The ‘Mother Tongue’: A brief introduction to Yiddish

Speaking at the Polyglot Conference in Budapest last weekend, I took the opportunity to give some air time to a particular language that might have dropped a little from the agenda. Yiddish (also known as מאַמע-לשון / ‘mame loshn‘ – the ‘mother tongue’) has never been studied to any great extent outside Jewish communities, and now it is under even more threat, as people opt for learning Hebrew instead. Over the last year or so that I have been studying the language, I have completely fallen in love with it. Its ability to succinctly express such beautiful and unique concepts never ceases to amaze me, as does the rich and broad cultural and historical base on which it draws its vocabulary, structures, and the way it sees the world. And I approach this as a non-Jew – I can only imagine what the language must mean for someone whose ancestors once spoke it.

Public health poster issued by the Jewish Health Organisation in 1926

Yiddish had always fascinated me. Working my way through the Germanic family, I remember wanting to find out more about it. But there were no courses available for it in those days so I gave up. But when I started university, I began studying German and Russian literature, which gave me occasional glimpses into the life of Jews in Eastern Europe. I was fascinated, and decided that I had to learn more.

Oxford has a big Jewish Studies department, with its own research centre and library. I chose to take Yiddish Literature as a ‘special subject’, and signed up for a year of intense classes. I am also heading off to Tel Aviv in just under three weeks to take part in a month-long intensive summer programme to supplement this. By October I’ll hopefully be able to study Yiddish texts in the original. This post will give you an introduction to some of the features of Yiddish that I’ve found most interesting and most challenging over the past seven months.

Some context

Yiddish starts appearing in about the 10th Century CE around the Rhineland, which is the most western part of modern-day Germany. It’s heavily influenced by Middle High German, but when in the 14th Century Jews fled to Eastern Europe, they took their language with them and exposed it to influence from Slavic languages as well. Nowadays, Yiddish reflects its history through its German influences, Slavic constructions, and Hebrew and Aramaic expressions, all with a distinctive, and iconically Jewish system of pronunciation.

A map charting the expulsions of Jews between 1100-1600 CE

It is estimated that before the outbreak of the Second World War, there were between 11 and 13 million native Yiddish speakers. This changed dramatically after the Holocaust, in which 5 million, or 85% of the total number of Jews that perished, were Yiddish speakers. Very few of the survivors returned to Eastern Europe (in Yiddish called ‘the old home’ / di alte heym / די אַלטע היים), and instead moved to countries such as Israel, the United States and Soviet Union, where they adopted new languages. The State of Israel even banned Yiddish in the early 1950s, arguing that only Hebrew could homogenise Israel’s divided society, in which only 50% of the population came from Europe. Nowadays it is estimated that there are between 1 and 2 million Yiddish speakers, a third of whom live in the United States. There are also roughly 12 million people who have learnt it as a second language.

A little bit of grammar

Yiddish’s grammar is not as straightforward as you might think. At it might seem very similar to German, but the more advanced you get, the more you will find yourself having to get used to some quite unique features such as the word order, and the use of ‘konverbn’ – Yiddish’s version of German separable verbs. Here’s a brief overview of the main things you’ll need to keep in mind:

