The Yiddish Language

From an article in the St. Paul Globe, Sunday, March 20, 1904.


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.

Latest News in Yiddish.

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 Yiddish."

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 modern romancers.


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 journeys.


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 to right.

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 himself:


chiz neginileraf netalf ehsissur
ruhtra top nai tretemhsuz nerew nesur 300,

Reading from left to right, just to be odd, we find the latest war bulletin now runs:

russishe flaten farelinigen zich
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 as reproduced.

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 Globe, is:

Russiche flotten vereinigen sich!
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 kreigs schiffe.
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 Creation.

Why, didn't you understand? Beg pardon--we should have mentioned that, in English, our bulletin informed us:

Russian fleets combined!
300 Russians lost at Port Arthur!
Makarow has formed a good plan, if Admiral Togo is willing (that is, doesn't interfere).
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 see.

"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."


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