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date: 29 February 2024

Yiddishfree

Yiddishfree

  • Lea Schäfer

Summary

The Yiddish language is directly linked to the culture and destiny of the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. It originated as the everyday language of the Jewish population in the German-speaking lands around the Middle Ages and underwent a series of developments until the Shoah, which took a particularly large toll on the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish population. Today, Yiddish is spoken as a mother tongue almost exclusively in ultra-Orthodox communities, where it is now exposed to entirely new influences and is, thus, far from being a dead language.

After an introductory sketch, information on the geographical distribution and number of speakers as well as key historical developments are briefly summarized. Particularly important are the descriptions of the various sociolinguistic situations and the source situation. This is followed by a description of various (failed) attempts at standardization, as well as the geographical distribution and surveys of the dialects. The following section describes the status of Yiddish in the early 21st century, which overlaps with the sociolinguistic situation of Orthodox Yiddish. Finally, the linguistic features of modern Eastern Yiddish (dialects, standard, and Orthodox) are presented. In this context, linguistic levels and structures in which Yiddish differs from other (standard) Germanic languages are also discussed. Since Yiddish, as a language derived from Middle High German, is particularly close to German varieties, the differences and similarities between the two languages are particularly emphasized.

Subjects

  • Historical Linguistics
  • Language Families/Areas/Contact
  • Morphology
  • Phonetics/Phonology
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Syntax

1. Main Characteristics

1.1 Introduction

Yiddish originated as a minority language of the Ashkenazic Jews in the High German language area. Different contact languages (especially the German, Slavic, Semitic, and Romance varieties) have influenced Yiddish in different ways; these varieties are often called component languages. The name “Ashkenazic” is derived from the biblical toponym Ashkenaz. Jews began to use it to refer to the geographical area of the German-speaking lands. The term was subsequently adopted by Jews who settled in the region, who began to use it to refer to themselves and retained it even after they left the German-speaking territories. The Ashkenazim form the largest ethno-religious group in Judaism in the early 21st century. Thus, even though not all members of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) milieu speak Yiddish, Ashkenazi culture and cultus are still very present in modern Judaism.

Since in Judaism, literacy was acquired through the study of religious texts, Yiddish was from the beginning written in the Hebrew alphabet.1 This clearly distinguishes it from the other Germanic languages. Although Yiddish is the language most closely related to High German, it is often excluded from comparison with other Germanic languages because of the graphematic barrier.

To overcome this obstacle, there are two established transliteration systems: For modern Eastern Yiddish, there are the transliteration guidelines of the YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, Yiddish Scientific Institute), which have been in use since 1936 and which are strongly oriented toward English orthography in order to facilitate pronunciation for English speakers.2 For older Yiddish, the Trier system has been developed, which represents a 1:1 assignment of graphemes and phonemes (see the overview in Timm, 1987, p. 598).

The article is structured as follows: A brief introduction outlines the main general and sociolinguistic features of Yiddish, especially in terms of geographical distribution and the number of speakers. Then, basic historical developments (periodization, origin and dialectal developments, dialects, and standardization) are presented. The last section focuses on the sociolinguistic situation and selected grammatical structures (divided into phonological/phonetic and morphological/syntactic phenomena) of Eastern Yiddish varieties in the 20th and 21st centuries. The conclusion embeds Yiddish in the context of the Germanic languages.

1.2 Geographical Areas

Yiddish was once “a vast linguistic continuum, the largest European speech area next to Russian” (Weinreich, 1962, p. 7). At the height of its geographical extent, between the late 16th and early 19th centuries, the Yiddish language area encompassed a number of distinct contact languages (Figure 1).

Due to repeated, devastating pogroms and the resulting migration, which introduced new contact languages into the area, Yiddish has undergone many changes since its emergence around the 9th or 10th century. The most important changes came in the wake of migration to the Eastern European, predominantly Slavic-speaking area in the 16th century and increased immigration to the United States and Palestine from the 19th century onward, which intensified contact with English and later with Modern Hebrew. The Western Yiddish dialects were also shaped by contact with various High, Middle, Low German, and—after the mid-17th century—Dutch varieties. However, the genocide of the European Jews under fascism and Stalinism in the 20th century destroyed the former language and cultural area and put a sudden stop to the contact with Slavic and Continental West Germanic languages.

Today, Yiddish has contact with Continental West Germanic varieties only in the Haredi ultra-Orthodox communities of Antwerp and, rarely, in the much smaller communities in Zurich and Vienna (Wodziński, 2018).

Figure 1. The historical Yiddish language area with dialect regions based on distance measurements of Schäfer (2022a).3

1.3 Number of Speakers

There are only very vague estimates as to the number of Yiddish speakers. Birnbaum (1918) estimated their number at up to 12 million in the early 20th century. These were distributed between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (over 7 million), Austria-Hungary (up to 2 million), Romania (over 250,000), the United States (over 2 million), Great Britain (250,000), and Palestine, Argentina, and Canada (about 100,000 each). The rest lived in the capitals of Europe and South Africa. Of the approximately 6 million people of the Jewish denomination murdered during the Holocaust, the majority spoke Yiddish. Falkovič (1966, p. 599) provides the figure of 4 million speakers for the postwar period. Since then, this number has grown, as Yiddish is acquired almost exclusively in the ultra-Orthodox milieu, a group with an above-average birth rate (between 2017 and 2019 ultra-Orthodox women had an average of 7 children compared to 3 in the general population of Israel; Malach & Cahaner, 2021).

Fishman (2007), in a rough estimate, puts the number of active and passive speakers of Yiddish at about 1.5 million. But the number of speakers who actively use Yiddish in everyday life is much smaller: Studies conducted around the turn of the 21st century place the number of Yiddish speakers at about half a million—most of them in the Haredi community (Fishman, 2007; Glinert, 1999, p. 3; Katz, 2007, pp. 387–388; Schaechter, 1999).

2. Historical Developments

2.1 Periodization

Like every language, Yiddish is influenced by different heritage and contact languages. In the case of Yiddish, the most important contact languages are other High German and Slavic varieties, while Hebrew-Aramaic and older French and Italian varieties were brought to the new countries of migration. The common periodization of Yiddish is based on the different contact languages, including the intensity of the contacts, and as in the periodization of German, both internal and external factors are considered.

Stages of Yiddish language history (after Weinreich, 1973/2008)

Demarcation criterion

Early Yiddish (9th/10th century–1250)

No direct evidence but a documented Jewish presence in the German-speaking area

Old Yiddish (1250–1500)

So-called New High German diphthongization/monophthongization

Middle Yiddish (1500–1700/1750)

Growing divergence of German and Yiddish; emergence of Eastern Yiddish dialects

Modern Yiddish (since 1750)

Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah); decline of Western Yiddish and rise of Eastern Yiddish literature

It will be necessary to introduce a separate language stage after 1945 for the dialects spoken in the ultra-Orthodox milieu.

2.2 Origin and Historical Developments

Yiddish is one of many Jewish languages that arose in the Jewish diaspora. Wexler (1987, pp. 6–8) distinguishes between the following:

Jewish languages: languages spoken to an equal extent by Jews and non-Jews. Unlike non-Jewish speakers, Jewish speakers incorporate words from heritage languages (Hebrew-Aramaic or Yiddish); examples include Jinglish and Judeo-German.

Judeo-x calque languages: written varieties that were understood across regions but never represented independent languages; examples include the language used in Bible translations for Middle Yiddish texts.

Judaicized languages: languages spoken only by the Jewish population but understood by other speaker groups; examples include Western Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic, Knaan, and Judeo-Romance languages.

Judeo languages: autonomous Jewish languages that are understood and spoken only within the group; examples include Eastern Yiddish and Hebrew.

Over the course of its linguistic history, Yiddish has passed through these different types in various ways. The beginnings of Yiddish are probably to be understood as having constituted a Jewish-language: The Jews immigrating to the German-speaking area learned the respective co-territorial German variety and spoke it mixed with lexemes of the heritage languages they brought with them. Later, with the formation of a larger, coherent Jewish community in the German-speaking area, early Western Yiddish developed from this as a Judaicized language. With the emergence of a distinct written language (especially in the wake of Luther's German translation of the Bible; cf. Timm, 2005) in early New High German, a Judeo-x calque-language emerged, from which, with the settlement in predominantly Slavic linguistic areas, a Judeo-language evolved in the form of Eastern Yiddish.

