Yiddish? Why Don't We Speak

I am an English speaker and therefore a reflection of Jewish language shift. I am told that as a child my first language was Yiddish. Perhaps it was, although as far back as I can remember, I always thought in English. Be that as it may, I don't speak Yiddish very well. My cousins don't speak it at all, although my parents and all my aunts and uncles were born in Poland. Those who were born before World War I were born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My maternal grandparents came to the United States in their fifties and never quite learned English.

I can speak Yiddish better than my cousins because my field is linguistics. I love languages. My Yiddish is quite regional, partly because I love dialects, but mostly because I spoke Yiddish only with relatives. When I was a child in Borough Park, Brooklyn, all the children spoke only English among themselves. One of my cousins lived with his paternal grandparents—not my grandparents—and spoke Yiddish to them, but ten years later, he couldn't speak the language at all.

There are many factors determining whether or not language shift takes place in a community, especially if the community is transplanted. A determining factor, I believe, is whether or not the language spoken by the local population and the official language of the country are the same. In a country where most people speak the official language of the country in their homes, Jews speak the official language or a Jewish variety of that language. Thus, Jews speak English—or Jewish English—in America, French in France, Hungarian in Hungary, etc. In the Russian Empire, on the other hand, where the official language was Russian, Jews were likely to live in towns where their neighbors spoke Ukrainian or Lithuanian or Polish or Moldavian or some other language that wasn't Russian. In such a situation, the Jews spoke Yiddish. In big cities like Kiev and Odessa where the local language was Russian, Jews switched from Yiddish to Russian.

After World War I, Russian spread into towns and villages where it had not been spoken before. As this happened, Jews switched their language to Russian. When an independent Poland came into existence, Jews began to use Polish more and more.

In 1848, the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarian became the official language in Hungary, in what is now Slovakia, and in Transylvania, now a part of Romania—all areas where there were many Hungarian speakers. Jews who lived in areas where there were enough Hungarian speakers to insure that Hungarian was the lingua franca of the community switched from Yiddish to Hungarian. In communities where there were no speakers of Slovakian or Romanian, Yiddish was forgotten.

This situation was reversed in the United States. Hasidic Jews who were speakers of Hungarian in Europe are speakers of Yiddish in Brooklyn. Solomon Poll reports that Hasidic men from Hungarian-speaking countries speak Yiddish among themselves but women speak Hungarian. I found an analogous situation among Lubavitcher Hasidim a generation ago, where the men spoke Yiddish, the women spoke Russian, and the girls spoke English. Together, they all spoke Yiddish. In the Soviet Union, they all spoke Russian. In America, Russian is dying out among the children.

In a Hasidic community, the women belong to the outside community and the Hasidic world at the same time. Many of the men simply belong to the Hasidic world. The women live in America, where the official language is English and where most citizens speak English. The Yeshiva students live only in Williamsburg or Crown Heights, neighborhoods that are analogous to towns in Belarus or Transylvania. In Hasidic sections of Williamsburg, the Jews speak Yiddish; their neighbors speak English or Spanish. The situation is somewhat different in Crown Heights, where more English is spoken. Furthermore, Lubavitcher young men go out on the streets and try to persuade Jewish passers-by to put on tefillin if they are men, and to make the blessing over the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. Consequently, English is used more often in Crown Heights than in Williamsburg, although the Lubavitcher community is basically Yiddish-speaking.

The rebirth of Yiddish among Hasidim in Brooklyn is surprising. Even more surprising is the birth of Modern Hebrew, a language that once had no native speakers, in the area that is now Israel. Hebrew was neither the official language of a state, since Israel did not yet exist, nor the language of the surrounding people.

