The History of Yiddish
Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews
In its 1,000-plus-year history, the Yiddish language has been called many things, including the tender name “Mameloshn” (Mother Tongue).
What is Yiddish?
Yiddish (ייִדיש, יידיש or אידיש, yidish/idish, lit. “Jewish”, pronounced [ˈjɪdɪʃ] [ˈɪdɪʃ]; in older sources ייִדיש-טײַטש Yidish-Taitsh, lit. Judaeo-German) is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. It originated during the 9th century in Central Europe, providing the nascent Ashkenazi community with a High German-based vernacular fused with elements taken from Hebrew and Aramaic as well as from Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. Yiddish is written with a fully vocalized version of the Hebrew alphabet.
Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews.
The earliest surviving references date from the 12th century and call the language לשון־אַשכּנז (loshn-ashknaz, “language of Ashkenaz”) or טײַטש (taytsh), a variant of tiutsch, the contemporary name for Middle High German. Colloquially, the language is sometimes called מאַמע־לשון (Mameloshn, lit. “mother tongue”), distinguishing it from לשון־קודש (loshn koydesh, “holy tongue”), referring to Hebrew and Aramaic. The term “Yiddish”, short for Yidish Taitsh (“Jewish German”), did not become the most frequently used designation in the literature until the 18th century. In the late 19th and into the 20th century the language was more commonly called “Jewish”, especially in non-Jewish contexts, but “Yiddish” is again the more common designation today.
Modern Yiddish has two major forms. Eastern Yiddish is far more common today. It includes Southeastern (Ukrainian–Romanian), Mideastern (Polish–Galician–Eastern Hungarian), and Northeastern (Lithuanian–Belarusian) dialects. Eastern Yiddish differs from Western both by its far greater size and by the extensive inclusion of words of Slavic origin. Western Yiddish is divided into Southwestern (Swiss–Alsatian–Southern German), Midwestern (Central German), and Northwestern (Netherlandic–Northern German) dialects. Yiddish is used in a number of Haredi Jewish communities worldwide; it is the first language of the home, school, and in many social settings among many Haredi Jews, and is used in most Hasidic and many Lithuanian yeshivas.
The term “Yiddish” is also used in the adjectival sense, synonymously with “Jewish”, to designate attributes of Yiddishkeit (“Ashkenazi culture”; for example, Yiddish cooking and “Yiddish music” – klezmer).
Prior to the Holocaust, there were 11–13 million speakers of Yiddish among 17 million Jews worldwide. 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, leading to a massive decline in the use of the language. Assimilation following World War II and aliyah, immigration to Israel, further decreased the use of Yiddish both among survivors and among Yiddish-speakers from other countries (such as in the Americas). However, the number of speakers is increasing in Hasidic communities.
The established view is that, as with other Jewish languages, Jews speaking distinct languages learned new co-territorial vernaculars, which they then Judaized. In the case of Yiddish, this scenario sees it as emerging when speakers of Zarphatic and other Judeo-Romance languages began to acquire varieties of Middle High German, and from these groups the Ashkenazi community took shape. Exactly what German base lies behind the earliest form of Yiddish is disputed.
In Weinreich’s model, Jewish speakers of Old French or Old Italian who were literate in either liturgical Hebrew or Aramaic, or both, migrated through Southern Europe to settle in the Rhine Valley in an area known as Lotharingia (later known in Yiddish as Loter) extending over parts of Germany and France; There, they encountered and were influenced by Jewish speakers of High German languages and several other German dialects. Both Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum developed this model further in the mid-1950s. In Weinreich’s view, this Old Yiddish substrate later bifurcated into two distinct versions of the language, Western and Eastern Yiddish. They retained the Semitic vocabulary and constructions needed for religious purposes and created a Judeo-German form of speech, sometimes not accepted as a fully autonomous language.
Later linguistic research has finessed the Weinreich model or provided alternative approaches to the language’s origins, with points of contention being the characterization of its Germanic base, the source of its Hebrew/Aramaic adstrata, and the means and location of this fusion. Some theorists argue that the fusion occurred with a Bavarian dialect base. The two main candidates for the germinal matrix of Yiddish, the Rhineland and Bavaria, are not necessarily incompatible. There may have been parallel developments in the two regions, seeding the Western and Eastern dialects of Modern Yiddish. Dovid Katz proposes that Yiddish emerged from contact between speakers of High German and Aramaic-speaking Jews from the Middle East. The lines of development proposed by the different theories do not necessarily rule out the others (at least not entirely); an article in The Forward argues that “in the end, a new ‘standard theory’ of Yiddish’s origins will probably be based on the work of Weinreich and his challengers alike.”
