July 9, 2013 | Yiddish

An Alphabet Comparison: Yiddish v. Hebrew

In which I line up the two alphabets to get some order in my head.

People learn in different ways. My brain has some tics that I have to work around. I am extremely distracted by the slightest confusion about minor grammatical or other language points. If, for example, I can’t quite make out a tiny snippet of sound in a word, it is hard for me to concentrate on the rest of the word, or the sentence, or anything else until I figure it out. 

When I am learning a language, I am fond of categories and rules. Things need to get sorted into the appropriate drawers in my head.

Basic Yiddish, Rebecca Margolis

Basic Yiddish, Rebecca Margolis

What that has meant for my Yiddish experience is that the alphabet began bothering me right away, because of all the similarities to, but also differences from, the Hebrew alphabet. Because I could no longer remember the Hebrew alphabet well, I could not be sure of what, exactly, was similar and what, exactly, was different, and that bothered me. I tried to ignore the distractions, but I succumbed to them—especially when confronted with an exercise in Basic Yiddish: A Grammar and Workbook by Rebecca Margolis, where I was told to write out the present-tense conjugations of the following verbs (I’ve included transliterations and translations):

  • ווערן - vern - become
  • עסן - esn - eat 
  • לייענען - leyenen - read
  • שלאָפן - shlofn - sleep

If you know German but not Yiddish, perhaps you will be delighted by the similarities. I certainly am!

The conjugations are extremely German-like, too. Conjugations are not (so far) my problem. The problem is the alphabet, and how long it takes me to write it—because I keep having to look up things like keystroke order, print form, cursive form, and letter name. Yesterday I decided I needed to lay out the Yiddish and Hebrew alphabets side by side and compare them letter by letter so that my brain could stop being distracted and move on to other things.

So I stopped my grammar-exercising activities and made a chart. It is the chart of a beginner and experts will perhaps find much to object to in it. I haven’t proofread it either, and I am sure there are mistakes still. But my brain likes it and feels happier now. 

Here’s the chart, divided into page 1 and page 2. (I tried to upload a PDF, but something mysterious is preventing that from working.) It took me several hours to compile this thing, believe it or not. 

My primary sources were Colloquial Yiddish, the book by Lily Kahn I have mentioned previously, and Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew by Ethelyn Simon and Joseph Anderson. The alphabet charts included in the two books don’t line up completely in terms of the information offered, so I had to do some collating of information from various places.

Colloquial Yiddish

Colloquial Yiddish

Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew

Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew

The Yiddish letters in my chart are in dictionary order; to try to match up the two alphabets’ sounds, I changed around the order of the Hebrew. Yiddish has letters to represent vowels; Hebrew doesn’t. Hebrew sometimes uses diacritics to indicate vowels, though, so I stuck those diacritic notations into the chart next to similar-sounding Yiddish letters, even though they wouldn’t normally be presented this way. The Hebrew included in my chart is mostly or entirely in dictionary order, with the exception of those stuck-in vowel patches (which are lightly shaded). 

Throughout my chart-making undertaking, little things kept slowing me down. I am confident that some of them are things that have confounded other language learners before me.

For example, in the chart in Kahn’s book, the supposedly handwritten versions of the letters didn’t always look like the versions I was subsequently shown in Kahn’s handwriting practice exercise. The langer khof resembled a shepherd’s crook in her chart, but a dotless question mark in the handwriting exercise.

Also, letters that I believed to be identical in Yiddish and Hebrew sometimes looked different in the Hebrew book than they did in the Yiddish book. I had trouble telling whether that was because of font differences or something more. I think it was just font, but I can’t be sure at this point.

Another thing that slowed me down was the size of the letters in the Kahn book. I couldn’t always see the details, such as in the teeny tiny pey (p sound) and fey (f sound). Variations on squinting did not help, so I finally dug out a little-used magnifying mirror from a bathroom drawer and held it up at over the book page, reading the greatly enlarged pey and fey in the reflection of a make-up mirror.  

Yiddish Reading Aid

Yiddish Reading Aid

I completed my chart late last night, then today went back to the verb-conjugation exercise in Basic Yiddish. I was way better off than I would have been yesterday. I can’t say I breezed through the exercise, but I was a lot more self-sufficient and did not have to pause every three seconds to look something up.

One challenge, I am noticing, is how hard it is to check my Yiddish work now that I have switched to writing in cursive. My answers no longer physically resemble what is printed in the answer key. If this concept is confusing to you, consider how different English cursive looks from English printing. Once you get used to it, of course, it is no big deal. An is an a

But I am not used to it in Yiddish (or Hebrew, for that matter). And wow, an a sound looks really different in Yiddish printing than it does in Yiddish cursive.

Therefore, at this point, I can’t glance back and forth easily from the printed answer key to my handwritten answers. What I can do, however, is read an answer in the answer key and say to myself, okay, yes, that’s the conjugation I came up with. 

After some moments of complacently reading through the answer key and being pleased at how well I had done with these (very Germanic) conjugations, I realized that some of the letters in my answers were print format and some were cursive, that I was using non-final-form letters where I needed final forms, that I had mixed up a couple of lookalike letters, and so on. Oops.

I will have to be very vigilant about myself!

By the way, I am continuing to run with Pimsleur Hebrew lessons—in heat, and rain, and accompanied by fireflies—and I need to make sure I don’t get too distracted by that undertaking, since this is Yiddish time. It is great fun to review, though. Wow, does it feel great.

Comments (5)

Farschied • Posted on Thu, July 18, 2013 - 5:07 am EST

No that I see there are some striking similarities between German and Yiddish I believe if you learn German, you actually learn some other languages implicitly.

Such similarities also exist in Dutch and Afrikaans and some other Scandinavian languages.

Although when I saw leyenen, It kinda reminded me of Spanish “leyendo(reading)” .  :D

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, July 18, 2013 - 4:07 pm EST

It’s funny you mentioned “leyenen” in particular. That’s the verb that so far has been the strangest to me in Yiddish (though I don’t know that many verbs yet). I didn’t recognize it without the familiar “z” sound!

Jacob • Posted on Thu, October 17, 2013 - 3:19 pm EST

I’m using Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish.  To demonstrate the varied background of Yiddish vocabulary, Weinreich uses “leyenen” as an example of Romance-vocabulary in Yiddish that is in Yiddish’s deep, deep background among the Jews of northern Italy. 

As a Jewish person, something I found fascinating is that the word “benching,” which usually refers to blessings after meals, comes from the Latin “benedicere.”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, October 17, 2013 - 5:02 pm EST

Jacob, that’s interesting about the Romance origins of “leyenen.” Thank you for the “benching” detail as well!

Are you taking a class, or are you using College Yiddish on your own?

Hope • Posted on Thu, July 27, 2017 - 9:12 pm EST

I’m so confused… so Yiddish all along was written in cursive Hebrew except a few tiny exceptions and the root of a different language but combined with Hebrew. How was that a big secret?

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