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What is Yiddish?

Yiddish is the traditional vernacular, or daily language, of Ashkenazic Jews. Ashkenazim are Jews originally from German-speaking lands in northwestern Europe, who developed their own religious customs as well as their own Jewish language, Yiddish. Today, most of Jews in the world are Ashkenazim, including the great majority of American Jews.

How old is Yiddish?

Scholars generally consider Yiddish to be about 1,100 years old. They believe Yiddish to have its origins in the arrival of Jews who came from northern France and Italy and settled in towns in the Rhine River valley— Aachen, Mainz, Worms, Speyer— during the 900s. These Jews became the first Ashkenazim and the first Yiddish speakers.

What sort of language is Yiddish?

Yiddish is a Germanic language. It is in the same family of languages as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Afrikaans, and English, among others. Although its core grammar and most of its vocabulary are Germanic, Yiddish contains many words and grammatical features that it shares with other languages: Hebrew and Aramaic; Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, and other Slavic languages; Old Italian and French. Yiddish also has a considerable number of modern internationalisms shared by many languages, such as matematik and telefon.

What alphabet does Yiddish use?

Yiddish uses the same alphabet as Hebrew; in Yiddish it is called the alefbeys. Most consonants are the same as they are in Hebrew, but instead of indicating vowel sounds the way Hebrew does, with nikudot (vowel points) under or above letters, Yiddish has letters that serve as vowels. For example the letter ayin indicates the sound "e" as in "red", and the letter vov indicates the sound "u" as in "put." If you know how to read Hebrew, you can learn to read Yiddish very easily.

How many people speak Yiddish today?

It is estimated that there are about a quarter million Yiddish speakers in the United States, about the same number in Israel, and another 100,000 or so in the rest of the world. That's a lot less than the peak number of Yiddish speakers— 11,000,000— on the eve of the Holocaust. However, some scholars believe that the number of Yiddish speakers is no longer declining and may in fact be on the rise.

What do people do in Yiddish today?

  • There are Yiddish theater companies that perform in New York, Warsaw, Tel Aviv, and Montreal.
  • There are ATMs that allow you to do your banking in Yiddish (in Boro Park, Brooklyn).
  • There are several Yiddish bloggers on the Internet, and children in a Jewish day school in Melbourne, Australia, have their own Yiddish web journal.
  • There are Yiddish board games created especially for hasidic children and spy novels written in Yiddish for their parents.
  • There are choirs and klezmer bands around the world that perform songs written in Yiddish.
  • There are new translations of classic works of children's literature— including Winnie the Pooh, The Little Prince, and The Cat in the Hat— into Yiddish.
  • There are Yiddish clubs, where people gather to speak Yiddish with one another, all round the world-even in Japan.
  • There are Yiddish speakers who gather every summer in the Berkshires and spend the entire week playing baseball, studying Jewish texts, hiking, singing folksongs, eating meals— all in Yiddish.
  • There are dozens of universities in North America, Europe, and Israel that offer courses in Yiddish language and literature— including Rutgers.

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