The origins of Yiddish date back more than a thousand years. It originated in what is now Germany and gradually spread into Eastern Europe and, later, throughout the world. For most of its history it was the first language of most members of the Ashkenazi community and the language that they used most frequently for daily communication. It is still written and spoken in Orthodox Jewish communities around the world and remains the first language taught in childhood for most Hasidic Jews.
Today, Yiddish is recognized as an official minority language in Sweden, Moldova and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia.
Yiddish originated in the 10th century CE in the Ashkenazi community. Ashkenaz was the Medieval Hebrew word for Germany but also included parts of France, even bordering on areas inhabited by the Spanish-speaking Sephardi Jews. The first Jewish inhabitants of the region probably spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, which they soon began mixing with the Germanic dialects spoken by the people who surrounded them.
The oldest surviving piece of writing in Yiddish is to be found in a Hebrew prayer book from 1272 CE. Transliterated into the Roman alphabet, it reads, "Gut tak im betage se vaer dis makhazar in beis hakneses trage", meaning, "May the one who brings this prayer book to the synagogue have a good day". Yiddish at that time does not appear to have been very different from German spoken by other people, although it was always written in the Hebrew alphabet.
Songs and poems in Yiddish began to appear in the 14th and 15th centuries CE, as did Ashkenazi adaptations of secular German romances and folk tales.
By the 15th century CE, Yiddish was beginning to sound quite distinct from German.
The introduction of the printing press to Europe brought about an increase in written material available in Yidish, many examples of which survive. The earliest published writer in Yiddish whose name is known was Elia Levita, author of the Bovo-Bukh. Published in 1541 CE, the Bovo-Bukh is an adaptation of an English chivalric romance by way of an Italian translation and was the first non-religious text to be printed in Yiddish.
The fact that most Ashkenazi women could read and write Yidish but not Hebrew meant that amany books, both religious and secular, specifically intended for a female readership were published in Yidish.
Yiddish was developped as a literary language in the 19th and early 20th century by such writers as Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), Sholem Rabinovitch, who wrote under the pseudonym, Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) and Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915).
By 1939 there were as many as thirteen million Yiddish speakers in the world. The horrific events of the Holocaust brought about a sudden and dramatic decline in their numbers.
There are currently about three million Yiddish speakers worldwide. According to the 2000 census, there are 178,945 Yiddish speakers in the United States. There are also more than 30,000 Yiddish speakers in the United Kingdom. The London-based weekly newspaper, Jewish Tribune, contains a small section, Idishe Tribune, in Yiddish.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe moved to Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Latin America. Many of those immigrants stopped using words derived from Slavic Eastern European languages, considering them to be unnecessary and old-fashioned. Immigrants to North America incorporated a great many English words into their Yiddish speech, as, to a lesser extent, did those living in the United Kingdom. Those who went to what would become the State of Israel increasingly began to incorporate Modern Hebrew words into their Yiddish. As a result, Yiddish speakers from different countries sometimes encounter a few communication problems when they converse with each other.
Yiddish words in English
A number of Yiddish words have passed it into common usage In the United States and, to a lesser degree, in other English speaking countries. Some of them are well known even in areas where the Jewish community is small, due to the influence of popular culture, such as television. Some of them are:
- chutzpah - daring, nerve
- goy - gentile, non-Jew
- mensch - a good, decent man
- meshuga / meshugana - crazy
- nosh - snack (In British English the meaning has changed to mean "food" in general)
- schlep - carry or drag around
- schmooze - social, small talk
- The Joys of Yiddish, a humorous book by Leo Rosten about Yiddish words used in English
- Ladino, the language of the Sephardi community, the status of which is similar to that of Yiddish for the Ashkenazi community