It is especially interesting in the light of the perceptive statement by John Myhill that “it is of particular significance that spoken language is not central to Jewish identity, in spite of the fact that it is believed by many if not most Europeans and Americans that spoken language is the main criterion for membership in a group” (p. 13).  My father, who lived in Cracow, spoke Polish better than Yiddish. My mother, who lived near a town called Ropshits in Yiddish and Ropczyce in Polish, spoke Yiddish better than Polish, although her Polish was extremely good. My father lived in Kazimierz—Kuzmark in Yiddish—the major Jewish neighborhood in Cracow, where almost everyone was Jewish. But Cracow belonged to the outside world. My father and his friends spoke Polish. My mother, on the other hand, lived in the country, where the neighbors were Polish Catholics. Her father—my grandfather—was a cattle dealer, who had to speak Polish to his customers. Nevertheless, only Yiddish was spoken at home. The family's social and religious life was centered in the neighboring town of Ropczyce, where Yiddish was still more common than Polish. City life was different from country life. My father spoke Polish to his Jewish neighbors; my mother, who had few Jewish neighbors, belonged to a Yiddish-speaking community down the road. The rebirth of an independent Poland had a bigger effect in an urban than in a rural setting.

In 1386, Queen Jadwiga of Poland and Grand Duke Jagiello of Lithuania got married. A new country, Poland-Lithuania, which also included Belarus and much of Ukraine, came into existence. Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, German, and other languages were spoken in Poland-Lithuania. There wasn't one single official language. Jews who had come from German-speaking areas and who spoke Yiddish continued to speak Yiddish. There was no Jewish-language switch for six or seven hundred years.

We know much less about language switch among the ancestors of Yiddish-speaking Jews in Germany. Jews were expelled from France in 1394, and as far as we know, most went to Germany. Paul Wexler points out that "the small Judeo-French component of Western Yiddish was acquired after the spread of the latter from the southeast to the southwest German lands" (p. xvii). Judeo-French speakers seem to have switched languages quite rapidly, perhaps because there was a Jewish population that was already speaking Yiddish when the Judeo-French speakers arrived. The exception may have been in the Rhine Valley, where, according to Wexler, "French Jews preserved Judeo-French in this area perhaps until the 1500s" (p. 137). We must stress the word "perhaps."

We may assume that French Jews spoke Judeo-French rather than French, and that Jews in Germany spoke Yiddish rather than German. Before the 18th century, religion dominated life, and words for rites of passage would have been words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin. Thus khosn, kale, khasene, mishpokhe, etc. were almost certainly used among French or German Jews in the Middle Ages for 'groom,' 'bride,' 'wedding,' 'family,' etc. whether or not we have documentation for these words. This is probably also true for words referring to unpleasant aspects of life: 'thief,' 'fear,' 'funeral,' etc., which, as a general rule, are of Hebrew origin in Jewish languages.

If Judeo-French disappeared when its speakers moved into an area with speakers of a different Jewish language, Yiddish, the same is not true of Jews who fled Spain after the expulsion of 1492 and went to the Ottoman Empire. The Jews in Greece who spoke Judeo-Greek, also called Yevanic, were overwhelmed by the speakers of the language called Ladino or Judezmo or Judeo-Spanish or Jidyo or Spanyol. (I will use the name "Ladino" because it is now the most familiar name for both the written and the spoken language.) Judeo-Greek survived in the city of Ioannina (Janina) and neighboring towns in northwestern Greece until World War II. Elsewhere, Judeo-Greek speakers switched languages and merged with the new arrivals from Spain.

The Ottoman Empire, like Poland-Lithuania and the Russian Empire, was a multi-lingual country. Ladino coexisted with Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and a number of other languages. Ladino speakers maintained their language almost without exception until the 19th or 20th centuries. It is still spoken and is taught in the United States and Israel. Some Ladino speakers switched to French if they studied in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle; nowadays, many have switched to Turkish, which has been the official and dominant language in Turkey since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Not all Jews who left Spain in 1492 went to the Ottoman Empire. Some went to Morocco, where a Judeo-Spanish variety called Hakitia still survives, although barely. Some went to Portugal, where they were baptized in 1497 whether they agreed to convert or not, and were declared Christians and therefore subject to the Inquisition. They did not dare speak Ladino or anything but Portuguese. Eventually, some Portuguese New Christians found their way to Holland and returned to their ancestral Judaism. Portuguese, or Judeo-Portuguese, did not survive in Holland, where the official language and the majority language were the same.

