reliable, mature person") are specific Yiddish innovations which are obscured when the German original of the "outer form" of the word is recalled. Similar reservations apply to vocabulary of other sources. Thus, in unterzogn ("breathe into a person's ear"), the prefix and stem remind one of German unter and sagen, but German untersagen has no corresponding meaning; the sense of the Yiddish word can be explained much better as a "loan translation" of a Slavic prefixed verb (cf. Ukrainian pid-skazaty). In many common words, such as oyszogn ("to disclose") neither German nor Slavic languages provide an explanation of the Yiddish phenomenon. In short, the complex fusion of the several stocks and the rise of purely internal innovation is as important a principle in the formation of Yiddish vocabulary as the multiplicity of its origins.

It is also important to bear in mind that only a restricted portion of the stock languages has been utilized in Yiddish. For example, German has hundreds of stems which are completely unattested in Yiddish (e.g., schweifen, Laster, fade). Likewise, Yiddish has adopted from Hebrew maskem (zayn) and muskem (vern) "agree," "be agreed upon"; it has taken madrekh (zayn) "(to) guide," but not the expected mudrekh (vern) "(to be) guided." The actual vocabulary of Yiddish therefore stands out as a concrete historical formation against the background of its potential sources; the end product could not, as it were, be predicted from knowledge of the ingredients. Yiddish has also preserved elements from the stock languages which have died out in their original habitats; examples related to German are shver ("father-in-law"), eydem ("son-in-law").

Contrary to a widely held popular view, elements of Yiddish vocabulary have no functions which can be strictly correlated with their respective origins. Thus, material of Hebrew-Aramaic descent is found to have festive, neutral, or even vulgar connotations, depending on the individual word. To be sure, some topical domains have favored vocabulary from a particular source (e.g., rabbinical learning, from Hebrew-Aramaic; agriculture, from Slavic), but individual items have been redistributed in many cases.

The nature of the fusion process makes it difficult to calculate the proportions of vocabulary contributed by various stocks. This task is further complicated by the existence of "blends" such as mefunitse ("fastidious woman"), in which one word points in two historical directions simultaneously, mefunak, from Hebrew and-itse, from Slavic.

German, Romance, and Slavic Contributions. With reference to the German contribution to Yiddish vocabulary, it must be pointed out that no single form of German served as the source, but that Yiddish drew upon a sui generis combination of medieval city dialects. For the better part of a century, it was customary among linguists to derive the Germanic vocabulary of Yiddish from Middle High German. A more critical stance has recently led to the unearthing of significant dissimilarities between the German component of Yiddish and the language of German courtly poetry.

The Yiddish words of Romance origin, though nowadays few in number, are of considerable prominence in the language (e.g., léyenen "read," bentshn "bless"). They are venerable vestiges from the earliest stages of the language, when it was still forming on the lips of immigrants into Germany from the Romance lands (see below, Historical Development).

The Slavic languages have contributed not only thousands of lexical items but also numerous productive patterns for the formation of new words. Within the Slavic component, the most prominent part has been played by Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian; the oldest contacts with Czech, and the most recent ones, with Russian, have left far less numerous traces. The impact of non-Slavic languages in Central and Eastern Europe – Hungarian, Romanian, Lithuanian, and Latvian – has on the whole been of a strictly regional nature and has not penetrated the common literary language. In some cases, various Slavic languages contributed competing words (e.g., pyeshtshen "pamper," of Polish origin coexisting with pesten, of Ukrainian descent); in other cases, a single word has become diffused throughout Yiddish (e.g., blondzhen "stray," from Polish), or semantic specializations, a priori unpredictable, have emerged (e.g., plónte(r)n "confuse" < Pol., pla tac, pluten "act in light-minded manner" < Ukr., plutaty).