The origins of Yiddish have always been disputed. The two hypotheses regarding the origin of Yiddish are predominantly based on the fact that settlements in German-speaking areas existed at the time of the first language contact with High German as a donor language. In general, it is important to know that while at no time did spoken Yiddish fully correspond to any spoken German variety or dialect, it does show certain structures typical of German varieties. In the words of Max Weinreich,

a) “No single Yiddish dialect corresponds to any particular German dialect, but the Yiddish [language] is a clarification event for itself.”4 b) “Most of the characteristics of the individual Yiddish dialect occur (in the same or different distribution) also on German linguistic territory.”5

The so-called Rhine Hypothesis, as first proposed by Max Weinreich (1973/2008), was developed with reference to the first settlement of Jews in the German-speaking area in the so-called SHUM cities.6 The Jewish communities along the Rhine were established during the 10th century at the latest. These early settlers brought with them Judeo-Romance varieties (especially Judeo-Italian and Judeo-French). The Romance heritage languages can explain the few Romanisms found in Yiddish, such as orn ‘to pray’ < Old French/Italian orare ‘to pray’ or milgroym ‘pomegranate’, pronounced milgrana in Venetian and Old Occitan (Aslanov, 2013). Western Yiddish has quite a few more Romanisms than later Eastern Yiddish. Starting from the Rhineland, the Jewish communities expanded further into the German-speaking countries. From the beginning of the 13th century, and especially during the persecution of the Jews during the Black Death (1348–1351), Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in predominantly Slavic language areas (first Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland; later Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine; still later Latvia, Estonia, and Russia). There, they also came into contact with a Slavic-speaking Jewish population (Beider, 2004, p. 195). Through contact with Slavic languages, the Eastern Yiddish dialects emerged.

The Danube Hypothesis is based on the assumption that the early Jews in the Rhineland kept their Judeo-Romanic varieties and that the change to German took place with later settlers during the 10th or 11th centuries in the Danube region (especially Regensburg, Nuremberg, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber). This hypothesis builds mainly on findings that Yiddish (especially the Yiddish dialects of the 19th and 20th centuries) share more phonological features with the Bavarian dialects and less with the Rhenish ones (Eggers, 1998; Katz, 1987). In particular, the Eastern Yiddish dialects in the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire share several morphological and syntactic features with Bavarian dialects (King, 1992; Schäfer, 2022b). Besides these Bavarian features, Katz (1987) uses the pronunciation of the Hebrew-Aramaic component as an indication of the origin of Yiddish in the Danube region.

One difference between the dialects of the Jews from the Rhineland and the Danube region manifested itself in their different pronunciation of certain Hebrew letters. The Jews of the Rhineland pronounced the letter Cheth <ח‎> as [ħ] (bnei hes, ‘children of Hes’) while Jews of the Danube region pronounced it as [x] (bnei khes ‘children of Khes’; Katz, 1993; Weinreich, 1957). This suggests that while in the Middle Ages there had been two different pronunciations, the Danube khes pronunciation gradually replaced the Rhineland hes pronunciation. Like the Rhineland Hypothesis, the Danube Hypothesis assumes that Eastern Yiddish emerged in the course of the settlement of the Slavic language area by Jews arriving from the west. These two pronunciation conventions of Hebrew already suggest that the origin of Yiddish is more polygenetic than monogenetic, since these differences in the tradition of Hebrew pronunciation indicate that there were two separate Jewish settlements in the German-speaking area, in which two different varieties of Judeo-German developed.

Besides the archaeological evidence of an early Jewish settlement in the Rhineland, an additional feature speaks for a Central German origin of Yiddish: consonantism. All Yiddish varieties reflect all the changes caused by the High German consonant shift. An exception to this tendency is the Germanic intervocalic -pp- (Yiddish epl ‘apple’), which resembles the Central German varieties. If Yiddish originated in the Danube area, there should be evidence of a Yiddish variety that shifted -pp- > -pf-, just like Upper German.

A general and difficult problem that shapes the theories of origin is the question of when Judeo-German ends and Yiddish begins. Early evidence of such a Germanic Jewish language is rare. The first written Yiddish sources are hardly distinguishable from Late Middle High German or Early New High German ones. Often, only the presence of Hebrew letters and the location of the source in Jewish Ashkenazi culture determines whether a grammatically Middle High German text is called “Yiddish.” Some of the earliest evidence for the existence of Yiddish comes from onomastic analyses of the so-called Nuremberg Memorbuch, a book commemorating the dead that was written between 1283 and 1347 and includes a list of Yiddish names of people who died in 1096 (Beider, 2004). Another source from about the same time provides evidence of a Germanic variety spoken by Jews: the Biblical glosses and Talmudic commentaries of the famous Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, or Rashi (1040–1105). Rashi’s writings contain, in addition to over 3,000 glosses in Judeo-French, about 30 glosses in a Germanic language that may be Yiddish. It is assumed that Rashi learned these words during his studies in Mainz and Worms (Timm, 1985). The oldest evidence of an entire Yiddish sentence is an inscription in the so-called Wormser Machzor, a Hebrew holiday prayer book from 1272 or 1273, in which the following Yiddish phrase appears as part of an illustrated Hebrew word:

(1)

Recent excavations in the old city of Cologne have uncovered slate tiles with Hebrew, Yiddish, and even German texts and writing exercises in the debris of a synagogue destroyed in 1349. Of particular interest is a little slate containing a secular literary text that features classical motifs of Middle High German heroic epics. This is the oldest surviving literary evidence of Yiddish. Due to, on one hand, the absence of words from the Hebrew component and, on the other, the presence of West/Central German characteristics, it is impossible to decide whether this slate represents an older stage of Yiddish or a Judeo-German variety (Timm, 2013).

Another, even more extensive Yiddish manuscript, the so-called Cambridge Codex, dated November 9, 1382, is likewise hardly distinguishable from Middle High German. The Cambridge Codex contains a classical Middle High German text in Hebrew letters: the Dukus Horant, a Kudrun poem that is at least 130 years older than the only surviving German manuscript written in the Latin alphabet, the Hildesage section of the Ambraser Heldenbuch (1504–1516/1517). Timm (2013, p. 435) refers to this codex as representing an early stage of a Yiddish literary language and argues that this language, rather than representing Jewish orality, indicates the existence of a (secular) Yiddish fiction already in the early 14th century. Furthermore, this early Yiddish literature is evidence of the existence of a European literary community in which Jews and Christians participated equally. According to Timm, the divergence of Yiddish and German began primarily in the wake of the Reformation and the emergence of the various languages of Bible translation (Timm, 2005).

The ancient connection between Old Yiddish and High German becomes especially clear when one considers the common developments that took place until the 14th century. Relevant developments common to Yiddish and High German include the syncope (MHG gelücke > ENHG Glück, Yid. Glik ‘luck’), the apocope (MHG müede > ENHG müd, Yid. Mid ‘tired’), so-called diphthongization and monophthongization, and vowel lengthening in stressed open syllables (which was again reduced in the Eastern Yiddish dialects in the course of the abandonment of long vowels).

The divergence of Yiddish and German resulted from external, as well as internal, linguistic factors. External factors include the deterioration of the European Jews’ situation from the early 13th century. Accusations of “Hostienschändung” (host desecration), well-poisoning, and ritual murder (mostly at Easter) lead to massacres, executions, and expulsions, forcing the Jewish population into isolation (Stemberger, 2002, p. 124). The pogroms reached a peak during the Black Death (1347–1352). Although pogroms became less frequent from the 15th century, the migration of expelled Jews through Central Europe continued. According to Timm (2005, p. 30), this means that geographical equalization processes between Jewish communities are quite different from those in the non-Jewish environment, due to intra-Jewish speaker and language movements.

