Yiddish is essentially a Germanic language written in Hebrew characters. Over time it acquired words and grammatical patterns from other tongues (these now form a significant part of the language). For nearly 1000 years, Yiddish was the quintessential language of Ashkenazic Jews (Jews living in northern Europe). However, the combined effects of assimilation, the Holocaust and the triumph of Hebrew in modern Israel reduced the number of Yiddish-speakers to a tiny minority.

During the period 1000-1250 Jews living in the valleys of the French Moselle, Rhine, Maine and upper Danube Rivers (an area they called ‘Ashkenaz’) spoke a language which combined Hebrew, Aramaic and Romance words with German dialects. Yiddish was called Loshn Ashkenaz ‘(the language of Germany’) or simply Taytsh (‘German’).

Old Yiddish is dated 1250-1500. Jews fled the Crusades and Black Death eastwards to Slavic lands, Bohemia, Moravia, Poland and Lithuania, and northern Italy. A two-line Yiddish blessing appeared in a Machzor (festival prayer book) in Worms in 1272. Other 14th century Yiddish stories were stored in the Cairo Genizah.

Middle Yiddish is dated 1500-1750. Curiously, a Slav-tinged eastern dialect developed as other Jews moved westwards, to Holland, Alsace and northern Germany. The first printed Yiddish books and first Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary appeared in the 16th century. So did Tzena u-Rena, a popular Yiddish compendium of commentary and stories for women.

Modern Yiddish dates from 1750 to the present. Western Yiddish largely died out as a spoken language; it lasted until the 1820s as a written language. Eastern Yiddish subdivided into North-eastern and Southern variants. Yiddish started acquiring terminology from French, English, Turkish and (in Palestine) Arabic. Conversely, a new phenomenon arose in the USA: Yiddish words in English.

Initially shunned by protagonists of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) as a hybrid ‘street language’, in the period 1870-1917 Yiddish became a vehicle for transmitting literary, scientific and political terms and ideas. At the same time, Yiddish books preserved the hitherto purely oral Chassidic tales.

A Yiddish journal titled Kol Mevasser appeared in 1862. A conference at Chernowitz signalled Yiddish’s arrival as a language in its own right. And Yiddish literature developed a distinct character in the USA and USSR between the wars. Slavic and Semitic influences produced unique Yiddish consonant clusters not known in other Germanic dialects. Similarly, words of German origin are grafted onto a Slavic grammatical model.

There are many different pronunciations in Yiddish: ‘to buy meat’ is kafn flas in Western Yiddish; kojfn flajs in Central Yiddish; kojfn flejs in South-eastern Yiddish; and kejfn flejs in North-eastern Yiddish.

Yiddish lost out to Hebrew as the national language of Palestine (later Israel), and lost to English for Jews in the USA and Britain. The Holocaust halved the numbers of Yiddish speakers, who numbered 11 million before being decimated. Secular Yiddish journals declined after the war due to a lack of readers. Today Yiddish is spoken predominantly by ultra-Orthodox Jews who have retained it as their language of everyday conversation (especially in Israel), and occasionally by elderly Jews who view it nostalgically as the language of their childhood.

Today Yiddish is avidly studied for its insights into Jewish history, and its linguistic characteristics. Academics and the growing ultra-orthodox keep the language alive, a paradox that would have astounded the pro-Hebrew Zionists and die-hard Yiddishists of 70 years ago.

Some Well-known Yiddish Words

Out of the hundreds of Yiddish words that have crept into English, here is a selection of a few favourites:

Chutzpah: ultimately untranslatable, it means ‘cheek,’ ‘nerve’ or ‘hide’, as in ‘What chutzpah he has!’

Ganif: pronounced ‘gonef’, it means ‘a thief’ or ‘a crook’. This word has an ancient provenance in English, appearing in Chaucer!

Glitz: derived from German and Yiddish ‘to sparkle’. It means extravagant, or attractive, but in a cheap sort of way.

Kibitz: to complain or nag

Maven: meaning ‘expert’, it derives from the Hebrew verb mevin which means ‘to understand’

Mishmash: a hodgepodge or mixture

Nosh: used either as a verb or a noun, it means ‘eat’ or a snackfood

Shikse: a non-Jewish girl or woman. The male equivalent is shaygets (both these terms are derogatory).