  1. Like German and Slavic languages, Yiddish has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. They do not always correspond to their German equivalents, and some nouns can even have more than one gender:
    די/דאָס אַפֿריקע – di/dos afrike – Africa (f/n)
    די/דאָס בעט –  di/dos bet – bed (f/n)
  2. Like German, there are four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative. However they do not work in quite the same way. The genitive can only be used for animate objects, and the accusative is not used to depict motion. It is also impossible to distinguish between the accusative and dative in the masculine singular without looking at the context.
  3. There are plenty of irregular verbs, although they seem to be slightly more regular than in German. There are also instances in which more than one form is acceptable for the past tense, for example:
    ברענגען -> געבראַכט / געברענגט
    brengen -> gebrakht / gebrengt
  4. The tense system shouldn’t bring any huge surprises to speakers of European languages. There is one present, one future, one past, and a conditional construction. Like German and Dutch, verbs in the past tense take an auxiliary verb from either hobn (to have) or zayn (to be). Here’s an example of how these work – the sentence means ‘the boy speaks/spoke/will speak/would speak Yiddish with his grandma’:
    .דאָס ייִנגל רעדט ייִדיש מיט דער באָבען
    Dos yingl redt yidish mit der boben. (present)
    .דאָס ייִנגל האָט גערעדט ייִדיש מיט דער באָבען
    Dos yingl hot geredt yidish mit der boben. (past)
    .דאָס ייִנגל וועט רעדן ייִדיש מיט דער באָבען
    Dos yingl vet redn yidish mit der boben. (future)
    .דאָס ייִנגל וואָלט גערעדט ייִדיש מיט דער באָבע
    Dos yingl volt geredt yidish mit der boben. (conditional)
  5. Word order and syntax are tricky in Yiddish: they’re not like German, English, Hebrew or Russian. Verbs do not always go to the end of the phrase in Yiddish like in German, Dutch or Afrikaans, but there are instances in which some information has to come before the second verb. It’s difficult to pin rules onto this, as there is much variation between different dialects, but it is something that you just have to learn to ‘feel’. Here are four examples and sample sentences:

.ער גייט אַרײַן אין שטוב און זעט זײַן פֿרוי און זײַנע קינדערלעךEr geyt arayn in shtub un zet zayn froy un zayne kinderlekh.
He goes into the house and sees his wife and children.

.אין דער פֿרי האָט דאָס מיידל זיך אויפֿגעכאַפּט און געטראַכט וועגן איר פֿרײַנדIn der fri hot dos meydl zikh ufgekhapt un getrakht vegn ir fraynd.
In the morning the girl woke up and thought about her friend.

מיר זענען געפֿאָרן קיין ניו-יאָרק מיט דער באַנ, אָבער מיר האָבן געװאָלט צוריקקומען מיטן אויטאָMir zenen geforn keyn nyu-york mit der ban, ober mir hobn gevolt tsurikkumen mitn oyto.
We went to New York by train, but we wanted to come back by car.

.איך האָב אים געזען אין גאַס, אָבער ער האָט מיר גאָרניט ניט געזאָגטIkh hob im gezen in gas, ober er hot mir gornit nit gezogt.
I saw him in the street, but he didn’t say anything to me.

For a more detailed grammar overview, this article on Wikipedia is very thorough and up to date.

Between German and Russian

If you have any experience studying German or Russian (or any Slavic and Germanic languages in fact) you will probably start to notice some interesting parallels. Due to Yiddish’s complicated history, it was greatly influenced both by Germanic and Slavic languages, as well as containing some Latinate words. This is what often leads German speakers to misunderstand what is being said. Yiddish incorporates many Slavic concepts with Germanic vocabulary which – as a language learner – are great fun to try and decipher. Here are a couple to give you an idea:

(ibershráybn zikh) איבערשרײַבן זיך

To a German speaker this might sound like “überschreiben sich”, which means “to override oneself”. This won’t really make much sense, especially in context:

.מײַן שװעסטער װעט פֿאָרן קיין אַמעריקע און דערנאָך װעלן מיר זיך נאָך איבערשרײַבן
(Mayn shvester vet forn keyn Amerike un dernokh veln mir zikh nokh ibershraybn.)

You might try and put this into German as: “Meine Schwester wird nach Amerika fahren und dannach werden wir uns noch überschreiben” but this sentence is fairly meaningless. To understand what זיך איבערשרײַבן means we have to look across to Russian. The Yiddish is a literal translation of the Russian expression переписаться, which means ‘to have a correspondence with someone’. In Russian this word is formed from the root verb ‘писать’ meaning ‘to write’, with the prefix ‘пере-‘ which is used to mean crossing or doing something back (like calling someone back), and then all of this is made reflexive in order to convey the idea of a repeated action between two people. In Yiddish therefore the prefix ‘iber‘ is added (like German ‘über’ and Dutch ‘over’) to the verb to write ‘shraybn‘ (DE ‘schreiben’ / NL ‘schrijven’), and this is made reflexive by ‘zikh‘ (DE ‘sich’ / NL ‘zich’). So the sentence actually means: “My sister is going to America, and afterwards we will still write to each other.”

