A Very Brief History of Yiddish

Throughout the first half of our two week global citizenship journey, we’ve learned a smattering of the history of the Yiddish language from a range of people: from our (otherwise retired) teacher Barry, from our interviewee and former Stamford Hill resident Izzy, from our lecture with Lily Kahn, and in part from our friends and fellow students. Each tell a story of the language that is differently coloured, which is fitting for a language that is oddly personal to its speakers with a history very specific to its community.


The Yiddish alphabet or “alef-beys”

Yiddish evolved from medieval Middle High German, as a spoken language among the Ashkenazi, the Jewish population of Eastern / Central Europe. With the medieval migration of the Ashkenazi to eastern Europe and the quashing of Western Yiddish during the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, the prevalent strand became Eastern Yiddish. Although Germanic in origin and structure, the language borrows heavily fromothers: many Hebrew words are used, but there are also elements of Polish, Russian, Aramaic, French and Ukrainian. Originally, Yiddish was considered the lower, spoken language, while Hebrew remained the higher, written language of literature and holy texts. For a long time, Yiddish was the main language of Jews living predominantly north of the Danube, and in immigrant communities in cities across Europe, notably London’s Whitechapel and Spitalfield areas.


London’s Spitalfield Market

Eastern Yiddish evolved into a sophisticated language, with an established literary and theatrical culture. This continued for centuries, until the Shoa happened, and the few Yiddish speaking Jews that remained in Europe were left to process the disaster that had befallen their people. Here, Izzy tells us, Jewish families took different paths. Some began to doubt and turn away from their faith, becoming more liberal and less religiously adherent. Other families took an opposite path, retreating into strict, orthodox Judaism and isolating themselves from other communities, speaking only Yiddish. In these circles, Yiddish has regressed to a less developed language, its vocabulary has shrunk, and expression is limited. Communication has to be accompanied with tuts and clicks, gestures and implications. Nonetheless, in the strictest communities the learning of other languages is frowned upon, or forbidden completely.

Today, there are few Yiddish speakers left in central and eastern Europe — most live in the US, Israel and Ukraine, although exact numbers are heavily disputed.