Paul Wexler proposed a model in 1991 that took Yiddish, by which he means primarily eastern Yiddish, not to be genetically grounded in a Germanic language at all, but rather as “Judeo-Sorbian” (a proposed West Slavic language) that had been relexified by High German. In more recent work, Wexler has argued that Eastern Yiddish is unrelated genetically to Western Yiddish. Wexler’s model has met with little academic support, and strong critical challenges, especially among historical linguists.
By the 10th century, a distinctive Jewish culture had formed in Central Europe which came to be called אַשכּנזי Ashkenazi, “Ashkenazi Jews, from Hebrew: אַשכּנז Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3), the medieval Hebrew name for northern Europe and Germany. Ashkenaz was centered on the Rhineland (Mainz) and the Palatinate (notably Worms and Speyer), in what is now the westernmost part of Germany. Its geographic extent did not coincide with the German principalities of the time, and it included northern France. Ashkenaz bordered on the area inhabited by another distinctive Jewish cultural group, the Sephardi Jews, who ranged into southern France. Ashkenazi culture later spread into Eastern Europe with large-scale population migrations.
Nothing is known with certainty about the vernacular of the earliest Jews in Germany, but several theories have been put forward. The first language of the Ashkenazim may, as noted above, have been the Aramaic language, the vernacular of the Jews in Roman-era Judea and ancient and early medieval Mesopotamia. The widespread use of Aramaic among the large non-Jewish Syrian trading population of the Roman provinces, including those in Europe, would have reinforced the use of Aramaic among Jews engaged in trade. In Roman times, many of the Jews living in Rome and Southern Italy appear to have been Greek-speakers, and this is reflected in some Ashkenazi personal names (e.g., Kalonymos and Yiddish Todres). Hebrew, on the other hand, was regarded as a holy language reserved for ritual and spiritual purposes and not for common use. Much work needs to be done, though, to fully analyze the contributions of those languages to Yiddish.
It is generally accepted that early Yiddish was likely to have contained elements from other languages of the Near East and Europe, absorbed through migrations. Since some settlers may have come via France and Italy, it is also likely that the Romance-based Jewish languages of those regions were represented. Traces remain in the contemporary Yiddish vocabulary: for example, בענטשן (bentshn, “to bless”), ultimately from the Latin benedicere; לייענען (leyenen, “to read”), from the Old French lei(e)re; and the personal names בונים Bunim (related to French bon nom, good name) and Yentl (Old French gentil, “noble”). Western Yiddish includes additional words of ultimate Latin derivation (but still very few): for example, אָרן orn (to pray), cf. Old French “orer”.
The Jewish community in the Rhineland would have encountered the many dialects from which Standard German would emerge a few centuries later. In time, Jewish communities would have been speaking their own versions of these German dialects, mixed with linguistic elements that they themselves brought into the region. Although not reflected in the spoken language, a main point of difference was the use of the Hebrew alphabet for the recording of the Germanic vernacular, which may have been adopted either because of the community’s familiarity with the alphabet or to prevent the non-Jewish population from understanding the correspondence. In addition, there was probably widespread illiteracy in the non-Hebrew script, with the level of illiteracy in the non-Jewish communities being even higher. Another point of difference was the use of Hebrew and Aramaic words. These words and terms were used because of their familiarity, but more so because in most cases there were no equivalent terms in the vernacular which could express the Jewish concepts or describe the objects of cultural significance.
In the early 20th century, especially after the Socialist October Revolution in Russia, Yiddish was emerging as a major Eastern European language. Its rich literature was more widely published than ever, Yiddish theatre and Yiddish cinema were booming, and it for a time achieved status as one of the official languages of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the short-lived Galician Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Educational autonomy for Jews in several countries (notably Poland) after World War I led to an increase in formal Yiddish-language education, more uniform orthography, and to the 1925 founding of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO. In Vilnius, there was debate over which language should take primacy, Hebrew or Yiddish.
Yiddish changed significantly during the 20th century. Michael Wex writes, “As increasing numbers of Yiddish speakers moved from the Slavic-speaking East to Western Europe and the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were so quick to jettison Slavic vocabulary that the most prominent Yiddish writers of the time—the founders of modern Yiddish literature, who were still living in Slavic-speaking countries—revised the printed editions of their oeuvres to eliminate obsolete and ‘unnecessary’ Slavisms.” The vocabulary used in Israel absorbed many Modern Hebrew words, and there was a similar but smaller increase in the English component of Yiddish in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. This has resulted in some difficulty in communication between Yiddish speakers from Israel and those from other countries.