• The Story of Yiddish: The Language of Belonging Part I

    The Story of Yiddish: The Language of Belonging

    By Dr. Linda Burghardt, Scholar-in-Residence


    For many of us, the earliest words we remember learning as children were in Yiddish, the language of home, of family, of warmth and cooking and close-knit community.  And because Yiddish — and Yiddishkeit — often encompassed and defined the world of our parents and our grandparents, it continues to hold a great emotional power that can still connect us to parts of ourselves we experienced in bygone times.

    Recently, I gave a presentation at the Center that explained the origins of this rich and vibrant language and talked about its decline after the Holocaust and its surprising resurgence today.  Here are some of the highlights from the lecture.


    In the Beginning

    Even those who know Yiddish well have differing views of where it came from and how it developed.  What are its roots?  Is it a true language, a dialect, a linguistic mishmash — or something much larger, even a way of living.  And does Yiddish still matter today?  Is it still the best language in which to insult someone, to tell a joke, to complain?

    A good place to start to answer these questions is with an understanding of the language itself, the mame-loshen, as it is called, literally the mother tongue, the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews.

    Linguistically, Yiddish is predominantly a combination of German and Hebrew, with other languages mixed in as well, including some Aramaic, Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian, and also some words from the Romance languages such as French.


    Language Families

    Yiddish belongs to the Indo-European language family, the largest of the many language groups in the world.

    Major Language Families of the World

    Yiddish is an Indo-European language, which means it is part of one of the world’s major language families.  Indo-European is the largest of the 147 language families, a linguistic classification that contains nearly 500 languages and dialects just in itself.  It comes, not surprisingly, from the Germanic branch, one of the oldest — older even than Latin — and that Germanic branch includes English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, in addition to Yiddish.  All these languages derive from a common ancestor, with a common syntax, or grammatical structure, and phonology, the sound system of the language.

    But Yiddish is also so much more than a language.  And that’s because Jews have a deep-seated belief in the power of words.  After all, didn’t God create the world through speech?  The Torah tells us, with great authority, that the world was created with ten sentences.

    My Yiddish Momme

    Sophie Tucker is perhaps the most well known and well loved Yiddish singer of moving melodies.

    Beyond Borders and Boundaries

    Also, there is something about Yiddish that makes it unlike any other language today.  And that’s because all other languages have a country base.  For Jews, Hebrew is the language of a country — Israel.  But Yiddish is something else: a language that transcends borders and boundaries yet unites its speakers in ways that go beyond national identity, working as a cohesive force in a world that often forces people apart.  Yiddish is a language of culture, of community, of belonging.

    The word Yiddish is, of course, a noun, but it is also used as an adjective at the same time to designate attributes of Ashkenazi culture, as in Yiddish music or Yiddish literature.  Thus we begin to see that the Yiddish language and the Yiddish way of life, the culture, are inseparable and, like the double helix, grow and change together, each one reinforcing the other.


    Dr. Linda Burghardt

    Dr. Linda Burghardt, the Scholar-in-Residence at HMTC, is a journalist and author from Great Neck, NY.  She worked as a freelance reporter for the New York Times for 20 years and is the author of three non-fiction books.  Her articles and essays have appeared in newspapers across the U.S., and she has lectured to both national and international audiences.  She holds a Ph.D. from LIU Post and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Vienna.

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