The "international" component of Yiddish, no less than the others, must be understood in its specificities. Thus, fabrík ("factory"), in a German-like form, has displaced older fábrike, of Polish-Russian origin; on the other hand, relígie ("religion"), which resembles the Slavic forms (cf. Pol., religia), has completely driven out the German-derived religión. The presence of eyrope ("Europe") side by side with nevróz ("neurosis"), in which the same Greek diphthong is represented alternately by ei and by ev>, illustrates different routes of importation, one via west European, the other Russian. As in so many other languages, "Neo-Latin" terminology has not only been adopted, but has also stimulated the development of parallel coinages out of native resources shédredik ("vertebralis"); iberklangik = supersonish ("supersonic").

Dialectical Differences

The bulk of Yiddish dialectological research, since its beginnings in the 1880s, has been concerned with phonological differences between the dialects. This concern is understandable not only in the light of the predominant interest in sound laws among several generations of linguists, but also in view of the diversity of vowel developments in Yiddish together with the regularity of this diversification.

While the main contours along which the European Yiddish language territory is divided have been known for some decades, no definitive hierarchy of dialect divisions could be obtained on the basis of phonological evidence alone. In recent years, the materials available to dialectology have been greatly enriched, especially in domains other than phonology, and a new impetus has developed toward the re-investigation of the geographic diversification of Yiddish, with increased attention to settlement history and mutual cross-influences among regions.


The overriding dichotomy of the old Yiddish language territory in Europe is into a western and an eastern wing. The western half, roughly covering Holland, Alsace-Lorraine, Switzerland, and most of Germany, is also associated with peculiarities in synagogal ritual in the pronunciation of the Hebrew liturgy, and

Yiddish Language

Reconstucted Proto Yiddish Vowel¹ Western Yiddish Eastern Yiddish
South Yiddish North-East Yiddish Examples
Central Yiddish South-East Yiddish
¹ The conventional labeling of the reconstructed vowels corresponds to the increasingly widespread usage in current linguistic literature (see bibliography). The pairs of forms separated by the diagonal solidus represent subdialectal variants.
A11 a A o a gas ("street") shabes ("Sabbath")
A3 ō/ā u/ū u o trogn ("carry") brokhe ("blessing")
E3 ē Ai ei ei sheyn ("beautiful") meylekh ("king")
E4 ā Ai ei ei fleysh ("meat")
E5 ē ē ei/I e veg ("road") teve ("nature")
I4 ai/ei ā a ai mayz ("mice")
U3 ō/au oi oi ei/eu hoyzn ("trousers") toyre ("Torah")
U4 ā oi oi ei/eu koyfn ("buy")
U1 o/y I I u hunt ("dog") shutef ("partner")
U3 i u bruder ("brother") shure ("line")
U4 au ō/ou oi/u oi/au hoyt ("skin")

with folk customs unknown in the east. Among the lexical boundaries between east and west are davnen/orn ("pray") and sider/tfile ("prayer book"). Phonologically, Western Yiddish as a whole can be distinguished by the occurrence of /ā/ long in such words as / kāfn flās / koyfn fleysh ("buy meat"). Western Yiddish itself is, however, far from homogeneous. Some of its subregional differences can be explained as latter-day adjustments of a once more uniform language to local forms of German; it is apparent, however, that other forces, internal to the Jewish community, have also been at work in the formation of the Western Yiddish dialectal landscape.

Between west and east, the countries south of the Carpathian Mountains occupy a midway position. The western part – Bohemia, Moravia, west Slovakia, west Hungary – are characterized by a Yiddish dialect which was, on the whole, lexically east European but phonologically West European. The Yiddish of the eastern part – the Hungarian lowlands, Transylvania, and Carpathorussia – can be understood as a fusion of the west-Transcarpathian dialect with dialects brought by hasidic immigrants from Galicia.


Within the eastern wing of Yiddish territory there is a salient three-way division, in which the southeast (roughly, Ukraine, Romania, and parts of eastern Galicia) occupies a pivotal position between the northeast (Belorussia, Lithuania, Latvia) and the center (Poland proper, western Galicia). Using the phrase koyfn fleysh once more as a criterion, we find it in the form / kejfn flejš / in the northeast, / kojfn flajš / in the center, and in the "compromise" version / kojfn flejš / in the southeast.