And there you have it: in Yiddish we can express Slavic concepts with Germanic words!

What is ‘loshn koydesh’?

Loshn koidesh means ‘holy language’, and it is the term used for words in Yiddish that are directly derived from Hebrew and Aramaic. These words often refer to religious things, but in standard YIVO Yiddish they can be used for ordinary things as well. Unless you’re a fluent Hebrew speaker, this is one of the hardest aspects of learning Yiddish. These words all retain their original non-phonetic spelling, and are often pronounced very differently to how they are in Modern Hebrew. For example:

sabbath – shabat (Hebrew) / shabes (Yiddish) – שבת
family – mishpakhah (Hebrew) / mishpokhe (Yiddish) – משפּחה
face – panim (Hebrew) / ponim (Yiddish) – פּנים
memoires – zikhronot (Hebrew) / zikhroynes (Yiddish) – זכרונות
story – maaseh (Hebrew) / mayse (Yiddish) – מעשה

Some Yiddish words are derived from loshn koidesh roots but with Germanic and Slavic inflections. For example:

dream – khalom (Hebrew) / kholem (Yiddish) – חלום
dreaminess – farkholemtkeyt – פֿאַרחלומטקײט

Here the prefix ‘far-‘ works much like German ‘ver-‘, and suffix ‘-keyt‘ like German ‘-keit’, although the root of the word is of non-German origin. See also:

thief – ganav (Hebrew) / ganev (Yiddish) – גנבֿ
to sneak in (lit. to thieve into somewhere) – araynganvenen zikh – אַרײַנגנבֿנען זיך

How to use Yiddish

Unfortunately, unless you’re part of a Jewish community, you may get very few chances to actually use Yiddish in your day-to-day life, but you can still use it to access a wealth of European Jewish culture.

Sholem Aleichem, 1907

Sholem Aleichem, 1907

Many of the courses and materials available for learning Yiddish are geared towards developing reading proficiency. The literature written in Yiddish is a delight for anyone who has put the hours in studying the language. Some Yiddish stories are extremely popular in translation, such as Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman (adapted to become the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof). Many Yiddish books are available for free online at the Yiddish Book Centre.

And of coures, learning Yiddish is a great excuse to listen to some more klezmer music. When I hear this music, all I can hear is Yiddish, even if it is without words. The sound is so distinctive, influenced as well by so many other different styles, that it could only have come from the Jewish people. There is so much Yiddish music available now on YouTube, and particularly in Israel there are many Yiddish singers, young and old, who remain popular to this day. Here are a few samples:

So why choose to learn Yiddish?

If you’ve got this far and you’re still not convinced, I’m going to hand over to the Yiddish specialist Dr. Barbara Henry of the University of Washington. In this fantastic speech, she explains that in fact she didn’t choose Yiddish: Yiddish chose her. I love this clip, and it was a great inspiration for me when planning my own talk about Yiddish in Budapest.

Useful links for finding out more

  1. “The Yiddish Daily Forwards” – Yiddish language newspaper based in New York with videos and resources about Yiddish designed for people learning it.
  2. “Dos Yidishe Kol” – Boston-based Yiddish radio station and also a shop selling Yiddish books and textbooks (very reliable international shipping as well!)
  3. “Colloquial Yiddish” – This is brand new in the series, and is a great introduction to learning to speak the language.
  4. Sheva Zucker – Author of two great elementary and intermediate textbooks which I have been using in my classes to learn Yiddish.
  5. Yugnt Ruf – US-based Yiddish youth group, organisers of the yearly ‘Yidish vokh’ summer camp.
  6. Der Tam Tam – Produced at the Medem institute in Paris, this is a great publication for students of Yiddish available free online and with relevant vocab lists.
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