Yiddish :: Language-genetic affiliation
Yiddish is a continental West Germanic language, closely related to the Franconian varieties of southwest Germany as spoken in and around the Palatinate and Middle Rhine regions. It emerged in the medieval period as an ethnolect of Jews living in the Rhine area, and then spread and was subsequently maintained in dispersed communities as far apart as Hamburg, Prague, and Alexandria in Egypt. Through the influence of Hebrew scriptures and the continuous use of Hebrew as a scholarly and administrative language of Jewish communities, Yiddish absorbed many words of Hebrew origin, which were adapted phonologically into what became known as 'Ashkenazic' (Franco-German) pronunciation. Yiddish was and continues to be written in Hebrew characters. As a result of the expulsion of Jews from Germany around the twelfth century and their emigration eastwards, into Slavic-speaking areas of central Europe, Yiddish gradually became isolated from majority varieties of German and took on an independent development path, absorbing much vocabulary and some structural characteristics from surrounding Slavic languages. It was only in this context that Jews began to refer to their language as 'Yiddish' (= 'Jewish'), while earlier it had been referred to as 'Yiddish-Taitsh' (='Judeo-German'). Nevertheless, in Yiddish linguistics it is common to refer to Yiddish 'proper' (i.e. Yiddish as spoken in central and eastern Europe, contiguous with Slavic languages) as 'East Yiddish', while the Judeo-German varieties of medieval Germany are commonly referred to as 'West Yiddish'.
Yiddish :: Historical distribution Map
East Yiddish was spoken by a population of many millions up until the Holocaust during World War II. There were dense populations of speakers in central Europe (Poland and Hungary), the Baltic countries, and the historical Pale of Settlement in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Romanian-Moldavian border area (Bessarabia). Large populations of speakers emigrated to America and some to western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and there was a continuous presence of small Yiddish-speaking communities in Palestine in pre-Zionist times, from the late eighteenth century onwards. A tendency to abandon Yiddish in favour of the majority language began among parts of the secular urban Jewish population in the late nineteenth century, while the more traditional religious Jewish population especially in rural areas maintained Yiddish, both as a vernacular language and as the informal language of instruction and correspondence (using Hebrew for more formal and scholarly purposes). The secular Jewish workers movement, however, adopted Yiddish as its principal language and supported the emergence of a secular, political and literary Yiddish language movement, first in Poland and subsequently also in Russia and among emigrants in America.
Yiddish :: Present-day distribution
The Nazi genocide during World War II diminished the Yiddish-speaking population in Europe. Survivors in central and eastern Europe as well as those who left Europe in the aftermath of the war usually abandoned the language in communication with their children, favouring the language of the surrounding majority population. In Israel, the sizeable community of survivors and immigrants was encouraged to speak Hebrew rather than Yiddish. Apart from individual elderly survivors in dispersed locations who continue to use Yiddish among themselves, Yiddish survives as a community language only among some of the Orthodox Jewish congregations. The principal centres in which Yiddish is still maintained and acquired by children are the Orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York, London, Antwerp and Manchester.
Yiddish :: Status and endangerment
In the secular sector, Yiddish is highly endangered and has no longer been passed on to children for almost fifty years. Almost all native speakers are elderly. In the Orthodox sector, by contrast, sizeable families are likely to guarantee a gradual growth in the number of speakers. This however is counteracted by pressure from neighbouring monolingual Orthodox communities. In any event, the role of Yiddish within the Orthodox communities is largely limited to that of an oral vernacular and a vehicle of informal communication in institutions and in writing, and no concentrated effort can be expected in these communities to safeguard the future of the language should it continue to loose ground to the respective majority languages.
Yiddish :: General structural characteristics
Yiddish shares most of its basic lexicon and morpho-syntax with German, especially with southwestern Franconian varieties of German. Some Yiddish varieties show reduction of the gender system. In syntax, word order differs from German in having no distinction between main and subordinate clauses, and in placing the non-fiinte main verb (infinitive or participle) immediately after the finite auxiliary (rather than in the final position of the clause). Lexical semantics and the semantics of certain morpho-syntactic constructions such as aspect and aktionsart are often influenced by Slavic languages. Yiddish has a simplified vowel system with no contrast of length and usually no aspiration of voiceless stops.
Yiddish :: Links to other websites
- Jewish Language Research
- Yiddish Dictionary Online
- The Yiddish Voice
- YouTube video of the Beatles "A hard day's night" in Yiddish