Some of these migratory movements do, however, parallel those of German speakers. The Jewish population moved to Slavic areas in the general movements of Eastern colonization (the so-called Ostsiedlung). The new geographical situation also created a new linguistic situation. On one hand, Slavic and Baltic varieties became contact languages; on the other hand, the detachment of Eastern Yiddish from the Western Yiddish dialects led to independent developments. This resulted in the sharp division of Yiddish into two main varieties: Eastern and Western Yiddish. This split was caused by internal developments of (Eastern) Yiddish that favored the divergence from German (and Western Yiddish). These developments included profound changes in word order (like symmetrical V2), the coincidence of strong and weak inflection of the adjective (der yunger hunt ‘the young dog’ vs. a yunger hunt ‘a young dog’; see Timm, 1986, p. 10) and the elimination of the ë-I change and the Umlaut in the present tense (er helft ‘he helps’).

This sharp divergence between the two main varieties is most apparent at the geographical extremes (Northeastern vs. Western-Western Yiddish). Therefore, one would expect the existence of a broad transition zone between Eastern and Western Yiddish, which, however, has so far only been documented in isolated areas, mainly due to a lack of sources that would allow for a perspective on the entire Yiddish dialect continuum (Beranek, 1936, 1965; Garvin, 1965; Hutterer, 1965, 1994; Schäfer, 2013, 2017a, 2019a, 2020b; Weinreich, 1964).

The most obvious influence of the Slavic contact languages (especially Polish and Ukrainian varieties) on the emerging Eastern Yiddish varieties is evident in the lexical field, where, in contrast to Western Yiddish, Slavic loanwords are numerous. Yet Eastern and Western Yiddish differ lexically not only in terms of Slavisms. Moreover, Western Yiddish also contains various Romanisms and Hebraisms that no longer exist in Eastern Yiddish (e.g., EY davnen/tfile ton vs. WY oren < latin orare ‘to pray’, or EY moyd vs. WY bilzel ‘maid’ < old fr. Pucelle, or old it. pucella ‘maid’; WY trendl vs. EY dreydl ‘spinning top’ or WY tfile vs. EY sider ‘prayerbook’).

In addition to lexical borrowing, Eastern Yiddish also reflects grammatical influences from the contact languages (e.g., the interrogative particle tsi, influences on negation and the relative clause; see Fleischer, 2014a, 2014b; van der Auwera & Gybels, 2014). Furthermore, in Eastern Yiddish, which developed in the new language area largely detached from Continental West Germanic, old structures that had become degraded in other Germanic languages were preserved or developed. Examples of these structures include the inflection of proper names and old, established (semantics of) modal verbs (Eggensperger, 2001; Schäfer, 2021b). In a sense, Eastern Yiddish behaves similarly to a language island (cf. Weinreich, 1958).

Besides the contact with Slavic languages, Northeastern Yiddish also reflects the influence of Baltic languages, especially Lithuanian (Lemkhen, 1995; Verschik, 1999). In particular, the disappearance of the neuter gender may constitute a language contact phenomenon; the other Yiddish varieties preserve, like German, a three-gender system.

Besides the changed language contact situation in Eastern Yiddish, it was mainly the isolated situation of Yiddish in the process of standardization of German that, from the 16th century on, separated (Western) Yiddish from German developments. Most of the internal developments that distinguished Yiddish from standardized German also took place in German dialects. The divergence of Yiddish and German is thus due to the divergence of written and spoken language. The social and geographical distance encouraged independent developments in Yiddish. An example is the parallel development of V2 (Yid. az ikh ze dikh nit ‘that I don't see you’, lit. ‘that I see you not’) in Eastern Yiddish, as opposed to the development of a verbal bracket with V-last (NHG dass ich dich nicht sehe ‘that I don't see you’, lit. ‘that I you not see’) in Western Yiddish and New High German (e.g., Santorini, 1989). The emergence of symmetrical V2 in Eastern Yiddish while Western Yiddish developed like German a verbal bracket is one of the most important general changes resulting from the development of Eastern from Western Yiddish and was accompanied by a general tendency in Eastern Yiddish toward the degradation of OV structures. Especially in the generative literature, modern Eastern Yiddish represents a mixed OV–VO, or so-called third type, just like the Slavic languages (Haider, 2020). This basic development in syntax from Middle (Western) Yiddish to Modern Eastern Yiddish was accompanied by tendencies already present in Middle Yiddish, such as PP extraposition or heavy NP shift. Symmetrical V2 also blocks verb projection raising; in turn, Eastern Yiddish features V-to-I movement (Diesing, 1990; Vikner, 2001).

These developments took place even as the Yiddish written language continued to orient itself toward written German and Middle Yiddish traditions. The break with the old writing traditions in the 18th century exposed the difference between written and spoken Yiddish varieties. It was in this century that Eastern Yiddish emerged as a distinct literary language (Kerler, 1999), and the oral variants of Yiddish were documented in writing for the first time (Fleischer, 2018, p. 266; Schäfer, 2017b, 2019b).

2.3 Dialects and Standardization

Grammatical studies on older language stages of Yiddish are still a rare desideratum. Therefore, little is known about older oral or written varieties and dialects. Max Weinreich’s (1973/2008) History of the Yiddish Language is still considered the standard work in this area. Erika Timm (1987, 2005) has carried out fundamental work on the graphemics, phonology, and semantics of older and Middle Yiddish sources. Santorini (1989) has traced a plausible analysis of word order change in the verb phrase from Middle to Modern Eastern Yiddish and compiled an annotated diachronic corpus. Another small but well-annotated corpus emerged from the project Historische Syntax des Jiddischen (Historical Syntax of Yiddish; Lühr, 2014).

Oral varieties of Yiddish were documented between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The Western Yiddish dialects of that period were strongly influenced by the surrounding German and Dutch varieties (Beem, 1954; Fleischer, 2005; Reershemius, 2007; Schäfer, 2013, 2014, 2017a, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c).

Although the Eastern Yiddish written tradition did not develop until the 19th century (Kerler, 1999), the Eastern Yiddish dialects are much older, probably originating between 1500 and 1700 (Weinreich, 1973/2008, p. 733). Uriel Weinreich (1971/2007, p. 335) tried to link the development of the Yiddish dialects with the settlement history of the Eastern Yiddish language area, building on the assumption that the structural differences of the three main dialect areas are mainly based on historical, political boundaries. Thus, the Eastern Yiddish dialects can be divided into two main areas (Northeast vs. West and Southeast), which correspond to the historical border between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the early 17th century. A further structural division is found between the western, so-called Mid-Eastern and Southeastern dialects, which, in turn, corresponds to the 1815 border of the Russian Empire (Schäfer, 2022a).

Along with the Low German dialects, Western Yiddish was one of the first victims of the advancing standardization of spoken German in the 19th and 20th centuries. The death of Western Yiddish is often attributed to Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Tanakh into Standard German written in the Hebrew alphabet (1780–1783) and his attitude toward Yiddish as an improper sociolect (e.g., Mieses, 1979, pp. 113–114; Pierer/Löbe, 1860, p. 159). This must be understood as a narrative analogous to the assumed influence of Luther’s translation of the Bible on the standardization of German (Besch, 1999). In fact, however, the processes of Yiddish language death in the German-speaking world are far more complex (Weinreich, 1923, pp. 20–32) and require detailed social-historical investigation. The available material on Western Yiddish suggests a gradual decline, varying from region to region, over the course of the 18th to the 20th centuries (Guggenheim-Grünberg, 1973; Roemer, 2002; Schäfer, 2017b, 2019b). There are no speakers of Western Yiddish in the 21st century.

A structural classification of the (late) Western Yiddish dialects is therefore possible mainly based on the various interferences with the co-territorial German dialects (Katz, 1983). Katz distinguishes between “Southwestern Yiddish” (≈ Upper German), “Central-Western Yiddish” (≈ Central German), and “Northwestern Yiddish” (≈ Low German). There are also a few lexical peculiarities that indicate an east–west division (mostly along the Elbe line) between the Western Yiddish dialects (Guggenheim-Grünberg, 1973). While this division is rooted in the history of Jewish settlement in the region, it was also shaped by the return migration of Eastern Yiddish speakers and by intra-Yiddish language contact.