The split between the Northeast and the rest of East European Yiddish must have begun even before the middle of the 16th century along the dividing line between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The relatively self-contained nature of these two basins of Jewish colonization, as well as the possibly disparate origins of colonists entering each basin, are likely causes of the early differentiation. A separate issue is the "intermediate" quality of Southeastern Yiddish between that of the Northeast and the Center. It may be related to the mid-16th century re-orientation of the area from Lithuanian to Polish allegiance; on the other hand, we must also reckon with the possibility that the old common non-Lithuanian Yiddish has been more faithfully preserved in the southeast, whereas in Poland it has evolved further under the differential impact of fresh immigration and influence from the west. The separation of historical strata in the formation of such dialectal entities as Belorussian Yiddish and the sorting out of boundary phenomena everywhere into those which were imported and those which were formed in situ, are among the problems with which Yiddish dialectology is preoccupied.

Historical Development

The historical study of Yiddish is hampered by a shortage of texts from the earliest periods and by the highly conventionalized nature of the literary language in which so many of the surviving texts are written. In consequence, many supplementary methods must be used. Reports of contemporaries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, must be sifted; inferences from general historical facts must be coupled with deductions from such knowledge as we have of the history of the stock languages. Above all, reconstructions from attested forms of modern spoken Yiddish must be used as correctives to the interpretation of texts.


It is safe to say that no event was more decisive in the development of Yiddish than its movement into a Slavic environment and its withdrawal from the reach of German norms. It was under Slavic influence, above all, that aspects of the grammatical system were restructured and that "normal" genetic relation of Yiddish to German was weakened. It is only fitting, therefore, that the periodization of the history of Yiddish reflect this realization. The most widely accepted scheme uses the approximate years 1250, 1500, and 1700 as the major turning points.


The period of Earliest Yiddish, until 1250, is the time before Slavic contact was established. It is in this period that Jews from northern France and northern Italy, speaking a language they called Laaz, established their first bridgeheads in German-language territory in the kingdom of Loter (i.e., Lotharingia). There is reason to believe that they were simultaneously exposed to more than one variety of Christian German, and it is plausible that their speech remained, for many generations, rife with phonetic and lexical imports from the Laaz language, even though the number of surviving vestiges has constantly been reduced. It is in this period, too, that the old Diaspora pattern of reaching into the sacred language for additional vocabulary, along with the custom of writing the vernacular in the Jewish script, must have been transferred from the Laaz areas to Ashkenaz. Although we have no continuous texts from this period, it seems likely that at this early time the basic fusional formula for the subsequent utilization of multiple stocks was already established. Through the use of indirect evidence, it is even possible to discern the effects on Earliest Yiddish of specific historical developments, such as the increasing isolation and mobility of Jews during and after the Crusades, or the changes in the Hebrew tradition associated with the arrival of Babylonian teachers in Ashkenaz.


It is in the Old Yiddish period (1250–1500) that Yiddish speakers made contact with Slavs and Slavic-speaking Jews – first in southeastern Germany (Bavaria) and Bohemia, then in Poland and still further east. Large numbers of new communities were founded in the new environment and existing communities speaking Knaanic (a Slavic-based Jewish language) were converted to Yiddish. In this period, too, even before the development of printing, a relatively uniform literary language developed. Although many more documents have perished than survived, the language is now amply attested in various stylistic ramifications – in poetry, in taytsh-khumesh (Bible translation), and the official records of communal scribes.


