What is the Yiddish Language?

One of the most curious languages in the world, Yiddish, is the language spoken by the Jewish people practically all over the world. Before World War II eight million Jews spoke or at least understood Yiddish.

But isn't Hebrew, the ancient language of the Old Testament, the language of the Jewish people? The answer is yes. Hebrew is the language of scholars, of religion, of much of the great literature, and in Israel today, of the people, too. There are many Hebrew scholars who consider Yiddish only a dialect spoken by the non-educated classes.

The fact is, Yiddish originally developed in Germany. About a thousand years ago, many Jews from France and northern Italy began to settle in western Germany. As happens whenever languages mix (the German they found and the French and Italian they brought with them), a new dialect or language began to develop, and this became Yiddish. This word, by the way, comes from the German Judisch.

After the fourteenth century, many Jews migrated to Poland and nearby countries. In these new places they developed variations on Yiddish to include the local languages. And those who remained in Germany developed Yiddish to its highest form.

Yiddish is written with Hebrew characters, and many of its words are derived from Hebrew, but many are quite different. A curious thing about its development is that for a long time it was chiefly used by women. This was because among the Jews only the men used to be scholars, and they studied Hebrew. So Yiddish came to be called the "mother's tongue".

Probably no other language uses the words of the local country as much as Yiddish does. For example, most people who speak Yiddish will say the English words for "carpet", "hat", "floor", "dress" and so on. But in the United States, particularly, many non-Jews use Yiddish words: for example, "schmaltz" meaning excessive sentimentality.

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