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Summary Article: Yiddish
from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

Yiddish is a language spoken primarily by Jews of eastern European descent. Unlike other West-Germanic languages, Yiddish is a fusion language comprising mainly Germanic, Hebrew/Aramaic, and Slavic components, featuring a Hebrewderived orthography. There are an estimated 500,000 native speakers of Yiddish, with the largest communities in Israel, the United States, and Russia, although reliable statistics are difficult to ascertain due to the reluctance of certain orthodox groups to participate in censuses. The figure represents a significant decline from its peak of 11 million speakers at the outbreak of World War II, 7-8 million of whom lived in eastern Europe.

Philologists trace the origins of Yiddish to the 11th century. Max Weinreich argued that Yiddish emerged when Judeo-Romance-speaking Jews encountered Germanic tribes in the Upper Rhine Valley. Others have argued for a Bavarian context, while, radically, Paul Wexler has posited Slavic origins, claiming that Yiddish is a relexified form of Upper Sorbian. Most scholars continue to accept Weinreich's thesis, particularly its sociolinguistic base. Weinreich considered Yiddish a constituting element of Ashkenazic Jewish life, reflecting and determining its unique configuration. Yiddish helped retain traditional folkways as the community migrated eastward, while the language itself became heavily Slavicized after the population shifted in the 17th century. In 1908, the Czernowitz Language Conference proclaimed Yiddish a Jewish National Language, while the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research developed a standardized orthography and phonology in the 1930s. This is the version taught today.

Early Yiddish texts range from memoirs and ethical wills to translations of Arthurian legends. Among the largest bodies of premodern Yiddish texts are prayers written for women. Women were largely uneducated in Hebrew, the traditional language of Jewish learning, and they turned to Yiddish as a religious outlet. Many Yiddish books claimed to be written for the benefit of women, and this became a means of justifying Yiddishlanguage publication. The development of a literature in the women-oriented vernacular parallels the situation in other European literatures.

Modern Yiddish literature emerged in the mid-19th century. Its three classic authors were Sholem Yankev Abramovitch, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, who together developed many of its generic features. The literature grew exponentially before World War II, becoming truly cosmopolitan with major centers in the Soviet Union, United States, and Poland. Ironically, Yiddish literature enjoyed some of its greatest successes after the war, culminating in I. B. Singer's receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1978. Today, secular Yiddish literature is written by a small number of writers; however, recent years have seen the emergence of younger authors, many of whom learned the language in universities. There is also a growing corpus of texts written by and for Hassidic Jews, who continue to use Yiddish as a daily spoken language.

See also

Ashkanaz, Hebrew, Israel, Jewish Diaspora, Judaism

Further Readings
  • Jacobs, N. G. (2005). Yiddish: A linguistic introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Weinreich, M. (2008). History of the Yiddish language. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Kensky, Eitan
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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