The special proximity and mutual intelligibility of (oral) High German and Western Yiddish have led scholars to perceive Western Yiddish as a German ethnolect (more than Eastern Yiddish). The structural closeness between Yiddish and High German, which made it difficult to distinguish between the two languages already with the first transmission, is also reflected in the names used to designate the language. The term Yiddish, which refers primarily to Eastern Yiddish, was first used in the late 19th century and became a linguistic term in the 20th century. Before that, terms such as Jüdisch, Jüdisch-Deutsch, Juden-Teutsch, Judeo-German, Hebraisch-Teutsch, or simply Jargon were common. In the 20th century, speakers themselves referred to their language mostly as daytsh—literally, ‘German’—or simply mame-loshn, literally ‘mother tongue’ (Fleischer, 2018; Jacobs, 2005, pp. 52–55).

The struggle for identity became especially important for the Eastern Yiddish intelligentsia of the late 19th century, when, in the course of the national language movement of Central and Eastern European languages, Yiddish also became increasingly associated with the idea of a Jewish nation (Peretz, 1931, p. 76). Yiddish was briefly considered as a potential official language for the new state of Israel but was soon discarded in favor of Hebrew (Peretz, 1931). The Yiddish language community subsequently defined itself as “Yiddishland,” a global community without a geographic territory (Shandler, 2006). First attempts at linguistic standardization were made from 1915 onward. In the beginning of Yiddish standardization, German (daytshmerish) was used partly as a model—a tendency that quickly provoked a backlash.

YIVO, founded 1925 during a conference in Berlin and subsequently established in the later years in Vilnius, became the de facto academy of the Yiddish language. In addition to philological research, it strongly supported standardization. The watchword kulturshprakh (language of [high] culture) and the slogan vos vayter fun daytsh (the further [possible] from German) became ideological rallying cries, reflecting a strong self-confidence and will to assert the Yiddish language against other national languages. As Roman Jakobson observed in 1949,

Under conditions of diaspora, a rigorously unified standard is even a much more vital premise for the being and development of a cultural language than it is in a closely knit speech community. There cannot be approximate knowledge of a literary language for its users. Full mastery or illiteracy—tertium non datur. (pp. 7–8)

The slogan vos vayter fun daytsh was identified with efforts to eliminate structures in standard Yiddish that could be perceived as German. In this way, the structural closeness between Yiddish and High German was artificially broken, and the influence of Standard German, as a prestigious language, was halted.7

Although the development of YIVO Standard Yiddish constituted an attempt to achieve a symbiosis of all Eastern Yiddish dialects, it was strongly oriented toward the Northeastern Yiddish dialects and neglected structures characteristic of the Southern and Western dialects of Eastern Yiddish, especially structures reminiscent of German. This is the main reason why most native speakers of Yiddish of the early 21st century do not use YIVO Standard Yiddish as a point of orientation: Most members of ultra-Orthodox communities speak primarily Central or Southeastern Yiddish. Today, the role of Standard Yiddish is confined almost exclusively to second-language (L2) acquisition. With his textbook for L2 acquisition, U. Weinreich (1949) created a reference work still oriented toward YIVO Standard Yiddish. Yet no naturalization of the standard (in the sense of its acquisition as a native language) has taken place.

A highly politicalized language reform was carried out in the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of Soviet Yiddish is its orthography, known as sovetisher oysleyg, pertains especially to the lexemes from the Hebrew component. Usually, Yiddish employs an etymological spelling of Hebrew words. In Soviet orthography, however, Hebraisms are written like the lexemes of the Germanic, Slavic, and Romance components, for example, Soviet Yid. מישאָפּכע‎ versus YIVO Yid. משפּחהmishpokhe ‘family’. Such phonetization is referred to as naturalization. Additionally, Soviet orthography does not use special letters for some consonants at the end of a word as common in Hebrew (and Arabic) alphabets, such as ם‎-, ך‎-, ן‎-, ץ‎-, for example, Soviet Yid. קומ‎ versus YIVO Yid. קוםkum ‘come’. While this practice leads to simplification and unification, it also constitutes a de-sacralization of the Hebrew component. This orthographic system became obsolete following the collapse of the Soviet Union (for more on Soviet Yiddish, see Estraikh, 1999; on the development of Yiddish orthography, see Shtif, 1928).

These standard orthographies play hardly any role in contemporary ultra-Orthodox Yiddish. Instead, nonstandard systems are used, which are based on older orthographic conventions of the 18th and 19th centuries, which are, in turn, based on German orthography (e.g., the use of the lengthening ה‎/h; see Assouline, 2018, p. 480; Kamoshida, 2009; Krogh, 2014).

In the course of these efforts to standardize Yiddish and, above all, foster awareness of its status as a cultural language, several Yiddish grammars were published in the 20th century (Birnbaum, 1918, 1979; Falkovič, 1940; Katz, 1987; Mark, 1978; Zaretzki, 1926). Most of these grammars were written in the sense of a prescriptive ideology: Dialectal structures and variation are usually mentioned only peripherally in these works. More recently, there has been an increase in overviews of the grammatical structure that capture grammatical variation (Jacobs, 2005; Jacobs et al., 2013; Kahn, 2012), but there is still no comprehensive Yiddish reference grammar.

The condition of dictionaries of standard Yiddish and historical language stages or dialects is correspondingly limited. Joffe and Mark (1961, 1966) and Mark (1971, 1980) edited the first four volumes of the Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh (Great dictionary of the Yiddish language) which, however, cover only the letter ‘aleph’. U. Weinreich’s (1968) rather small English–Yiddish dictionary is therefore still considered the standard reference. Yet Weinreich’s work does not reflect the current state of research. Niborski et al. (2011) and Schaechter-Viswanath et al. (2021) cover a broader and more current spectrum. Walter Röll and later Simon Neuberg endeavored to compile a dictionary of older Yiddish. For late Western Yiddish in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are isolated word lists that summarize regional variants (Guggenheim-Grünberg, 1976; Weill, 1920a, 1920b, 1920c, 1921; Weinberg, 1969/1973, 1994). Additionally, there are some collections of idioms from late Western Yiddish (Frank, 1962/2021; Tendlau, 1860; Zivy, 1966). Post (1992), Stern (2000), and Klepsch (2004) provide compilations of Yiddish lexemes found in High German dialects.

The first and last attempt to survey the original linguistic conditions in the entire linguistic area of Yiddish was initiated by the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ), founded by Uriel Weinreich. Between 1959 and 1972, more than 5,700 hours of sound recordings were collected in the United States (primarily New York), Israel, Alsace, Canada, and Mexico. The study was based on a 247-page questionnaire, which made possible a survey of the dialectal structures of the original Yiddish language area from a spatial and temporal distance based on the birthplaces of the informants (603 locations). After Weinreich’s early death in 1967, Marvin Herzog took over the project management and published three volumes of a more extensively planned atlas (Herzog et al., 1992, 1995, 2000). In addition to these three volumes, numerous smaller works with analyses of the LCAAJ materials have also been published, including Herzog’s (1965) dissertation, several articles in the first three volumes of the series The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature, published between 1954 and 1969 and edited by U. Weinreich, and the Beihefte zum Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (Supplements to the language and culture atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry), published between 1995 and 2005. These publications focus mostly on phonological, lexical, and derivational morphological and ethnographic or sociolinguistic phenomena; inflectional morphology and syntax are rarely addressed. In 2018, Columbia University Libraries released digitized versions of the field notes, followed by re-digitized versions of the sound recordings in 2020/2021. Based on the LCAAJ field notes, accessible, syntactic, and morphological analyses were carried out as part of the Syntax of Eastern Yiddish Dialects project from 2017 to 2022 (results published in Fleischer, 2022; Schäfer, 2019c, 2020a, 2020c, 2021a, 2021b, 2022a, 2022b, 2022c, 2023; data and over 300 maps are published in Schäfer 2022d).

