Jewish Studies Yiddish Linguistics
by
Isaac L. Bleaman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0192

Introduction

Linguistic studies of Yiddish span several centuries and incorporate a wide range of research questions and methodologies, from philological analyses of Old Yiddish texts to generative approaches to particular grammatical constructions. The historical development of the language has undoubtedly been, and continues to be, the most hotly debated research topic in Yiddish linguistics. However, other productive areas of inquiry have included structural analysis (e.g., syntax, semantics, and phonology), dialectology and other fields of sociolinguistics (e.g., language contact and interspeaker variation), and, increasingly, computational approaches (e.g., the construction and use of linguistic corpora). Historically, Yiddish linguists have often played a major role in language planning efforts, including the production of style manuals, dictionaries, and textbooks—so much so that “Yiddish linguist” has often been understood as synonymous with “Yiddish standardizer.” However, the primary focus of this bibliography is descriptive linguistic research. (Information on standard Yiddish reference works, which can be unparalleled sources of linguistic data and a useful starting point for new research projects, can be found in the more general Oxford Bibliographies article “Yiddish.”) The works included here represent a curated sample, rather than an exhaustive list, of publications and research tools in the various subfields of Yiddish linguistics. (See Bibliographies for more comprehensive references.) Due to the centrality of language in research on the history, literature, and folk culture of Ashkenazic Jews, this bibliography is likely to be useful not only to linguists, but also to researchers in related disciplines within Yiddish and Jewish studies.

Grammars and Linguistic Descriptions

Readers interested in the structure of the Yiddish language stand to benefit from several accessible introductions and reference grammars. The works included here offer preliminary descriptions and analyses of linguistic phenomena and are often a suitable starting point for data on particular grammatical constructions. Birnbaum 2016, Jacobs 2005, and Kahn 2016 are oriented toward general (though linguistically informed) readers, while Zaretski 1929, Mark 1978, and Katz 1987 are more pedagogical or normative in focus.

  • Birnbaum, Solomon A. Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

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    Originally published in 1979, Birnbaum’s classic reference grammar is noteworthy for its discussion of the history and dialectology of Yiddish, its descriptive grammatical overview, and its idiosyncratic transcription system, reflecting a greater number of phonological contrasts than are possible in standard (YIVO) romanization. The second edition includes new introductory essays assessing Birnbaum’s life and work as well as an updated comprehensive bibliography of Yiddish linguistics.

  • Jacobs, Neil G. Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    A modern introduction to the history and grammatical structure of Yiddish, with overviews of phonology, morphology, and syntax, as well as topics in sociolinguistics. Although much of the data are presented in Standard Yiddish, Jacobs’s grammar is descriptive in orientation and its explanations are couched in terms that will be familiar to readers with training in linguistics.

  • Kahn, Lily. “Yiddish.” In Handbook of Jewish Languages. Edited by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, 641–747. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

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    This overview of the Yiddish language, including not only grammatical information but also background on the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews, appears in a comparative handbook with chapters on different Jewish languages. This chapter includes exemplary Yiddish texts as well as a comprehensive updated (2016) bibliography for further reading in Yiddish linguistics.

  • Katz, Dovid. Grammar of the Yiddish Language. London: Duckworth, 1987.

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    Aimed at students, this reference grammar includes a concise discussion of the history of Yiddish as well as its grammar, with sections on individual parts of speech, syntax, and the semantics of lexical items likely to confuse English-speaking students. The descriptions of grammatical phenomena are based largely on a standard Yiddish variety modeled on Lithuanian Yiddish.

  • Mark, Yudel. Gramatik fun der yidisher klal-shprakh. New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1978.

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    As its title (A Grammar of Standard Yiddish) suggests, this book-length grammar is prescriptively oriented, with discussions of orthography, pronunciation, and word order, as well as individual sections on different parts of speech. However, the book is filled with descriptions of grammatical phenomena along with example sentences, and it may therefore be useful for research on particular language structures.

  • Zaretski, Ayzik. Yidishe gramatik: Nay-ibergearbete oysgabe. Vilnius: Kletskin, 1929.

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    Based on his Praktishe yidishe gramatik (1926), this influential reference text by one of the architects of Soviet Yiddish language planning is directed at Yiddish students and teachers and is especially noteworthy for its descriptions of morphological and syntactic phenomena.

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