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What is Yiddish?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Miscellaneous » Hebrew / Languages » Other Languages | Subscribe | What is RSS?


A. "Yiddish" means "Jewish," as in, "Is Hillary Clinton Jewish?" It is not a national language, but is spoken by the Jewish Nation. Yiddish is German with a lot of shmaltz mixed in. It is a spunky, colorful and neurotic means of communication, reflecting in its character the turbulent journey of the Jew through the Diaspora from its 9th-century birth until today.

B. Yiddish developed somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries in the Jewish ghettos of southwestern Germany, with a firm foundation in Middle High German dialects, themselves a branch of the Indo-European languages. (Phonetically, Yiddish is closer to Middle High German than is modern German.) Later, when the bulk of European Jewry moved eastward into areas occupied predominantly by Slavic-speaking peoples, Slavic influences were acquired. Yiddish exists in two groups of dialects, one of which is further subdivided. The Western dialect, with few speakers, is centered in German-speaking areas of Western Europe. The more widely distributed Eastern group has a Northeastern branch and a Southern branch. The Northeastern branch includes the Yiddish spoken in the Baltic countries and in the northwestern areas of Russia, and by Jewish immigrants or descendants from those areas. The Southern branch—which has Central and Southeastern subgroups—includes the dialects spoken in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. Contrary to what many college professors will tell you, Yiddish is alive and well, flourishing particularly in the Orthodox communities of the greater New York area and modern-day Israel.

Yiddishkeit, literally "Jewishness," refers to Judaism in all its storied glory. Yiddish phrases like shul, Torah, cheder and Shabbos gave--and continue to give--a linguistic life to Judaism, capturing in words Judaism's most vital values
C. The vocabulary of the Yiddish spoken in Eastern Europe during recent times comprised about 85 percent German, 10 percent Hebrew, and 5 percent Slavic, with traces of Romanian, French, and other elements. Many English words and phrases entered Yiddish, becoming an integral part of the language as it is spoken in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Yiddish is written using the right-to-left letters of the Hebrew alphabet (some of them used differently than for writing Hebrew). Today, Yiddish is spoken by about four million Jews all over the world, especially in Israel, Europe and the U.S, most of which are native to, or have ancestry from, Eastern and Central Europe.

TAGS: yiddish


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Yiddish Language

Posted by: Anna, Ontario, Canada on Jan 27, 2005

My Grandmother was born in Romania and spoke many languages. One of which was yiddish. Since she kept her life a secret from when living in Romania, it has naturally made us more curious to research "who she was". If because she spoke yiddish, would it mean she was yiddish?

Editor's Comment

Very possibly, but it's not a certainty. Many of the non-Jewish locals who were employed by Jews or who had business dealings with them, picked up the language.

Posted by: Anonymous on May 16, 2005

I don't understand how Yiddish culture is anti-Torah maybe I misread your article.

Editor's Comment

Decades ago, there were many a socialist, atheist Jews, who took great pride in Jewish culture, and consequently idolized the Yiddish language.  


Posted by: Anonymous, San Pablo, CA on Jan 02, 2006

I find Jewish language important/humorous/unforgiving and hilarious; all THIS from a goyem!
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
The Messiah. Moshiach is the person who will usher in an era of peace and tranquility for all of humanity when there will be no jealousy or hate, wars or famine. This is a fundamental Jewish belief.
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
An old-style Jewish school.
Language closely related to German commonly spoken by European Jews.