Language Portraits -- Part 3: Yiddish

In 2021, 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany will be celebrated. It is a sensitive topic, because Germany still has an anti-Semitism problem. However, I would like to write about something living, which is at the same time testimony to a long history. It is about Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews.

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Today I am venturing into a special language about which not so much is known in Germany, although German is very closely connected with it. It is about Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. In the Talmudic tradition, Ashkenaz is the land north of the Alps, today's Germany, even though this state did not exist 1700 years ago. 

To this day, there are many prejudices and smattering of knowledge about Yiddish. Some dismiss it as a "special language" or simply as a "dialect". However, linguists generally agree that it is a language in its own right.

What is Yiddish and where does it come from?

But let's take it one step at a time: Let's start with a few historical clues: In the Central German period, specifically Jewish expressions of German developed in the German-speaking area, which Jews spoke among themselves. The exact origin, however, has not been unambiguously clarified.

 Due to anti-Jewish ideas within the majority population and the resulting persecutions from the 11th century onwards, numerous Jews emigrated to Eastern Europe, especially to the then Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For this reason, Yiddish developed in separate directions from this time on. In the West, Yiddish continued to be in contact with German and increasingly assimilated, which was also due to secularisation and assimilation. In the East, on the other hand, contact with Slavic languages dominated, which is why Slavic lexical, morphological and syntactic borrowings found their way into the language. From the late 18th century, Eastern Yiddish became the new standard variety. The number of Yiddish scripts increased in the 19th century, both religious and non-religious literature. This period was followed by the "golden age" of Yiddish literature, which lasted until World War II.

As early as the late 19th century, numerous Jews migrated to North America and England. In this way, Yiddish expanded into the English-speaking world and the two languages influenced each other. Thus, one finds numerous Yiddish words in the colloquial language, especially in US-American English. 

Over the centuries, the Yiddish language and culture have often been the plaything of politics in various nations. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the treatment of Jews and Yiddish was extremely ambivalent. In the very short period of the independent Ukrainian People's Republic (1917-1920), Yiddish was one of the official languages. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, an anti-Jewish policy prevailed. Under this, Stalin persecuted the Jewish religion, the Zionist movement and the Hebrew languages. The Yiddish language and literature, on the other hand, were promoted until World War II, and Yiddish was one of the state languages in Soviet Belarus in the 1920s and 1930s (along with Russian, Belarusian and Polish). In addition, a "Jewish proletarian culture" was to be established there and Jewish sections were formed in the CPSU between 1918 and 1923 under the leadership of the war veteran Simon Dimantstein. There were also Yiddish-language schools in those days, but they were closed with increasingly anti-minority policies. In 1928, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in the eastern Soviet Union, where Yiddish was to be introduced as an official language. However, this was never implemented, as the Yiddish-speaking population never reached a majority there. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous Jews emigrated to Israel, Germany and the USA. Yiddish is hardly present there any more. 

Because Ashkenazi Jews have also lived in the Diaspora for a long time, there is no such thing as THE Yiddish. Western and Eastern Yiddish varieties have long been regarded as standard varieties. However, this has not been officially standardised. 

As everywhere, there are different opinions on standardisation. Proponents say that in this way the language is preserved. Critics complain that dialects are lost. 


Since Yiddish has not yet been standardised, it is difficult to describe generally valid grammatical rules. It is written in an adapted Hebrew alphabet, but of course there are also Latin transcriptions. 

As far as Yiddish vocalism is concerned, it has some sound changes in common with Upper and Central German dialects. For this reason, some Germans from those regions say that Yiddish sounds similar to their dialect. However, the sounds in Yiddish also vary from dialect to dialect. Nevertheless, the common features include, for example, the de-rounding of the high vowels, e.g. Middle High German: jüd > Yiddish: jidd, or also a diminution of the long vowel â to ô or û, as in schlafen > North-Eastern Yiddish: schlofn, Southern Yiddish: schlufn.

Furthermore, the Yiddish plural formation is very exciting. Here you can clearly see the influences of different contact languages.

  • tisch (table) -tischn

  • gorten (garden) -gertner 

  • chaje (ainmal) -chajes

  • pojer (farmer) -pojerim

In addition, there are numerous diminutives in Yiddish. Also significant is the double negation. 

  • Er hot kejn sach nit gefunen.

          He didn’t find anything.

Let’s repeat …

The origins of Yiddish are not completely clear, but it is closely interwoven with German. Its language contact is manifold. Yiddish songs are equally diverse. It is still not recognised as a minority language in Germany. In other European countries, however, it is. Yiddish is still spoken today by ultra-orthodox Jews in the USA or parts of Israel, but also in Europe. In addition, there are a few secular communities that continue to maintain Yiddish.

In Germany, Ashkenazi Jewish life, which once flourished, is still present. For example, in the SchUM towns of Speyer, Worms and Mainz. 

And with this I say goodbye: Sait gesunt

Lisa and the alugha team



Groh, Arnold: Jiddisch, Wort für Wort, Kauderwelsch, Band 110, Reise Know-How Verlag Peter Rump GmbH, 2007 (3rd edition) (27.10.2021, 12:20) (27.10.2021, 12:23) (27.10.2021, 12:24)

Photo: cottonbro on Pexels

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