“De Yiddishe shpraakh is geboiren gevorren in dee gettohz find daatchlent, in dee poilishe gettohz obber hot zee zekh enntvikkelt en bekimmen eer beshtimmte forrm. (“The Yiddish language was born in the ghettos of Germany, but it was in the Polish ghettos that it developed and assumed its specific character.”)

This opening sentence of The History of Yiddish Literature (to 1890), by M Piness (Yiddish, Warsaw, 1911) “places” Yiddish to perfection except for one vital omission: the part played by Hebrew in the formation of the language. Yiddish was of German birth, but of Hebrew parentage. What distinguished Judaeo-German from contemporary “pure” German dialects was its important admixture of Biblical Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Aramaic; as well as Mishnaic and Rabbinical Hebrew. In quantitative terms the Hebrew and Aramaic elements may not have amounted to more than ten to twenty per cent of the Yiddish vocabulary[i] – the proportion would have varied with the speaker – but qualitatively they played the more significant part.  The emotive terms, the soul of the language, were Hebrew. The language was always written in Hebrew characters. A Mustapha Kemal may have been able to force Turkish into the mould of the Latin alphabet, but no strong man could have imposed “Hebrew in Latin” characters on any Jewish community. Ittamar ben-Avi, the son of the “Father of Modern Hebrew”, Eliezer ben-Yehudah, made the attempt once, in mandatory Palestine, but it ended in dismal failure. Yiddish, even Soviet Yiddish, never had its Ittamar ben-Avi. In spite of the orthographical rape of many Hebrew-in-Yiddish words (e.g. Hebrew chov, Yiddish khoif “debt”, spelt chaf, vav, yud, vav, vav; Hebrew bachur, Yiddish bookher “young man”, spelt bet, alef, chaf, ayin, resh), Soviet Yiddish has at least retained the Hebrew alphabet of the language.

If we look once more at the sentence heading this chapter, however, we can see how closely Yiddish adheres to German lexically and grammatically. Let us translate the Yiddish sentence into Modern German. Die judische Sprache wurde in den Gettos Deuschlands geboren, in den polnischen Gettos aber entwickelte sie sich und bekam ihre bestimmte Form. 

What has Yiddish changed? Apart from poilish for polnisch, very little, and nothing that cannot be accounted for as part of normal linguistic processes in other languages. Shpraakh is not a “corruption” of Sprache, any more than English “sun” is a “corruption” of Middle English sunne. Apocope, the docking of final syllables, is a general linguistic phenomenon: English mob for Latin mobile (vulgus); lunch for “luncheon”; ref for “referee”; telly for “television”. Chaps who go in for huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ are saying “what comes naturally”; it is those who are scared of not pronouncing the final g’s who are hypnotised by “spelling pronunciation”. The substitution of the perfect tense (iz geboiren gevorren = German ist geboren worden; hot zeekh entwikkelt = German hat sich entwickelt; hot bekimmen = German hat bekommen) for the German preterites (wurde geboren…entwickelte sich …bekam) has its counterpart in spoken French in the invariable use of the perfect instead of the preterite (“past historic”). The loss of inflection (daatchlent vice Deutschlands, in dee gettohz vice in den Gettos, eer forrm instead of ihre Form), again, is characteristic of English. We are frequently told, indeed, that the uninflected nature of Modern English is one of the reasons for its world ascendancy. As regards Yiddish gevorren: in Yiddish, d is regularly syncopated in the combinations nd and rd; hence Middle High German (see Chaper IV) finden “to find”, becomes (ge)finnen, wërden “to become”, contracts to vehren, and the past participle geworden becomes geworren. The Modern German form worden, instead of geworden, in the perfect passive was not usual in Middle High German[ii] so that Yiddish gevorren is not anomalous. The i in bekimmen is by analogy with Yiddish kimmen “to come”, from Middle High German kumen, a German u sound always becoming an i sound in (Polish) Yiddish. Finally, the word order: the past participles (geboiren gevorren…entvikkelt…bekimmen) following immediately on their auxiliaries (iz…hot) except for the interposition of the pronouns (zee…zeekh), not bringing up the rear as in Modern German, corresponds to English usage. This is not to say that English usage is necessarily better, merely that it affords a respectable parallel to the Yiddish usage.

Up to at least the thirteenth century the vernacular of the Jews in Germany probably did not differ, except for Hebrew admixtures and a few laazim words of Romance and Greco-Latin origin brought with them by the Jewish migrants to Germany from Italy and France, from the German spoken by the Gentile German co-territorial population. The “probably” is necessary, as we have no reliable, acoustic evidence, as provided by gramophone records or tapes, of how Yiddish (or German) was spoken in the thirteenth century. The fact that the language of the poems by the Jewish minnesinger Susskind von Trimberg is the same as that of other minnesingers whose poems have come down to us does not prove that Susskind or his co-territorial Jewish contemporaries spoke only a “pure” Middle High German. Susskind may have been bilingual, speaking Judaeo-German (i.e., Middle High German with Hebrew admixtures) to his fellow-Jews, but writing poems for his high-born German listeners in “his own Middle German dialect of the Middle High German”.[iii]

Judaeo-German received its specifically “Yiddish” character in Bohemia, Poland and Lithuania in the fourteenth century. The Jews who were persecuted in Germany fled to these countries taking their Judaeo-German with them. In Poland, particularly, they were welcomed as forming a middle class between the indigenous feudal aristocracy and the masses of the peasantry.

