Latin is a dead language — English is a living language. But other languages are a bit more difficult to categorize. How can we categorize Yiddish? And who speaks Yiddish? Is it a “surviving” language? Known as język żydowski in Polish, židovske in Czech, and jüdische Sprache in Austria (literally “Jewish language”), Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe starting in the Middle Ages.
The Origins Of Yiddish
As an Indo-European language in the Germanic family, Yiddish has long been a source of interest for linguists and historians. Its history is in many ways the history of the Jews, marked by migration and contact with different cultures. German had the greatest influence on the language and its development into modern Yiddish. But over the centuries, Yiddish grammar and vocabulary were also shaped by Semitic (Hebrew and Aramaic), Slavic (Russian and Polish), and even Romance languages.
Yiddish originated in the 13th century. Its roots can be traced to Germany around the modern cities of Cologne, Trier and Mainz. Various German dialects influenced how the Jewish diaspora in the Germanic regions of Northern Europe spoke. Jewish migration from the 14th century toward Central Europe (Poland and Bohemia-Moravia) also changed the language. It was at this time that Slavic influences were integrated, marking the distinction between Alt Yiddish (Old Yiddish) and Mittl Yiddish (Middle Yiddish). Naï Yiddish (Modern Yiddish) appeared in the 17th century. Today, written Yiddish uses either the Hebrew or the Latin alphabet.
Who Speaks Yiddish?
Up until 1945, Yiddish had 11 million speakers, with more than one-third in the Soviet Union alone. 75 years after the khurbn (חורבן, or destruction), the Yiddish word for the Holocaust, it’s estimated that there are between 1 and 2 millions speakers, with 30,000 in the UK and 175,000 in the US and Canada. Haredi communities of orthodox Jews have the highest concentration of Yiddish speakers. Although the history of this language was focused in Europe for many centuries, today the most active speakers can be found in North America. One hour north of New York, the city of Kiryas Joel (קרית יואל), population 20,000, has 15,000 native Yiddish speakers.
Yiddish Or Yiddishes?
With its multiple origins and recent history, Yiddish is considerably fragmented and has numerous dialects. In Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Alsace, it’s the western dialect. In Eastern Europe, the eastern dialect is more widespread.
Yiddish In The Soviet Union
3.5 million Russians spoke Yiddish until 1945. In the 1920s, dozens of newspapers and thousands of books in Yiddish were published in the Soviet Union. At the same time, the language was recognized as one of the four official languages of the Belarussian Soviet Republic, alongside Russian, Belarussian and Polish.
Then Stalin decided to create the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The goal of this territory in Russia’s Far East, almost 5,000 miles from Moscow, was to fight rising antisemitism. Alongside Israel, it’s one of two Jewish territories that still exists today. But the populousness of this remote Russian region remains limited. The religious community has rarely exceeded 30,000 people. Today, it’s ten times less populated.
Although it’s still possible to learn to speak Yiddish in some schools in the region, and the language still enjoys official status, in practice Russian dominates day-to-day communication. However, the capital Birobidzhan (Биробиджан in Russian and ביראָבידזשאַן in Yiddish) has its own claim to fame: It’s located at kilometer 8,351 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad!
The Hebrew Renaissance
The creation of Israel as a state brought with it a modernization of Hebrew. Inevitably, this led to the slow decline of Yiddish. After World War II, Hebrew was considered by most Jews to be the language of the future and the rebirth of their culture. And speaking Yiddish was seen as speaking a forbidden language that represented suffering, the suffering of the past.
Many emigrants from “Yiddishland” in Central and Eastern Europe gradually abandoned their historic language in favor of Hebrew. Today, Yiddish is rarely spoken in Israel, with the exception of some areas, such as the Tel-Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. As for Hebrew, there are 10 million speakers today, almost as many as Yiddish before 1945.
Is Yiddish similar to Hebrew? For someone unfamiliar with both languages, they can sound somewhat similar, but there are many differences. First of all, the languages don’t belong to the same linguistic family. With its proximity to German, Yiddish has grammar rules and vocabulary from multiple languages, which often makes it more difficult to learn than Hebrew.
What Is The Legacy Of Yiddish Today?
Yiddish is included in the UN’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Yiddish could disappear in the coming decades. So what will be left of it? Literature that no one can decipher, songs that no one can understand, poems no one can savor. Art has always played an important role in expanding the use of a language.
In 1935, writer Isaac Baschevis Singer left Europe for the United States. In 1978, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to recognize his works that pay homage to Jewish-Polish traditions. In music, klezmer (from kley, “musical instrument,” and zemer, “melody”) is well-known, with one of the most famous songs titled “My Yiddish Momme” (א יידישע מאמע).
For many years, young Jews, sometimes non-religious, have expressed an interest in this lost culture. This generation didn’t know the Holocaust directly, and while the last survivors gradually disappear, it’s about understanding how the Jewish community lived and communicated before the war.
The desire to understand and not forget is also central to the Maison de la Culture Yiddish (פאריזער יידיש-צענטער־מעדעם ביבליאטעק) in Paris. The death of a language is much more than the disappearance of a few words. It’s the end of a culture.
From the sidewalks in Paris to the cafés of Manhattan with a stop on the beaches of Australia, one Yiddish word in particular is far from disappearing. It’s the famous beygl (בייגל), which gave its name to a small round bread that you can eat savory or sweet. Did you recognize it? That’s right, it’s a bagel!