From an article in the St. Paul Globe, Sunday, March 20, 1904.
ORIGIN OF THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE
It is Not Hebrew, Russian,
Polish or Roumanian,
But Chiefly Ancient and Medieval German, Shattered,
Torn and Pulverized--How the Jews Developed the Tongue Because of
Oppressive Laws Restraining Them From Acquiring an Education.
As the municipal
campaign progresses and political "literature" becomes more
abundant, all West Side residents, all visitors at the court house
will encounter handbills printed in strange characters. Most
Americans will fail to recognize the language of the bills. Some
disappointed readers will call the printing Greek; others will say
it's merely Syrian or Arabic; for St. Paul has its representatives
from Athens, Beirut and Damascus.
The better informed
will make a closer guess and call the curious language Hebrew. And,
finally, one man in ten will know the truth. He will say "It's
Ask him, however, what
is Yiddish? He'll probably tell you it is modern Hebrew, or that it
is simply Russian or Polish printed in Hebrew characters. He knows,
at any rate, that Yiddish is the language of several thousand St.
Paulites; that it is spoken constantly among themselves by numerous
Russian, Polish and Roumanian Jews in this city; that it flourishes
especially among the many Jews of West St. Paul.
Yiddish, indeed, is
the language of all the multitude of Russian, Polish and Roumanian
Jews that have immigrated to America in recent years. Not a few of
these immigrants know other languages, including the language of the
countries where they've lived. But Yiddish is the popular medium,
the language of the home, the shop, the synagogue, Yiddish
newspapers are published in several American cities. In Greater New
York Yiddish is the language of influential journals and of more
pretentious literature. A writer of Yiddish novels who lives on
Gotham's East side, was lately described as the most prolific of
Yet this favorite
tongue or Russian Hebrews, of Polish Hebrews, of Roumanian Hebrews,
is not Hebrew; neither is it Russian nor Polish nor Roumanian.
Chiefly it is German, old German, medieval German, popular German,
German not merely "broken," but shattered, torn, pulverized--a
veritable linguistic mincemeat.
Like all languages
Yiddish is an eloquent tradition, a history written in human blood.
The German at the basis of Yiddish was the language of the numerous
Jews who lived in Germany during the middle ages, and who suffered
unutterable persecutions for fidelity to conscience. When medieval
superstition and fanaticism raged, when the Israelites were accused
of causing the plague by poisoning Christian wells, thousands of
German Jews fled from Germany to Switzerland. Although the maze of
Jewish wanderings before and after this period will not be sketched
here, it may be said, loosely, that many of the refugees from
Germany took refuge first in Poland, where they were welcomed by
King Casimir and other Polish monarchs. From Poland the Jews
scattered to different parts of the present Austria, to Roumania and
other Balkan states, and to Russia.
Since the fourteenth
century, therefore, and possibly longer, the errant Jews from
Germany, and their descendants, have been talking and writing what
they call "the jargon." By this old French and modern English word
they described the linguistic impedimenta of their travels. Starting
with a popular dialect of German, mingled with some Hebrew from
their own sacred books and time-honored literature, they have added
words from the language of every country traversed in their
HOW YIDDISH WAS
The longer the Jews
remained in any country the more they absorbed, of course, from the
language of that country. But oppressive laws, restraining the
wanderers from accumulating the means for an education, or from
securing an education at any cost, encouraged the use of Yiddish.
Forced to associate almost entirely with each other, and cut off
from all familiarity with national literature other than their own,
a majority of the Jews in question have continued to read and write
Yiddish, and, above all, to talk Yiddish, even when surrounded for
generations by neighbors employing a language wholly different.
Thus the only effect
of propinquity upon the ancient "jargon" is that the Russian Jews
mix more Russian in their Yiddish, the Polish Jews more Polish. But
Yiddish is understood easily by well nigh all the Jews of Western
Europe. It is also understood, with some difficulty, by most
Germans, both Jew and gentile.
Before presenting a
fragment of this interesting composite--this tongue of the faith
fidelity and sorrow--some remarks upon the Hebrew might suitably be
prefaced. Now, all Northwestern divinity students, all clergymen,
read The Globe. But other readers may not recall that the Hebrew
alphabet contains no vowels. Vowels, indeed have been added in the
way of supplementary specks or points, although stenographers,
pretty and plain, will agree that such assistance is required for
children only or for learners. What can be clearer than this
inquiry: "W-l y- ac-pt b-x m-r-c-n b-t-s?" Certainly she
will--either American Beauties or even violets.