The next period, Middle Yiddish (1500–1700), is marked by the vigorous expansion of eastern Ashkenaz and consequently by the withdrawal of an increasing proportion of Yiddish speakers not only from continuous German territory, but also from the vicinity of German-speaking cities in the east. The linguistic monuments of this period, including numerous volumes of narrative and expository prose, make the evidence increasingly richer. Private letters, verbatim testimony of witnesses, and comical verse for the first time offer the modern scholar an insight into spoken usage, while the detailed comparison of variants in repeated editions of stock works enables us to reconstruct some of the diversities and changes of the language in that period. However, the continuing uniformity of the written language and the shortage of texts of East European provenance hides from view the crucial processes of dialectalization and Slavization which must have gone on at the time.


The Modern Yiddish period, after 1700, witnessed a slow but almost fatal decline of Yiddish in the West. The old literary standard, increasingly remote from the living speech of the East European majority, finally collapsed, and a new standard, on an Eastern Yiddish base, began to form about 1820. For some decades, there was uncertainty about the dialectal base and the authoritativeness of literary German models; with the development of a press and a self-conscious literature in the 1860s, however, a supradialectal formation with only limited reliance on German patterns gained rapid ascendancy. The use of the language in organized social movements and in quickly accelerating literary activity reached a high point of self-consciousness in the *Czernowitz Yiddish Conference of 1908. The subsequent introduction of Yiddish as a medium of school instruction, of scholarly research, and of regional administration contributed to the lexical expansion and stabilization of the language. Modernistic poetry was particularly imaginative in exploring the Yiddish potential of enrichment from within.

YIDDISH AND HEBREW. The preceding discussion has sketched the important role played by the sacred language in the formation of Yiddish and in the determination of its graphic image. A few more detailed points may now be taken up separately.

The principal strata of the learned tradition from which Yiddish has drawn have been the Pentateuch, the daily prayers, and the technical discourse of the yeshivah. Because the boundary lines between biblical Hebrew, mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic were only vaguely observed in rabbinical use of the sacred language, it is more accurate to speak of the "Hebrew-Aramaic" than of the "Hebrew" stock in the formation of Yiddish. In most recent times, of course, Palestinian and Israel Hebrew have exerted an influence on Yiddish, both within the country and abroad; Yiddish now has such doublets as (traditional) alíe ("call to read a lesson from the Torah in the synagogue"), and (modern) aliá ("immigration to Palestine/Israel").


Although more or less the same stock has at all times been available in its entirety to all Ashkenazim, the entry of a particular form from Hebrew-Aramaic into Yiddish must be regarded as a concrete historical event in place and time. Thus, there are words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin which have become current in some regions but are unknown in others (rak>, "continuously," in Northeast Yiddish, ives, "biting words," in Alsace). There are also marked regional differences in the forms or Hebrew-Aramaic words merged into Yiddish which are unrelated to the systematic dialectal differentiation of Yiddish (e.g., nadn "dowry" in Central and Southeast Yiddish, nadán in Northeast and Transcarpathian Yiddish, nedunye in most of Western Yiddish). A further argument for the concrete historicity of Hebrew-Aramaic-Yiddish contact is the fact that early Yiddish texts contain forms of Hebrew-Aramaic origin which have since become extinct in the language (e.g., mekabets zayn, "go begging").


Hebrew-Aramaic elements which entered Yiddish have, of course, been subjected to the phonological and grammatical norms of the recipient language; this has differentiated many of them from their equivalents within Ashkenazi Hebrew proper. The result of this distinction is described by the pair of technical terms, Whole Hebrew and Merged Hebrew.

Some of the peculiarities of Merged as opposed to Whole Hebrew, such as the shift of the stress or the neutralization of unstressed vowels, are accounted for by the exigencies of Yiddish phonological and grammatical structure. But there are other peculiarities, not explainable in such a way, which are of particular value in elucidating the outlines of rabbinical Hebrew as a distinct historical branch of the sacred language. Quite a few forms suggest caution against oversimplified conceptions of Hebrew historical grammar. Significant, too, are discrepant treatments of individual Merged Hebrew words and the re-systematization of such discrepancies into new patterns.

