In This Article Yiddish

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Atlases
  • Collections of Linguistic Articles
  • History of Yiddish Studies
  • Yiddish Onomastics
  • Sociolinguistic Approach to Yiddish
  • Stylistics and Orthography of Literary Yiddish

Linguistics Yiddish
by
Alexander Beider
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0235

Introduction

According to its main system-level characteristics, Yiddish belongs to the High German branch of West Germanic languages. During its development, it underwent an important influence of Hebrew. In modern times, we can distinguish three main varieties of Yiddish: (1) Western Yiddish in western German-speaking territories; (2) Yiddish spoken until the 20th century in Central Europe (Czech and East German lands), and (3) Eastern Yiddish in eastern Europe. From the point of view of Germanistics, it is appropriate to consider that the inception of Yiddish varieties corresponds to the Early New High German period (1350–1650). It was during that period that the Jewish vernacular idiom started to have system-level differences in comparison to the dialects spoken by German Christians, namely, in phonology and grammar. Before that period, differences surely existed in such domains, surface level for any language, as orthography and lexicon. The German dialects from southern Germany represent the linguistic basis for Western Yiddish. The medieval Bohemian dialect of German represents the linguistic basis for Yiddish spoken in Central Europe and eastern Europe. Due to permanent contacts with the Slavic Christian population, Eastern Yiddish underwent numerous changes in all of its systems due to the strong influence of Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. It eventually branched into three subdialects: Lithuanian Yiddish, Polish Yiddish, and Ukrainian Yiddish. In modern times, in numerous countries the decline of the use of Yiddish as a living language was related to the assimilation of local Jews to the culture of the Gentile majority. At the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century it was the case in various German-speaking provinces of Central Europe and western Europe where local Jews abandoned Yiddish in favor to German. Similar shifts to the dominant non-Jewish languages took place during the 20th century in various western European countries. In the USSR, during the 1920s and the 1930s the shift to Russian was already well advanced. For those who survived the Holocaust, the assimilation accelerated during the following decades. In Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania, Yiddish-speaking communities were decimated by the Holocaust. In North America, most immigrant families shifted to English within a generation or two. Yet, because of a permanent influx of masses of native speakers between the 1880s and the 1920s, Yiddish was actively used until the mid-20th century even in certain secular Jewish groups. However, during the second half of the 20th century its decline was accelerated outside of certain Haredi groups.

General Studies

Several books present a general description of various aspects of the Yiddish language and its dialects, addressing topics from both synchronic and diachronic linguistic perspectives. The scope of Birnbaum 1979 and Jacobs 2005 is similar enough. Yet, Jacobs—in contrast to Birnbaum—uses a more standard terminology and its descriptive methods fit international standards of this scholarly domain. For Yiddish studies, the main interest of both books consists in the description they provide of synchronic aspects of Eastern Yiddish and its subdialects.

  • Birnbaum, Solomon. 1979. Yiddish: A survey and a grammar. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author, Solomon (Salomo) Birnbaum (b. 1891–d. 1989) filled the first worldwide Yiddish chair (Hamburg University, 1922–1933) and was among the pioneers in the domain of scholarly Yiddish studies. The book provides the description of topics he studied during his life: history and age of Yiddish, elements of Yiddish, “spontaneous development” (innovations internal to Yiddish), and dialects, script and sounds, morphology, and syntax (based on the Yiddish dialect of Poland).

  • Jacobs, Neil G. 2005. Yiddish: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive up-to-date and detailed description of various linguistic aspects of Yiddish. Includes sections on the history of the language, dialectology, phonology, morphology, syntax, and sociolinguistics. The description of Yiddish grammar is mainly focused on Standard Yiddish though the author also regularly provides useful information concerning the dialectal peculiarities of various Eastern Yiddish dialects.

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