Hebrew letters, then,
include no vowels. But Hebrew, we mustn't forget, is always written
backwards. That is to say, Hebrew has been written for thousands of
years, straight ahead, forwards, from right to left, while English
and other upstart, modern tongues are written backwards, from left
This venerable and
perfectly natural method, no doubt--since some of the earliest
people fell into it unconsciously--is preserved by the Yiddish,
which is written "backwards," as perverted eyes would guess. But
when Hebrew letters are used for foreign words whose pronunciation
has not been fixed by usage "from the beginning," vowels cannot be
easily laid aside. The points or vocals, then, inserted
subordinately, like stenographic dots, are employed in Yiddish "side
by each" with the full-fledged consonants alone are generally shown.
No capitals are used in Hebrew or in Yiddish.
Now, we will sit down
behind the counter, after a good orthodox dinner, in which no meat
was eaten with milk, and not an egg was used that revealed a speck
of blood, and we will open our latest copy of the Jewish World,
printed at No. 9 Rutgers street, New York. Our eyes will turn
naturally to the headlines--"All about the War." These headlines are
printed with the present article; any Globe reader can help us
peruse them; but he may catch their spirit better if we remind him
that, reading from right to left, he should repeat softly to
SAMPLE OF YIDDISH.
ruhtra top nai tretemhsuz nerew nesur 300, etc.'
Reading from left to
right, just to be odd, we find the latest war bulletin now runs:
russishe flaten farelinigen zich
300 rusen weren zushmetert ain port arthur makarow hat gemacht
aguten plan aiub admiral togo wet aihm net beziziitens zerashteren
gesezt ain kohn ale rusishe kreigs chifen
graus ybshh michnh erwartet
The four last words,
it should be mentioned, were accidentally omitted from the original
This Yiddish tale of
Oriental happenings contains, as any high school pupil will detect,
many German words--some good German and other German that is
"queer," to say the least. But Yiddish, when printed in metropolitan
newspapers, includes a larger proportion of German, and of good
German, it is said, than does most colloquial Yiddish. Russian and
Polish words and words from all languages except German and Hebrew,
are comparatively rare in newspaper Yiddish.
The equivalent of The
Worlds' bulletin, as rendered into high German last week by the
local rabbi who translated the Yiddish into English letters for The
300 Russen waren zerschmettered in Port Arthur!
Makarow hat gemacht ein guten plan, wenn Admiral Togo wollte.
Ihm nicht zeitlich zeristoeren gezeight in kohn (?) alle Russische
Grosser land krieg erwartet!
Our medieval German
preserved by the Yiddish--which name, by the way, is merely a London
corruption of the German "juedisch," Jewish--shows in the foregoing
specimen, one or more peculiar idioms, including a different order
of words than of present day high German. The "300" is simply the
world-wide Arabic numerals unchanged. "Makarow" is the name of a
Russian admiral. "Plan" is both German and English; "kohn" has no
exact German equivalent, but means 'broadly,' said the rabbi, game,
chance, hazard, risk, etc. It wasn't a Hebrew word, he said, he
didn't think it was Russian; it was certainly Yiddish, whatever its
origin. "Land krieeg," land war, war on land, translate directly two
pure Hebrew worxs, "michnh ybshh" which, supplying the understood
vowels, are "yaboshoh melchonah." Very hoary words are these; the
Pilgrim fathers, with more faith than erudition, would have insisted
that these words were spoken by Adam. Certainly it is that "yaboshoh,"
land, the dry land, is used in The Jewish World to describe the
Russian-Japan war; the same word was used in Genesis to describe the
Why, didn't you
understand? Beg pardon--we should have mentioned that, in English,
our bulletin informed us:
300 Russians lost at Port Arthur!
Makarow has formed a good plan, if Admiral Togo is willing (that is,
If he (Makarow) doesn't act in time, he will place all the Russian
ships in danger of destruction.
Great war by land expected!
"That's all," added the rabbi. It's easy enough to read, you
"Yes, we use
considerable Hebrew in ordinary Yiddish conversation. We always used
the Biblical names for church days and seasons. We say "Sabat' for
Sabbath, 'Pesach' for Passover, 'Yom Kepur' for Day of Atonement,
'Rosh Shashono' for New Year's, etc.
"But we also say of a
child, 'Poor little fellow, he's a yosen,' an orphan. And our
young men say of a pretty young woman, just as sympathetically, but
not a bit sadly, 'Handsome, isn't she? And, besides, you know, she's
an 'almono.' He means, she's handsome and a widow."