Yiddish Language 101

“He’s just extra meshuggeneh today,” I sigh when our cat is sprinting around the apartment, knocking tchotchkes off the shelves left and right. As someone raised in Brooklyn, such phrases were commonly sprinkled throughout even my Catholic, English-speaking household—just a few of the many Yiddish phrases that have entered our everyday English vocabulary, like spiel, nosh, schmooze, chutzpah, and more.

What is the Yiddish language? Below, let’s dive into the history and origins of Yiddish, its prevalence and cultural influence today, and its relationship to Hebrew.

History and Origins of Yiddish

Yiddish is a West Germanic language and the traditional vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews, a group of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, and their descendants. Over a thousand years old, the language is thought to have originated when 10th-century Jews from France and Italy migrated to the German Rhine Valley, incorporating elements of German, Hebrew, and Aramaic into their language. The language later picked up Slavic influences, too, as its speakers settled throughout Eastern Europe.

Historically, Yiddish was considered the language of daily life for Ashkenazi communities, complementing the religious and scholarly usage (respectively) of Hebrew and Aramaic. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Yiddish literature, music, and scholarship enjoyed a boom in popularity, with Yiddish-language presses spreading throughout Eastern Europe and the United States.

However, although Yiddish reached its peak of some 11 million speakers during the 1940s, the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers were murdered in the Holocaust. After the devastation of WWII, Yiddish speakers’ assimilation along with their migration to Israel, where they adopted Hebrew instead, further decimated the language.

Yiddish in the World Today

Despite fears of the language dying out, today there is a growing interest in Yiddish language and culture among younger generations, especially due to Yiddish’s enormous influence on Jewish (especially American Jewish) politics, education, literature, and music. Yiddish is currently the first language or language of choice for many Orthodox (Haredi) Jews, who speak it at home, work, and school. Most estimates place the number of Yiddish speakers at about 250,000 people in the U.S., 250,000 in Israel, and another hundred thousand throughout the rest of the world.

The United States’ largest population of Yiddish speakers can be found in New York, specifically in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves, such as South Williamsburg and Boro Park. The language was even included in New York State’s new Office of Language Access initiative, along with the other top ten languages in the state. New York City is home to the world’s leading institution of Yiddish scholarship (YIVO), multiple Yiddish newspapers, businesses, and more than one Yiddish theater company. There’s even a Yiddish Duolingo course, if you want to practice your schtick.

Yiddish and Hebrew: What’s the Difference?

Is Yiddish the same as Hebrew? Aside from their obvious close connections to Judaism, Yiddish and Hebrew do use the same alphabet and are both written right-to-left. However, the two languages have quite a few differences.

Hebrew is a Semitic language, putting it in the same family as Arabic or Amharic, whereas Yiddish comes from the Germanic family. Although Yiddish includes a lot of Hebrew words, it has a markedly distinct pronunciation. Plus, despite having the same alphabet, elements such as the arrangement of letters and the presence of vowels are very different in Yiddish.

Finally, while Hebrew is the official language of Israel, Yiddish is not. In fact, although this has changed in recent years, Yiddish was once suppressed in Israel in order to promote the revival of Hebrew. This history serves as an excellent reminder that Yiddish translations require professional treatment to fully capture the linguistic, political, and cultural nuances of this fascinating language.

But that’s enough schmoozing for now!

Photo by Ryan DaRin on Unsplash