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

    The Story of Yiddish

    Why Was Yiddish Created?

    There are about as many theories about how and why Yiddish got started as there are Jews, or maybe even one more.  A popular theory is that the Jews developed a secret language that could only be understood by other Jews so that they could communicate with each other with no one else knowing what they were saying.

    Another is that this was a way they could transact business outside of the earshot of their persecutors — and outside the gentiles’ hearing about the deals they were making behind their backs.  Still another is that the Jews needed a language in which to laugh at their seemingly unending troubles and, perhaps most important, poke fun at and disrespect the gentiles who were creating their troubles.

    Whatever the reason, or reasons, there is no doubt Yiddish helped the Jews survive the relentless historical persecutions in Europe and Russia, providing them with a common way of expressing themselves that bound them into a community and gave them the ability to talk privately among themselves.

    Chagall’s “Liebende”

    This famous painting by Marc Chagall, entitled “Liebende” or “Beloved,” depicts common shtetl themes.

    A Well-Respected Language

    But what began as a language to be used in secret among a tribe of people has become a major European language, a recognized and respected language in countries all over the world, a true language which provides the means for outstanding theatrical, musical and literary expression and the enrichment of people everywhere.

    Yet the origins of Yiddish were very humble.  As far as scholars can agree, it began in about the year 850, during the ninth century, in the early Middle Ages.  Just to put that in perspective, that was the same time as the Arabs developed the astrolabe, the instrument that helped determine the location of the sun and the stars and first made exploration of the seas possible.  It was also the time when the crossbow was first invented.

    And it was also the year that groups of Jews who had settled in Germany first began to develop a special language of their own, building on the German of the time and adding their own unique verbal spices to the stew.  At the time, these German lands were called Ashkenaz by the Jews.  Ashkenaz was the medieval Hebrew name for Germany, named after a descendant of Noah in the Bible.  This is why the descendants of these Jews are called Ashkenazi Jews.

    Cat In The Hat

    Literature and scholarship written in Yiddish abound, with many books composed in other languages translated for a Yiddish audience.

    Yiddish in Today’s World

    Today three-quarters of modern Yiddish words are based on German, though mostly with the vowels pronounced differently.  It is written using the Hebrew alphabet, but much of the syntax is Slavic.  This is because Yiddish contains elements from the many other languages that were absorbed through the migrations of the Ashkenazi Jews.  Hebrew, known as loshen-koydesh, the holy tongue, was regarded as a sacred language reserved for ritual and spiritual purposes and thus not in common use outside synagogue activities.

    This is how Yiddish became the day-to-day language of the Jews.  And in a manner that is quintessentially Yiddish, the cultural and linguistic evolution of the language was — and is — in a constant state of fusion with other components, continuing to grow and change in the fluid mix of culture, emotion, tradition, geographic movement and personal experience that still today defines Jewish life.

    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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