Piness (op.cit.) points out that the conditions prevailing in Poland favoured the retention of Judaeo-German as the mother tongue of successive generations of Jews living in that country. They had no cultural or social contacts with the Polish population, and living mostly in compact communities in cities or small towns, where their neighbours were either Jews or Germans, they had no need to abandon Judaeo-German for the language of the Polish peasants or aristocrats.[iv]

It was not till 1507 that the first “secular” work in what may be said to be Judaeo-German, inasmuch as the language was contemporary German, but printed in Hebrew characters, and contained Hebrew lexical elements, albeit very few, was published. Doohss Boobe Beekh, by the Hebrew grammarian Eliyahu Levita (1472-1542) is a metrical romance based on an Italian version of a French translation of the English Sir Bevis of Southampton.The book’s enormous popularity is reflected, according to Piness, in the Yiddish expression u boobbe maasse, meaning a cock-and-bull story, but I am not altogether convinced that the “popular” etymology in this case may not be the right one, a boobbe maasse being the sort of yarn (Mishnaic Hebrew ma’asseh “tale”) you could pitch to your gullible grandmother (Yiddish boobbe, from Polish baba).

The later the published date of a work the more Hebrew, and later still, Polish elements are likely to appear in the text.  However, the point must again be made that it is difficult to know to what extent a printed work reflects the spoken language. For instance, I am ungallant and sceptical enough to entertain a gnawing doubt concerning the high proportion of Hebrew words and phrases in Gluckel von Hameln’s Memoiren.[v] I suspect they were not in the holograph, but are pious embellishments by her rabbinical son, (Moses Hamelin) from whose manuscript the book was printed.

My reservations in this matter are not affected, I am afraid, by Kaufmann’s description of Gluckel as gelehrt [vi] “learned” nor by her grandson’s assertion that Moses Hameln had transladiert (translated)[vii]  Gluckel’s MS “letter for letter.” [viii] Nevertheless, I am far from saying that ordinary, unlearned Jewish women did not employ a great number of Hebrew words and expressions in their Yiddish vernacular. In fact, it is precisely because my mother – who like the great majority of Jewish women from Eastern Europe had had no “Hebrew” education beyond learning to read and translate parrot fashion from the Hebrew prayer-book and the Pentateuch – it is precisely because I heard her use so much Hebrew, as a natural and in many cases irreplaceable part of her Yiddish speech, that I know that Hebrew is an integral part of normal, everyday Yiddish.

Such an assertion could not be made if it were based on the Yiddish speech of Jewish men in Eastern Europe, nearly all of whom were learned in Hebrew.  In their case the Hebrew of the prayers they recited three times daily, of the “Law” they heard chanted every Sabbath, the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Talmud which they studied to the exclusion of all else would spill over into their Yiddish parlance. They would want to “show off” their Hebrew knowledge. The Yiddish of a yesheevve bookher, student at a rabbinical college – such colleges were attended by a far higher proportion of Eastern European Jews than institutes of higher education are attended today by non-Jews – would tend to be more Hebrew-Aramaic than German.  (Though many present-day yeshivah bachurim cannot or will not make the transition from Hebrew-in-Yiddish to spoken Modern Hebrew.)

There is no doubt, too, that many Hebraisms which never really “caught on” were deliberately introduced into the spoken language, perhaps with a view to maintaining secrecy in the presence of Gentiles (“pas devant les goyim”). Thus a German divine, writing in 1750,[ix]  instances meivenen “to bring”, (Hebrew mevi), melochen “to make” (Hebrew melachah “work, craft”), meschalmen “to pay” (Hebrew meshalem) and rohnen “to see” (Hebrew ra’ah), but these are highly factitious formations, are never used in normal Yiddish, and are not listed by Taviov.

However, the “genuine” Hebrew elements in Yiddish are both extensive and intensive, as will appear in ensuing chapters.


[i] A preliminary report by Yudel Mark on “A Study of the Frequency of Hebraisms in Yiddish” (The Field of Yiddish, New York 1954, pp.28-47) showed, in fact, an overall percentage of 5.38% of Hebraisms. The study was based on 3 million running words of various Yiddish texts and employed sophisticated statistical techniques.

[ii] Paul, H, Mittelhochdeutche Grammatik, Halle, 1929, p.180

[iii] Albert M. Friedenberg, Susskind of Trimberg in JQR, October 1902, pp 60- 72.

[iv] The urban population consisted mainly of German elements settled in Poland from the thirteenth century onwards. Piness op. cit., p6.

[v] Die Memoiren der Gluckel von Hameln 1645-1719, herausgegeben von Prof. Dr David Kaufmann, Frankfurt am Main, 1896.

[vi] Op. cit., p.xxxv.

[vii] Not “copied” (abgeschrieben), as stated by A Feilchenfeld, Denkwürdigkeiten der Gluckel von Hameln, Berlin 1913, p7.  According to Grimm’s Wörterbuch, translatieren can only mean “translate”.

[viii] Kaufmann, op. cit., in the Judaeo-German (in Hebrew characters) dedication.

[ix] Althaus, Hans Peter, Quellen zur Geschichte der Jiddischen Sprache, Marburg/Lahn 1966, p. 220.