Before the LCAAJ, there was little interest in a dialectology of the entire Yiddish language area. The first dialectological surveys were undertaken by the Russian Germanist Mordkhe Veynger in the Soviet Union between 1925 and 1929 (Veynger, 1925). However, Veynger’s early death in 1929 brought this project to an abrupt end. The yidisher sprakhatles [sic!] fun sovetn-farband (Yiddish language atlas of the Soviet Union), published posthumously in 1931, is based on Veynger’s work. With its 74 maps, it covers only the phonological range (Vilenkin, 1931). An atlas covering the entire Eastern Yiddish language area is included in Jean Jofen’s doctoral dissertation (Jofen, 1953), yet here, too, only lexis and phonology are examined. The same applies to the Western Yiddish atlas projects by Beranek (1965) and Guggenheim-Grünberg (1973): The latter work only covers solid data from Southwestern Yiddish, while the former is of questionable value, as its data basis is unknown and the mapping it contains is sketchy (Beranek, 1965; cf. Guggenheim-Grünberg, 1966a). More solid works on individual sources of late Western Yiddish dialects include Guggenheim-Grünberg (1961, 1966b), Zuckermann (1969), Hutterer (1994), Fleischer (2005), Reershemius (2007), and Schäfer (2013, 2014, 2017a, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c).

3. The Current Status of Yiddish

3.1 Sociolinguistic Characteristics

Of the secular Jews born in Eastern Europe before the Shoah, very few speak Yiddish on a daily basis, and hardly any have passed the language on to their children. At the other end of the spectrum, in the Orthodox communities, Yiddish enjoys increasingly high prestige and stands as a “powerful symbol of a distinct ethnic and religious identity” (Assouline, 2018, p. 472). Due to the high birth rate among Haredi Jews, the number of Yiddish speakers is growing fast. The mother tongue transmission of Yiddish, and thus its fate, depends on the existence and attitude of the Orthodox communities. There is, however, also a growing interest outside Orthodoxy to learn Yiddish as an L2. This is evidenced by numerous, well-attended summer schools and cultural (especially music) programs in Europe, Israel, and North and South America, where standard Yiddish and Yiddish literary history are taught (Beirich, 2021). While Haredi Yiddish is thus gaining importance, the importance of Standard Yiddish is declining. This can be seen, for example, in the discontinuation of Yiddish-language newspapers such as the Forverts and the increasing number of Haredi Yiddish children’s books (Assouline, 2018). Bleaman (2020) identified an implicit standardization among Haredi writers on the internet. The fact that Haredi Yiddish is not subject to prescriptive pressures and thus has a certain linguistic openness is often seen as an important reason for the resilience of Yiddish as a minority language in this context (Assouline, 2018, p. 476).

Today, Yiddish is mainly spoken in urban ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods such as the “Jewish quarter” in Antwerp, the Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem or Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. There are also smaller communities in Melbourne and São Paolo. Thus, in the early 21st century, Yiddish is (as it always has been) a language in a multilingual context. In addition to the co-territorial majority language and dialects (in the early 21st century, mainly Modern Hebrew, English, and Flemish), Yiddish speakers often also master loshn koydesh (‘holy language’, i.e., the Semitic languages of the religious texts). This is usually true above all for male speakers.

Recent studies have shown that the contemporary Yiddish varieties show fundamental changes that can be attributed to the new contact situations and the special sect structure of ultra-Orthodoxy. These changes include, in particular, borrowings and interferences from the respective majority language. The individual Haredi sects, which have different dialects as their starting point, are neither in particularly close contact with nor completely independent from each other.

The level of language use among Haredi Jews is gender-specific, as men use more Yiddish than women. This is linked to the fact that Yiddish takes a central role in the yeshiva, where male students devote themselves to Torah and Talmud study, while women mostly communicate with the secular outside world (Bogoch, 1999; Fader, 2007).

In addition to Yiddish as a native, daily language, a number of special languages with Yiddish as a donor language have appeared. Until the 17th or 18th century, these were mainly (regional) secret languages or sociolects (Hofmann, 1998; Klepsch, 1996; Lerch, 1986; Matras, 1997; Meißner, 1999; Moormann, 1932–1934/2002; Siewert, 1998) or traders’ languages (especially cattle and horse traders; Guggenheim-Grünberg, 1981; Jochnowitz, 2010) into which Hebrew elements from Yiddish were incorporated. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of new Judaicized languages such as Jewish English (Benor, 2009) and Jewish German (Jahns, 2021). Accordingly, Yiddish lexis (especially Hebraisms) was also incorporated into modern standard language and dialects (on Yiddish loanwords in German, see Althaus, 2010; Klepsch, 2004; Post, 1992; Stern, 2000; on Yiddish loanwords in Dutch, see Beem, 1974; Heikens, 2002; Kamp & Van der Wijk, 2006).

As of 2021, Yiddish is a recognized minority language in nine European countries: Bosnia Herzegovina, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine (but, interestingly, not Belgium, which is home to the largest Yiddish-speaking community in Europe).

3.2 Linguistic Characteristics

In the following, a selection of linguistic characteristics of Yiddish is briefly presented. These characteristics, unless indicated otherwise, refer to the modern Eastern Yiddish varieties as they were spoken in Central and Eastern Europe until the Shoah and are the basis for the present Haredi varieties and for YIVO Standard Yiddish. To get a quicker overview, single keywords are bolded.

4. Phonology and Phonetics

Compared to Standard German, the vowel system of Yiddish is significantly reduced. Standard Yiddish has five main tonal vowels (a, ɛ, ɔ, ɪ, ʊ) and schwa (ə). In Standard Yiddish, phonemic length contrast no longer exists; in the dialects, it has been completely abandoned only in Northeastern Yiddish (Kleine, 2008). Thus, most of the dialects differ significantly from Standard Yiddish (Jacobs, 2005, pp. 62–68). While the system of diphthongs is equally extensive in Yiddish and German, in Yiddish the MHG diphthong [ɛɪ̯] was preserved, and [aʊ̯] merged with [ɔʏ̯].

Following the principle of fusional language, all vowels appear in all different components (Germanic, Hebrew, Slavic, Romance). With the consonants, however, their distribution depends on the component. For example, /x/ can only occur in the onset of lexemes from the Slavic and Semitic components (/xrei̯ n/ ‘horseradish’, /xoi̯ v/ ‘guilt’). The consonant /ʒ/ in the onset occurs only in words of Slavic origin (/ʒabə/ ‘frog’ in the minimal pair: /ʒabəs/ ‘frogs’ vs. /ʃabəs/ ‘sabbath’). Palatalized consonants occur almost exclusively in words of the Slavic component (palatal [λ‎] as an allophone of /l/ before stressed front vowels). Palatalized consonants are marginally phonemic (/kalə‎/ ‘bride’ vs. /kaλ‎ə/ ‘spoiled’; /mol/ ‘times’ vs. /moλ‎/ ‘moth’; /njit/ ‘brownness of baked bread’ vs. /nit/ ‘not’) with a productive semantic effect (/laxn/ ‘laugh’ vs. /λ‎axn/ ‘laugh out loud, guffaw’).

In principle, Yiddish features root syllable stress. Usually, the first syllable is stressed. In the Semitic component, the second to last syllable (penultima) is more often stressed. The accent changes in the Semitic component with suffixation (['xavər] ‘friend’ vs. [xa'vei̯ rim] ‘friends’). In Standard Yiddish and Standard German, only first stressed verb stems can form their participle by means of the ge- prefix. Polyphasic and thus not first stressed participles, such as shtudirn (inf) > studirt/*geshtudirt (ptcp) ‘study’, cannot add a prefix (Jacobs, 2005, p. 213; Wiese, 2000, p. 92). For particle verbs, the ge- prefix is used in Yiddish as in German, since the particle carries its own word accent, for example, onshraybn (inf) ‘write sth down’ > ongeshribn/*onshribn (ptcp). However, in the case of prefix verbs, the ge- prefix is omitted due to the word accent, for example, bashraybn (inf) ‘describe’ > bashribn/*bageshribn (ptcp; cf. Jacobs, 2005, p. 213; Wiese, 2000, p. 92).