Other Jews from Spain or Portugal went to Italy, especially to Leghorn and Ancona. Since Italy already had a Jewish population that spoke Judeo-Italian, Ladino and Portuguese speakers switched languages.

What did Jews speak in the Roman Empire? In the Eastern Empire, they spoke Greek or Judeo-Greek. In the Western Empire, there apparently were many who also spoke Greek. There had been Greek settlements in Italy and Sicily before the Common Era, and there are still communities of Christians who speak Greek. Greek was also a learned language studied by educated Romans. For whatever reason, there are tombstones in Venosa, in southern Italy, written in Greek, generally spelled with the Greek alphabet, in addition to others in Judeo-Greek, Latin, Judeo-Latin, and Hebrew. Excavations are still going on in Venosa, according to a report in The New York Times (May 15, 2003).

The Septuagint, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible, dates from about 250 B.C.E. This suggests that the translation was needed by Jews who had switched languages to Greek. The switch included a switch in writing systems. Nowadays we associate alphabets with religion: Hindi and Urdu, like Serbian and Croatian, are languages that are very similar but written in alphabets reflecting the religions of the speakers. When Turkey became a secular country, it switched alphabets to the secular alphabet, the Latin alphabet. Ladino in Turkey was ordered by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to change alphabets as well, which is why Ladino is written with the Latin alphabet today in Israel after five centuries of being written in the Hebrew alphabet, usually using Rashi script.

But is it the Hebrew alphabet? If we look up alphabets in any encyclopedia, we see an old type of Hebrew writing that nobody can read today except for linguists, archeologists, and historians. What we are using instead is the Aramaic alphabet. During the Babylonian captivity, the children of Israel learned Aramaic and even used its alphabet when writing Hebrew. Hebrew, the holy language, is written with the letters of a second holy language, Aramaic, which is sufficiently sacred to be the language of the Gemara and of familiar prayers and songs like Kaddish, Kol Nidrei, and Had Gadya.

Perhaps Jewish language shift antedates the existence of a Jewish community. The Bible tells us that Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 11:28). His dates are unknown, and many doubt his existence. Ur, in any event, was a Sumerian-speaking city until it became an Akkadian-speaking city after being conquered by Sargon in approximately 2340 B.C.E.

When Abraham left his country, we are told that he left Haran, not Ur (Gen. 12:4). Haran seems to be the same place as Padan-aram, where Abraham's relatives lived (Gen. 25:20). Did Abraham learn Hebrew when he moved to a place inhabited by Canaanites? There is a verse in the Bible (Gen 31-37) that suggests that Jacob's uncle Laban spoke Aramaic. A heap of stones where an oath is sworn is called Jegar-sahadutha in Aramaic by Laban and Gal`ed in Hebrew by Jacob. Both names mean 'heap of witness.'

Whether or not we have doubts about the historical accuracy of the Book of Genesis, there is an indication of a migration and a language shift. Jewish language shift is apparently as old as the Jewish people, if not older.



Jochnowitz, G. (1968). "Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture Among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children," American Speech 43: 188-200. Reprinted in Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters, J. A. Fishman, ed., The Hague: Mouton, 1981.

Myhill, J. (2004). Language in Jewish Society: Towards a New Understanding. Clevedon (UK), Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Poll, S. (1965). "The Role of Yiddish in American Ultra-Orthodox and Hassidic Communities," YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Studies 13: 135, 137, 152.

The New York Times (May 15, 2003). "In Italian Dust, Signs of Past Jewish Life."

Wexler, P. (1988). Three Heirs to a Judeo-Latin Legacy: Judeo-Ibero-Romance, Yiddish and Rotwelsch. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz (=Mediterranean Language and Culture Monograph Series, Vol. 3).


This article appeared in Midstream, Volume LIV, number 4, July/August 2008, pp. 32-34.