The existence of synonym pairs, of which one member is of Hebrew-Aramaic origin and the other stems from elsewhere, has endowed some domains of Yiddish vocabulary with a double register characteristic of Jewish Diaspora languages. To be sure, the semantic or stylistic difference between the members of the pairs is not always the same: in seyfer, shulkhn (as against bukh, tish) the reference is to a book of traditional Jewish content and to the ritual synagogue table for unrolling the scroll of the Torah (sacred vs. profane); in akhlen, eynaim (as against esn, oygn), the Hebrew-origin term connotes crassness and vulgarity; in mashtin zayn, "urinate," aver, "bad odor," the Hebrew-origin terms function as euphemisms for their synonyms of other origins.


For many centuries Yiddish has been exercising a reverse influence on Hebrew. Rabbinical writings of the 13th century already contain turns of phrase which would be unintelligible except as loan translations from Yiddish, and, as time went on, the recourse to Yiddish as a source both of direct borrowing and of calquing, increased. This pattern led to easily parodied excesses in hasidic literature, but was utilized moderately and creatively in the shaping of modern literary Hebrew by Sholem Yankev *Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim) and his contemporaries. In the revived spoken language of Palestine and Israel, Yiddish has had a profound impact not only on the phonetic structure of the language, but also on the developing distinction between perfective and non-perfective verbal constructions, in the fashioning of new idioms, and in the vocabulary of slang. The patterned difference between what may be called Merged Yiddish and Whole Hebrew has made possible previously unavailable stylistic distinctions.

History of Yiddish Studies

Yiddish studies go back to the 16th century, when German humanists saw in the script and in certain aspects of the vocabulary and grammar of this language a convenient bridge to the learning of Hebrew. In the subsequent period Yiddish also attracted the attention of theologians concerned with missionizing among the Jews, and of police officials and others interested in cryptic Jewish speech and Yiddish as a source of German thieves' cant (see *Avé-lallemant ). The science of Judaism in the 19th century paid only scant attention to Yiddish, and the developing Germanic philology was slow in coming to appreciate the historical significance of this language. The foundations of a modern scholarly approach to Yiddish were laid by scattered individuals – L. *Saineanu in Bucharest, who furnished the first dialect monograph, and A. *Landau in Vienna, who set an example in matters of text editing, scholarly commentary, etymology, and the study of the subtle but pervasive impact of Slavic. In the first two decades of the 20th century Yiddish studies remained the domain of private persons with varying levels of university preparation. A new beginning was made in the 1920s with the founding of institutions devoted, partly or completely, to the study of Yiddish: chief among them were the institutes affiliated with the Ukrainian and Belorussian academies (Kiev and Minsk) and the *YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute) in Vilna. These institutions became the centers of large-scale, systematic collecting of material and of the preparation of capital works such as dialect atlases and dictionaries. The serial publications established by these institutes provided a forum for the printing of text editions, collections of folk language, and analytic studies. Systematic training of aspirants in Yiddish studies became available for the first time. The several institutes also played the role of normative authorities, first with respect to orthography, and eventually also in some areas of terminology.

The suppression of Jewish scholarship by the Soviet regime and the Holocaust brought about the almost complete annihilation of scholarly personnel and collections. The American branch of YIVO, however, became the focus for its post-war reorganization and that of Yiddish studies. A new phenomenon, almost without precedent before World War II, was the introduction of Yiddish into the curricula of universities. The development of advanced Yiddish studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem created a fresh opportunity for coordinating Yiddish studies with training in other Judaica, while the activities centering around Columbia University in New York helped to integrate Yiddish linguistics with general linguistics on a broader scale than before. A renewed interest in Yiddish studies has also been in evidence in Western Europe, especially in western Germany, France, Netherlands, in Eastern Europe and in America.

See also *Yiddish Literature.