Yiddish has some clear phonological rules for breaking up consonant clusters, especially anaptyxis and epenthesis, for example, the d-epenthesis that breaks /nl/-sequences, as in beijn ‘bone’ (n and l are in the same syllable) > bejndlekh ‘small bone’ versus pajnlekh ‘painful’ (n and l are not in the same syllable; Jacobs, 2005, p. 127).

Like German, Yiddish has a glottal stop before an onset vowel. However, this glottal stop is much weaker than its Standard German counterpart and disappears in some contexts. According to King (1990), this might reflect a weakening tendency of the word-boundary distinctions in Yiddish, as is also the case with the unperformed final devoicing. The latter is a riddle of Yiddish phonology (Sapir, 1915; Weinreich, 1963). Overall, final obstruent devoicing is not found in Modern Standard Yiddish. However, final devoicing does exist in late Western Yiddish and Central Eastern Yiddish dialects. In Central and Southeastern Yiddish, final devoicing does not occur in all final obstruents, only in nouns and adjectives, not in the inflection of verbs (Jacobs, 2005, p. 115). This is a strange restriction if one assumes sound laws to be completely regular. There has been no research on the extent and manner in which final devoicing or voicing varies in the Yiddish dialects and on the conditions of such variation. The diachronic development and reduction of final devoicing in Yiddish is controversial and requires further research, both regarding syllable boundaries in Yiddish and the status of final devoicing in historical (oral) varieties of German, Polish, and Ukrainian.

5. Morphology and Syntax

Yiddish, as German, differs between a so-called strong and weak inflection of verbs. A strong inflection is a system of inflection that can be contrasted with an alternative system, which is then called weak inflection. While strong inflected verbs form their past-tense forms by ablaut (vowel alternation, as zingen–gezungen ‘sing–sung’), weak inflected verbs use the dental suffix -t (consonantal alternation, as lakhn–gelakht ‘laugh–laughed’). In modern Yiddish, the synthetic past tense has been completely abandoned and is formed analytically (compound forms) by means of zayn/hobn (Chang, 2001). As in other Germanic languages, im/perfectivity and in/transitivity play a role in auxiliary selection, in addition to dialectal variation (Schäfer, 2022c). The future tense and conditional (≈ subjunctive) are also formed analytically. In Standard Yiddish, the future tense is formed with vel ‘will’ and the conditional with volt ‘want’, but the dialects show some variation (Schäfer, 2020c). Periphrastic constructions with Semitic verbs often occur as an invariant element (mostly a former Hebrew ptcp) with the auxiliaries zayn or vern (ikh bin moykhl ‘I am sorry’, lit. ‘I am sorry’ or ikh ver antdremlt, ‘I doze off’, lit. ‘I will ptcl-dream). These periphrastic verbs have an interesting morpho-syntactic peculiarity: As past-tense auxiliaries of such periphrastic verbs with zayn + HebrewPTCP, they use hobn ‘have’ and thus show a mixed construction of hobnAUX + geven or gevorn (ikh hob moykhl geven, ‘I was sorry’, lit. ‘I have sorry been’ or ikh bin antdremlt gevorn, ‘I have dozed off’, lit. ‘I have PTCL-dreamed become’; Jacobs, 2005, p. 218). This does not apply to the passive construction with vern; here, zayn is always the past-tense auxiliary (e.g., ikh bin antdremlt gevorn ‘I was dozed off’).

As in German, modals (Table 1), unlike full verbs, have no ending in the 3rd sg present tense (er muz-ø vs. er lies-t) and are combined with the infinitive without tsu (‘to’).

Table 1. Yiddish Modals and Their Semantics

Infinitive: 3rd sg/1st pl present tense/3rd sg perfect

Meaning

muzn: er muz/mir muzn/men hot gemuzt

Necessity

darfn: me darf/mir darfn /men hot gedarft

Requirement, necessity

megn: me meg/mir megn/men hot gemegt

Permission

kenen: me ken/mir kenen/men hot gekent

Permission, ability, possibility

torn: er tor/mir torn/men hot getort

Permission (negated prohibition: tor ni(sh)t)

kern: er ker/mir kern/men hot gekert

Likelihood

veln: er vil/mir viln/men hot gevolt

Volitive

zoln: er zol/mir zoln/men hot gezolt

Commitment

While in German, the modal verbs müssen, dürfen, können and mögen develop an umlaut in the plural of the present indicative (later also in the infinitive) from Middle High German on, the Yiddish system preserves the older, non-umlaut form.

Semantically, too, Yiddish has preserved older meanings of some modals or developed them differently compared to New High German. For example, muzn and veln behave semantically the same way in Yiddish and German. MHG muozn/müezn ‘to be able’ underwent a semantic change in both languages to express necessity. The modal darfn has retained its MHG meaning in Yiddish, as in ven men darf hobn moyekh, helft nit keyn koyekh ‘Where brains are needed, brawn does not help’. The Yiddish modal torn, from MHG turren ‘to dare, to risk’, was abandoned in German due to the change in the meaning of dürfen. In Modern Yiddish, it is always used in negated contexts. Standard Yiddish has three modal verbs expressing permission: megn, kenen, and torn. All three are negated with nisht torn. The modal kern is a contraction of the full verb gehern ‘to belong’ and is the only purely epistemic modal verb in Yiddish. The grammaticalization from the full verb gehern to the modal verb kern is a separate intra-Yiddish development. Morphosyntactic reanalysis is evident in the loss of the dental suffix in the 3rd sg; compare si ker zayn krank ‘she will be sick’ and az er hot gehert tsu di inteligentn ‘that he belonged to the intelligent ones’ (for further aspects of Yiddish modals, see Eggensperger, 1997, 2001; Hansen & Birzer, 2012).

Yiddish usually has a three-gender system (masculine, feminine, neuter). However, some varieties reflect tendencies toward gender degradation. The gender assignment of Germanisms follows German as far as possible. Where there was a change of gender to (Standard) New High German, Yiddish often preserved the old gender, as in MHG snecke/snegge (m.) > St. NHG Schnecke (f.) versus Yid. shnek (m.) ‘snail’; compare this to the Alemannic Schnëgg (m.; on the change in German, see Köpcke, 2000). However, there are also cases in which a new gender was set in Yiddish, sometimes influenced by the contact languages, as in the loanword Yid. klimat (m.) ‘climate’ < Pol. klimat (m.); compare to the Ger. Klima (n.).

A specific feature of Northeastern Yiddish dialects is the degradation of the neuter gender, resulting in only a two-gender system. However, the situation is, in fact, more complex, since in Northeastern Yiddish, masculine and feminine split into subtypes, and the gender system interacts with the case system (Jacobs, 1990; Weinreich, 1961; Wolf, 1969). Correspondingly, a typical feature of Northeastern Yiddish is the collapse of the acc–dat distinction in the singular of full objects; for object pronouns, the dative form has become the default form.

While in Modern Haredi Yiddish, hardly any influences of Northeastern Yiddish can be assumed, tendencies of degradation take place here as well. Recent studies like, among others, Krogh (2015) and Belk et al. (2022) observe a gradual absence of case and gender marking in contemporary Hasidic Yiddish, resulting in a lack of morphological case and gender in the younger generation.

Yiddish has a three-case system (nominative, accusative, dative) plus a possessive, which is often no longer regarded as a case in Germanic languages. Unlike (Standard) German, however, Yiddish varieties have only one case after a preposition and do not differentiate between static and directional semantics (Fleischer & Schäfer, 2012).

Since inflection on the noun has almost completely disappeared, case is expressed especially through articles and inflection outside the noun. Exceptions are proper nouns and nine lexemes close to proper nouns (especially kinship terms) with -n (acc/dat) and -(n)s (pos): ikh hob gileybt mit mayn alter bobe-n ‘I lived with my old grandmother’ (Schäfer, 2021b). Eastern Yiddish does not have an onymic article, which may be the reason why inflection was retained on the proper name.

The genitive has been replaced by the possessive as the case of the nominal attribute (cf. Germ. das Buch des Vaters vs. Yid. dem tatns bukh ‘the father’s book’, which it is usually possible to paraphrase with fun: dos bukh fun tatn). Unlike the genitive, the possessive cannot be governed by the verb. Vestiges of a fossilized genitive can be found in the use of the verb poter vern ‘to get rid of’: mir kenen zayner nisht poter vern ‘we cannot get rid of him’ (cf. German genitive verb gedenken ‘remember’).

