Four facts that will change the way you look at Yiddish

Four facts that will change the way you look at Yiddish

Yiddish is most definitely not a dead/dying language.

First and foremost, let’s debunk the biggest myth about Yiddish: that the language died along with the six million of the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust devastated traditional Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi society and hollowed out the shtetls and cities in which the language was spoken, Hitler did not succeed in removing Europe’s home-grown Jewish language from the earth. Yiddish survives, and not just in the form of colourful words that made their way into Hebrew and English, but as the full, natively-spoken language of hundreds of thousands of people, most notably Hasidic Jews in the USA and Israel (but also in many other Hasidic corners of the world, such as London’s Stamford Hill). As the native language of hundreds of thousands of souls within the Jewish world’s fastest-growing communities, Yiddish is very much alive and well. Eminent linguist Dovid Katz writes that Yiddish is ‘100% safe for centuries to come’ as a ‘virile written and spoken language’ in Hasidic communities, based on current sociolinguistic and demographic trends.

So, reports of the death of Yiddish have been greatly exaggerated. And as a great Yiddish writer reminds us, for two thousand years, Hebrew was called a dead language too.

2) Yiddish is not just broken German. Yiddish is not just broken Hebrew.

Yiddish, like English, is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. In terms of the way it sounds and the way it’s structured, it bears a great resemblance to German (and indeed, most estimates place the percentage of Yiddish words with German origins at over 60%). However, despite sounding somewhat like a German dialect, there’s more to the story of Yiddish.

Yiddish, like almost every ‘Jewish language’ in history is, and has always been, written in Hebrew script. It is also has an incredibly rich vein of Hebrew words running through it (up to 20% of all Yiddish words), allowing for witty wordplay based on switching between its Germanic and Hebrew stock of words (ayer, recognisable to German speakers as ‘eggs’ means, unsurprisingly, ‘eggs’. Beytsim, the Hebrew for ‘eggs’, is, in Yiddish, a rather impolite word for testicles.)

If being a mongrel mix of several languages’ words on top of a German structure makes a language ‘broken German’, then English is broken German too. Many of our perceptions of Yiddish stem from our perceptions of shtetl Jews, as an unrefined and uncultured. When we take a look at the language, and indeed when we take a look at the multilingual Jews of the shtetl themselves, this turns out to be far from the truth.

3) Yiddish was spoken in a lot more countries than you might think, for a lot longer than you might think.

Yiddish has been around for a really, really long time. Early written records date from the late 13th century, and so we can assume the language has been spoken since at least the 1200s and probably earlier. European speakers of Yiddish today are therefore the descendants of an unbroken chain of Yiddish speakers in Europe that stretches back 800 years – a bitter tragedy of the Holocaust was the uprooting of much of a culture that had deep roots in European soil.

Yiddish was also spoken over a truly massive geographical area – the only language in history to have been spoken over a larger geographic area of Europe is Russian. For scale: this means Yiddish was spoken over more of Europe than Latin was during the height of the Roman Empire. From as far as France in the west to Russia in the east, and from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south, Yiddish had an unfathomably wide geographical reach, and several distinct dialects to go with it, many of which survive in modern Yiddish.

4) Most significantly of all – it’s seriously important that we care about Yiddish.

Yiddish is alive, is a fully-fledged and respectable language, and has a broad and rich pedigree. So what?

All of that matters because there’s a huge treasure trove of Yiddish culture that, Fiddler on the Roof aside, modern non-Hasidic Jewry is in the process of forgetting about. We have brilliant music, an incredibly rich literature including a Nobel laureate in the field, and 800 years’ worth of Jewish thought that mainstream Jewish society is, for the most part, not interested in.

Read an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or delve into Yiddish music, or follow Not just because Yiddish culture is part of our collective Jewish heritage (although it is) or because reviving the civilisation of the shtetl is a small act of rebellion against those who sought to destroy it (although it is), but because it is valuable and beautiful in its own right. Kol zman dos kleyntshike likhtele brent, ken men nokh farikhten – as long as a small light burns, it’s not too late to set everything right.

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