The main works up to 1958 are inventoried in Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, Yiddish Language and Folklore: a Selective Bibliography for Research, (1959). The most important current literature is covered in the annual bibliography issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association (of America). Significant recent collections of studies are For Max Weinreich on His 70th birthday (1964); U. Weinreich, et al. (eds.), The Field of Yiddish (1965–68), fifth collection, 1993. Periodicals and miscellaneous volumes devoted completely or in part, to the study of Yiddish are: YIVO Bleter (since 1931; first in Vilna, after World War II in New York); Yidishe Shprakh (since 1941, New York). DICTIONARIES: Y. Mark and J.A. Joffe (eds.), Groyser Verterbukh fun der Yidisher Shprakh, 4 vols. (1961–80); N. Stutshkov, Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950); U. Weinreich, Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary (1968). LINGUISTIC GEOGRAPHY: M.I. Herzog, The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland (1965), with extensive bibliography; M. Kosover, Arabic Elements in Palestinian Yiddish (1966). HISTORY: M. Weinreich, Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Shprakh, 2 vols. (1968); J.A. Fishman, Yiddish in America (1965); Birnbaum, in: JJS, 72 (1961), 19–31. YIDDISH AND HEBREW: U. Weinreich, Ha-Ivrit ha-Askhenazit ve-ha-Ivrit she-be-Yidish, Beḥinatan ha-Ge'ografit (1965; first published in Leshonenu, vols. 24 and 25); H. Blanc, in: U. Weinreich et al. (eds.), The Field of Yiddish, 2 (1965), 18–20. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Harkavy, Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (1928, reprinted, 1988); M. Aptroot and H. Nath, Araynfir in der yidisher shprakh un kultur (2002); J.G. Bratkowsky, Yiddish Linguistics, a Multilingual Bibliography (1988); A. Fishman (ed.), Sociology of Yiddish (1980); idem, Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters (1981); J.C. Frakes, Early Yiddish Texts (2005); M.I. Goldwasser, "Azhoras Noshim": a Linguistic Study of a Sixteenth Century Yiddish Work (1982); D.-B. Kerler, The Origins of Modern Literary Yiddish (1999); Y. Lifshitz and M. Altschuler (eds.), Briv fun Yidishe Sovetishe Shreibers (1980); Y. Niborski and B. Vaisbrot, Yidish-frantseyzish verterbukh (2002); Y. Niborski and S. Neuberg, Verterbukh fun loshn-koydesh shtamike verter in yidish (1997); D.G. Roskies, Against the ApocalypseResponses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (1984); D. Sadan, A Wort ba-Shteit: Shpaziren tsvishen Shprakh un Literatur, 2 vols. (1979); C. Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish, perakim letoldotehah (1978); idem, "Can the Cambridge Manuscript Support the Spielman Theory in Yiddish Literature?," in: Studies in Yiddish and Folklore (1986), 1–36; idem, "Hebrew-Yiddish-Polish: A Trilingual Jewish Culture," in: Y. Gutman, E. Mendelsohn, and Ch. Shmeruk (eds.), The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars (1989), 285–311; E. Timm, Graphische une phonische Struktur des Westjiddischen (1987); idem, E. Timm, Yiddish Literature in a Franconian Genizah (1988); S. Tsaftman, Bein Ashkenaz le-SefaradLe-Toledot ha-Sippur ha-Yehudi bi-Ymei ha-Beinayyim (1993); Ch. Turniansky, "Le-Toledot ha-'Taytsh-Ḥumesh''Ḥumesh mit Ḥibur'," in: Iyyunim be-SifrutDevarim she-Ne'emru ba-Erev Likhvod Dov Sadan Bimlot lo Shemonim ve-Ḥamesh Shanah (1988); M. Weinreich, The History of the Yiddish Language (1980); U. Weinreich and M. Herzog (eds.), The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, (1992). S. Kumove, Words Like ArrowsA Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings (1984); Kahn, Portraits of Yiddish Writers (1979); D. Sadan, Teuren un Tiren (1979); Ch. Shmeruk, The Esterke Story in Yiddish and Polish Literature (1985).

[Uriel Weinreich]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.