Like many West Germanic varieties, Yiddish features a special marking of the dative by means of a preposition, so-called prepositional dative marking (PDM), for example, ikh geb a metone far/tsu ihr ‘I give PDM her a gift’. In Standard Yiddish and most Eastern Yiddish dialects, the preposition tsu is used; in Southeastern Yiddish, the preposition far is common and Alsatian Western Yiddish—like the co-territorial Alemannic dialects—uses the preposition in (Krogh, 2019; Schäfer, 2014, 2021b). PDM with far is common in contemporary Haredi Yiddish and among speaker groups with dialectal roots in Central Eastern Yiddish (Assouline, 2014).

In Eastern Yiddish, the distinction between strong and weak inflection of the adjective has diminished, except for adjectives in the neuter. The distribution of the different endings in the neuter is (as in German) syntactically controlled: dos gute kind (nom/acc), dem gutn kind (dat) ‘the good child’ vs. a gut kind (nom/acc/dat) ‘a good child’.

The personal pronouns are almost identical to the High German system (Table 2). Some dialects, especially in Central and Southeastern Yiddish, use second pl forms that originate in an old dual (ets, enk), as they are also common in Eastern Upper German dialects (cf. Schäfer, 2022b).

Table 2. Personal Pronouns in Standard Yiddish

1 sg

b>2 sg

b>3 sg m.

3 sg f.

3 sg n.

1 pl

2 pl

3 pl

nom

ikh

du

er

zi

es

mir

ir (ets)

zey

acc

mikh

dikh

im

zi

es

undz

aykh

zey

(enk)

dat

mir

dir

im

ir

im

undz

aykh

zey

(enk)

The reflexive pronoun has only one form zikh, for example, ikh hob zikh avekgezetst ‘I sat down’. More generally, the middle voice is extended to much broader semantic domains than in other Germanic languages (cf. Kemmer, 1993) and is highly productive; here, an influence of the Slavic languages is likely, but more detailed research on this point is required (see Luchina, in press).

The Yiddish passive voice is no different from German. Personal passive is formed analytically from the periphrase with vern ‘become’ and the past participle; impersonal passives, that is, passive clauses that erase the subject of an intransitive verb, can be built with an expletive, like es vert geshplit ‘Someone is playing’ (lit. ‘It is played’). Besides, active constructions with the impersonal pronoun men ‘one’ (men leyent ‘(some)one reads’) or with the reflexive pronoun zikh (es brot zikh a katshke ‘a duck is roasting’) are common as an alternative to the passive voice.

As mentioned earlier, in modern Standard Yiddish the position of the finite verb is in the left parenthesis in the main and subordinate clauses (= symmetrical V2; Den Besten & Van Walraven, 1986; Diesing, 1990). Among the Germanic languages, Yiddish has this in common with Icelandic (Santorini, 1994; Walkden & Booth, 2020).

In Eastern Yiddish, predicate fronting can be found, for example, in the form of verb doubling where the infinitive occurs with an inflected form of the same verb. This structure is used to express contrast or habituality, for example, trakhtn trakht er ober arbetn arbet er nit ‘he does think, but he does not work’ (Bleaman, 2015, 2022; Fleischer, 2008), and occurs in some (Low) German dialects (Fleischer, 2008).

The question of whether and to what extent Yiddish has aspect marking has been the subject of much discussion.8 Eastern Yiddish expresses iterative aspect, or “ongoing non-interrupted or repetitive action” (Jacobs, 2005, p. 222) with the verb–particle-like verb construction haltn = in ‘hold = in’ + infinitive, as in zi halt in (eyn) lernen zikh rusish ‘she is in the process of learning Russian’. The basic meaning of the verb haltn ‘hold’ lends itself to progressive expressions. This kind of progressive formation with ‘hold’ + ptcl + prep is common in North Germanic languages; examples include Swedish hålla på och/att, or Norwegian holde på (med) (cf. Ebert, 2000, p. 607). Another verbal construction with flegn ‘use’ + inf expresses a “[h]abitual past action” (Jacobs, 2005, p. 222), as in ikh fleg leyenen poylishe tsaytungen ‘I used to read Polish newspapers’. Because this construction appears in the present tense but refers to the past, several scholars (Birnbaum, 1979; Katz, 1987) have described it not as an aspect construction but rather as a special tense, the habitual past. While similar structures are known from other Germanic varieties (most prominently, the English construction used to), this special marking of the habitual aspect belongs to the peripheral types and is typologically rare (cf. Dahl, 1985, p. 102). Thieroff (2000, pp. 296–297) notes that the marking of the habitual aspect occurs in many Western and Southern European languages. Eastern Yiddish fits very well into this “Sprachbund.”

A third aspectual construction is used to express semelfactives and a “one-time action without ongoing duration” (Jacobs, 2005, p. 222): the so-called stem construction. This construction uses one of the two light verbs ton ‘do’ or gebn ‘give’ with the indefinite article and a verbal form (stem), as in zi tut/git a kuk ‘she gives a glance’. This construction is possible with both transitives and intransitives (unaccusatives and experiencers; cf. Diesing, 1998, p. 122). According to Taube (1987, p. 20), the development of the stem construction in Eastern Yiddish developed “under the impact” of the Slavic aspect system (see also Diesing, 1998, p. 153). This construction is thus unique but not implausible, since the verb do in particular—and, in some dialects, also the verb give (cf. Nübling, 2006)—has become, in the West Germanic varieties, grammaticalized into different auxiliaries for tense and aspect constructions (Van Pottelberge, 2004). Although unique, the Yiddish construction fits very well into the general tendency toward the functionalization of these light verbs in the Germanic languages. The Slavic aspect, however, functions lexically and thus fundamentally differently.

Finally, the function of verbal prefixes has also often shifted considerably under the influence of Slavic languages, where they serve to mark the lexical aspect, for example, Yid. on- (cf. Germ. an-), corresponding to Slav. na- in onbakn ‘to bake a large amount’.

The definite (Table 3) and indefinite (Table 4) articles feature more extensive case syncretisms than in German. For example, there is no differentiation between accusative and dative in the 3rd sg m. definite article, no case differentiation in the pl of the definite article and no case and gender differentiation in the indefinite article:

Table 3. Definite Article in Standard Yiddish

sg m.

sg f.

sg n.

pl

nom

der

di

dos

di

acc

dem

di

dos (s')

di

dat

dem

der

dem

di

Table 4. Indefinite Article in Standard Yiddish

sg m.

sg f.

sg n.

pl

nom

a(n)

a(n)

a(n)

Ø

acc

a(n)

a(n)

a(n)

Ø

dat

a(n)

a(n)

a(n)

Ø

Regarding plural formations, Yiddish uses several suffixes (including root vowel changes). There is a very strong correlation between certain suffixes and components. Lexemes of Semitic origin usually take the Hebrew plural suffixes -im (m.; sometimes with a change of word accent) and -(e)s (< hebr. -t) (f.); Slavic components usually take -(e)s and Germanic-based nouns take the Germanic suffixes -er, -n (rarely -(e)s) or a vowel change to the base. Also, no distinct plural forms are given with some lexemes. For more on plural marking and multilingual interferences in Israeli and Antwerp Hasidic Yiddish, see Abugov and Ravid (2014) and Abugov and Gillis (2016).

A special feature of Yiddish is the systematization of the plural marking of diminutives using the suffix -lekh (dialectal variants: -lakh, -lokh, -likh), which was established early in Western Yiddish. These plural diminutives are also found in German dialects, especially in the transition zone from the -l (High German) to the -k (Low German) diminution in southern Central Germany (Schäfer, 2020b). Although Yiddish marks the plural in the diminutive separately, there are cases of double plural marking in diminution, as in kind-er-lekh (*kindlekh) ‘children’ or talmid-im-lekh (*talmidlekh) ‘little students’ (for a theoretical discussion, see Perlmutter, 1988).

