July 2, 2013 | Yiddish

Yiddish: A Language Amalgam

In which I discover this will be exciting.

Last night I started Colloquial Yiddish: The Complete Course for Beginners, written by Lily Kahn and published by Routledge in 2012. Routledge, by the way, has tons of language-learning books. I am not at all a shopaholic, but going on the language-learning portion of their website turns me into a raving linguajunkie. (Click “Languages” when you get to that page, and you will see a display of options to make you language learners drool.)

Colloquial Yiddish: This Book Has a Great Introduction to the History of Yiddish

Colloquial Yiddish: This Book Has a Great Introduction to the History of Yiddish

The book’s introduction is very helpful. In it I read: “The origins of Yiddish are not entirely clear; however, it is commonly believed that the earliest roots of the language can be traced to approximately 1000 CE, when Jews speaking the Jewish Romance languages Judaeo-French and Judaeo-Italian settled in the Germanic-speaking regions of Central Europe and adopted the local Germanic dialects. They infused their speech with Semitic elements deriving from Hebrew, the primary Jewish language, and from Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew and was a Jewish lingua franca in the early Common Era.

“When the Jews migrated east into Poland and Russia over the next few centuries, they took this language with them and it acquired a large infusion of Slavic vocabulary and structure.”

The result: “a fusion language,” says Kahn, “in which Germanic, Slavic, Semitic, and Romance elements can all be found in the same sentence, and sometimes even within the same word.” 

Amazing! I want to see a word incorporating all those things! Please show me, someone.

So how much will German benefit me in my Yiddish studies? A lot, it seems. Kahn estimates Yiddish vocabulary at roughly 70 percent Germanic, 25 percent Hebrew-Aramaic, and 5 percent Slavic.

Kahn’s introduction is so dense with useful information that I am having trouble choosing what to include here. She talks about the richness of Yiddish literature (Isaac Bashevis Singer and others), which made me suddenly want to read Singer, whom I haven’t read since childhood.

She also writes about how on the eve of World War II, some 11-13 million people, or 75-80 percent of the global Jewish population, spoke Yiddish.

During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were murdered. I have read elsewhere that 85 percent of them were Yiddish speakers. Six years of tragic human history dramatically altered the story of Yiddish on this planet.

Other events further reduced the number of native speakers. Today Yiddish use has declined to the point that it is considered an endangered language. Yesterday I wrote that it had one million speakers; Kahn’s book refers to an estimated one to two million. (From one source to the next, I have seen a pretty big range of reported numbers of current speakers.)

These days, Kahn says, Yiddish is alive in two main groups. The larger group consists of communities of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, mostly Hasidic, “where Yiddish frequently continues to thrive as an everyday language in both speech and writing and is widely transmitted to the younger generations.” There are substantial Yiddish-speaking Haredi populations in Brooklyn, Antwerp, London, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, according to Kahn.

However, you cannot just waltz blithely into these communities and start talking Yiddish to people at random.

The other group consists of non-Haredi Jews who learned Yiddish as their first language in Eastern Europe or in places around the world that became home to Eastern European immigrants. Apparently this group has a much lower transmission rate to the next generation. “This group,” writes Kahn, “is heir to the legacy of the flowering of secular Yiddish culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Perfect! Now I just have to find speakers.

By the way, for most of my life I thought Yiddish was written with the Roman alphabet. I guess that’s because (a) I knew very little about Yiddish, and (b) whenever I read Yiddish quotes, I always read them in romanized form. Plus they looked so German!

My recollection is that Anzia Yezierska’s novel The Bread Givers (1925), a coming-of-age story set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, contained numerous romanized Yiddish quotes. However, I read this book about 25 years ago, so I can no longer remember for sure, and a web search has not helped me confirm my impression.

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