Singular diminution is formed in Yiddish by means of -l and -ele diminution. Furthermore, a distinction is made between first- and second-degree diminutives, which Yiddish has in common with other Germanic dialects (such as Swabian or High Alemannic): Standard Yiddish shukh ‘shoe’—shikhl (1st dim sg) ‘little shoe’—shikhele (2nd dim sg) ‘emotive little shoe’; compare High Alemannic (Zurich) chatz ‘cat’—chätzli (1st dim sg) ‘little cat’—chätzeli/chatzeli (2nd dim) ‘endearing kitten’ (Jacobs, 1995, 2005, p. 162; Lüssy, 1974, pp. 159–208; Seebold, 1983, p. 1250). Besides the German-based suffixes, the diminutive of proper names can also be formed with the Slavic suffix -ke. Diminution always causes a shift to the neuter gender. There are a number of ways, mostly of Slavic origin, to express affection and closeness to animate humans by derivation, for example, the suffix -(e)nyu, as in kale ‘bride’—kalenyu ‘dear bride’ or -(e)shi, as in zun ‘son’—zuneshi ‘dear son’. Other (expressive) modifications to proper nouns are possible with the derivation on -lebn (e.g., tate-lebn ‘father-love’). Unlike some German and Dutch varieties, Yiddish does not provide verbal diminution.

In addition to diminution, Yiddish also uses pejorative suffixes (-atsh, -ak, -un, -ec, -uk, -utsh, -ure) to modify animate nouns (or nominalized adjectives) that derive from the Slavic component; the productivity of these suffixes has yet to be studied (Jacobs, 2005, p. 161).

Comparison is usually carried out synthetically: alt, elter, eltst (old, older, oldest). In the dialects, however, analytical constructions with mer (more) or beser (better) and same (< Slav. more) for the superlative also occur, as in alt, mer alt, same alt (old, older, oldest).

Attributive adjectives can occur as appositive nouns postnominal (with article) in a NP–NP structure, for example, di oygn di grine ‘the green eyes’. This is also possible with nouns: a melamed a kabtsn ‘a teacher [who is] a poor wretch’. However, a prenominal position is also possible, for example, di grine oygn ‘the green eyes’.

In Germanic languages, as in many European languages, the expression of negative concord, is widespread in oral varieties while often not permitted in standard varieties (Breitbarth, 2013; Breitbarth et al., 2020). Standard Yiddish, however, is characterized by the use of negative concord. Yiddish negative concord generally follows the structures known from Middle High German and Modern German dialects. However, many special negation structures, including existential negators (Yid. ni(sh)to ‘not there’), may have been influenced by the surrounding Slavic languages (cf. van der Auwera & Gybels, 2014).

Probably also of Slavic influence is the expression of negative purpose relation in verba timendi (verbs of fearing) that is sometimes called pleonastic negation, as in ikh hob moyre er zol nisht faln ‘I am afraid he might fall’ (Schäfer, 2020a, pp. 281–282; van der Auwera & Gybels, 2014, pp. 198–199). However, a continuation of Middle High German structures would also be conceivable (cf. Witzenhausen, 2019, pp. 3, 16).

In the generative approach, a doubly filled comp filter is supposed for many languages, which excludes the co-occurrence of a wh-phrase and a complementizer in a comp position, as in English I didn’t know where (*that) you want to go. None of the Eastern Yiddish varieties show doubly filled comp structures (Diesing, 2003). This clearly distinguishes Yiddish from other (oral) West Germanic varieties (Bayer, 2015; De Haan & Weerman, 1986; Zwicky, 2002), like Alemannic wohy dass ma well goh ‘where comp you want to go’ (Schallert, 2014, p. 6). However, Yiddish features multiple fronting for matrix questions, for example, ver vos hot gekoyft? ‘Who has bought what?’ and for embedded questions, for example, ikh veys nit ver vos es hot gekoyft ‘I don’t know who bought what’, which seems to be an interference with co-territorial Slavic languages (Diesing, 2003).

6. Conclusion: Yiddish and the Germanic Languages

Yiddish is an unusual Germanic language. On one hand, it preserves structures from older language stages and oral varieties of High German; on the other, it became autonomous from German early and remained untouched by the standardization efforts of other European languages. The decisive characteristic of Yiddish is its speakers, who find themselves in a constantly changing internal and external multilingualism that continues to shape the Yiddish language. Sociolinguistically speaking, Yiddish is thus most comparable to religious language islands like the German minorities in the United States and South America.

At the same time, Yiddish has covered an extremely large linguistic area; this is especially true of the historical dialects. Despite, or probably because of, its large geographical area and many different contact languages, there are few relatively large dialect areas considering in relation to the size of the geographical area. In this respect, Yiddish clearly differs from small language islands and the small-scale varying dialects of other West Germanic languages. Like no other Germanic language, in the 21st century, Yiddish is facing far-reaching serious structural and sociolinguistic developments.

Since still little is known about the historical varieties of Yiddish, the central developments that characterized Yiddish over the course of its history can be identified primarily from the synchronic contrast between Yiddish and related Continental West Germanic varieties. While many grammatical features of Modern Eastern Yiddish that are unusual for standard West Germanic languages have been attributed to language contact with Slavic varieties, this has usually been done without taking into account the dialectal and historical variation in Yiddish, Slavic, or Continental West Germanic varieties. It is likely that modern Eastern Yiddish was shaped by—in addition to language contact—internal, typically West Germanic processes.

Yiddish studies is a young and small subject area and still has much on its research agenda. For a comparative study of Germanic languages, existing barriers—especially those posed by the Hebrew script and the often difficult access to native speakers and data—must be overcome, in order to further integrate the study of Yiddish into linguistic research.

Further Reading

  • Jacobs, N. G. (2005). Yiddish: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sunshine, A., & Bunis, D. M. (1994). Yiddish linguistics: A classified bilingual index to Yiddish serials and collections, 1913–1958. New York: Garland.

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Notes

  • 1. Yiddish is, strictly speaking, not the only Germanic language to have been written in the Hebrew alphabet. Until the late 19th century, German-speaking Jews often wrote German using the Hebrew alphabet in private correspondence as well as printed publications (see, e.g., Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible; Lowenstein, 1979).

  • 2. Accordingly, this article also exclusively uses the transcription system according to YIVO for both older and younger language levels; cited examples have also been adapted to this transcription system.

  • 3. Distance measurements in Schäfer (2022b) revealed two main clusters of the Eastern Yiddish dialects (Northeast Yiddish vs. Central and Southeastern Yiddish) based on data from the LCAAJ. Another subcluster emerged between Central and Southeastern Yiddish dialects. Based on these three clusters, the boundaries shown in Figure 1 were drawn. The dashed line between Eastern and Western Yiddish indicates that due to the lack of data from the transitional area, a clear demarcation is not possible, and this is only a rough approximation. In addition, there is evidence that Western Yiddish forms (see Weinreich, 1964) extend into the Eastern Yiddish dialects and likewise Eastern Yiddish forms extend into the Eastern part of Western Yiddish (Beranek, 1965). Accordingly, a broad transition zone between Eastern and Western Yiddish varieties is assumed rather than a sharp linguistic boundary (cf. Schäfer, 2017b).

  • 4. “Keine einzige jiddische Mundart deckt sich mit einer bestimmten deutschen Ma. [Mundart; L.S.], sondern das Jiddische ist ein Abklärungsereignis für sich” (Weinreich, 1923, p. 69).

  • 5. “Die meisten Charakteristika der einzelnen jiddischen Ma. treten (in gleicher oder anderer Verbreitung) auch auf deutschem Sprachgebiete auf” (Weinreich, 1923, p. 69).

  • 6. SHUM is an acronym formed from the Hebrew initial letters of the cities Speyer, Worms, and Mainz (שו״מ‎, pronounced shum).

  • 7. The most prominent examples of the influence of Standard German on Yiddish are the numerous daytshmerisms (Germanisms) in 19th- and early 20th-century Yiddish (Krogh, 2012).

  • 8. An overview of the current state of research is provided by Jacobs-Kozyra (2017, pp. 10–29).