The Relationship of Yiddish to Other Jewish Languages

Yiddish is a folksy language that generally was not respected by the majority of its speakers. It is also a language of literature and politics. Furthermore, its history and structure are of enormous interest to historical linguists and sociologists of language.

The history of Yiddish begins before there was such a language. To begin with, there is the alphabet that we all call the Hebrew alphabet. It wasn't the original Hebrew alphabet at all. During the Babylonian captivity, Jews began to speak Aramaic. They wrote it in the Aramaic alphabet. They also wrote Hebrew in the Aramaic alphabet. You can look up the original Hebrew alphabet in the Encyclopedia Judaica or various other places. It doesn't look especially familiar.

When Alexander the Great conquered much of the world that he knew, Greek was introduced into Judea. So was the Greek religion. The Maccabees restored Judaism, but Greek remained one of the languages of the Jews.

The Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe almost certainly are descended from Jews who lived in Rome. We don't know what language the Jews of the Italian Peninsula used in their daily speech in the days of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Chances are that it was Greek.

Jews were visible enough in the Roman Empire for Emperor Augustus "to order the Roman courts not to call Jewish parties or witnesses on the Sabbath" (Baron, I, 245). The benevolence of Augustus was one side of the picture; the other facet is illustrated by an order given by Sejanus, a counselor of Emperor Tiberius: "The Jews were expelled from Rome and perhaps from all of Italy, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor in Sardinia. Tiberius soon reconsidered, however, and twelve years later formally readmitted the Jews to the city, from which many of them had probably never departed" (Baron, I, 246).

Sardinia is one of several places in Italy where there are catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions. Leo Levi lists 3 inscriptions from the catacombs of Sant'Antioco dating from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E. The language is "ebraico-latino," (Hebrew plus Latin) (152-53). There are at least two words in Sardinian that hint at a Jewish presence on the island: cenabura [ken'abura] 'Friday', Latin cena pura, meaning 'pure feast', suggesting the Sabbath meal; and caputanni, 'September', a literal translation of Rosh Ha-Shanah, 'head of the year' (Bonfante 171). It is entirely possible that Sardinians before the Roman Conquest began their year in September and had a special meal on Friday. Furthermore, words for specifically Jewish practices are likely to be of Hebrew-Aramaic origin, unlike the Romance examples cited above. Nevertheless, the coincidence of caputanni and cenabura suggest an influential Jewish presence. Be that as it may, Jews were expelled from Sardinia and all of southern Italy in the period 1492-1541, when the territories in question came under the rule of the Spanish Royal Family.

The town in Italy most associated with inscriptions in Jewish catacombs is Venosa, in the area known today as Basilicata but earlier generally called Lucania. According to historian Salo W. Baron, "An unbroken series of inscriptions in Venosa, in particular, shows the continuity of Jewish life from ancient to medieval times" (IV, 20). There are at least 51 such inscriptions dating from the 3rd to the 6th century C.E. Of these, 26 are in Greek, 13 in Latin, 2 in Hebrew, 2 in "ebraico-latino"; 10 are illegible (152-53). Greek was the language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire but was widely known in Italy as well. Jews could have come to Italy from Asia Minor and Egypt as well as from Judea; in either event we would expect that at least some Italian Jews spoke a variety of Greek rather than Latin. Later inscriptions from Venosa and elsewhere are likely to be in Hebrew. The revival of Hebrew in the late days of the Roman Empire is no doubt a subject that merits further investigation.

1000 years later, prayerbooks and other texts appear in Judeo-Italian. The only characteristic linking the Venosa inscriptions with more recent texts is a tradition of writing that uses Hebrew consonants to represent vowel sounds. We find the same tradition in Yiddish.

There is at least one Latin word in Judeo-Italian: "synagogue" is scola, as opposed to "school," which is scuola. The use of words for "school" to mean "synagogue" dates back to the Roman Empire. The Judeo-Italian distinction between scola and scuola parallels the Standard Yiddish distinction between shil 'synagogue' and shul 'school'(many, perhaps most, Yiddish dialects do not make this distinction.) In the United States, a new distinction has arisen in the English of East European Jews: shul and not shil is 'synagogue', which is distinguished from school, simply the English word.

Jews from what used to be the Roman Empire, in particular from France, gave Yiddish the word leyenen, meaning 'to read' or 'to read from the Torah', one of the few Romance words in Yiddish, from Old French leyer. We can see why a Jewish language would need a word meaning 'to read from the Torah', which then could broaden its meaning. One word is not proof, however.

There have been many language switches in Jewish history, among them, Judeo-Greek to Judeo-Latin, Judeo-Latin to Judeo-Italian and Judeo-French, Judeo-French to Yiddish. Judeo-French disappeared when Jews were expelled from France in 1394. French Jews fled to what is now Germany. Their language may have survived for a generation or more, but there is no record of it. Instead, we have Isolated words: cholnt from an Old French word meaning hot, related to Spanish caliente and modern French chaud; bentshn, 'to bless', perhaps from French but more likely from Provencal benzir or Italian benedicere; leyenen, which we have already mentioned. Then there are given names: Beyle from belle, meaning 'beautiful', which coexists with the names Sheyne and modern Yafa; Yente, probably from Judeo-Italian yentile, standard Italian gentile, meaning 'noble'; and a man's name, Shneyer, from French seigneur meaning 'nobleman' or 'lord'. Nowadays people say Shneyer comes from Hebrew shnai or 'two light', but there never was such a Hebrew name before there was Yiddish.

The early history of Jews in Poland is not well known. There may have been Greek-speaking Jews from Greece and the rest of the Byzantine Empire, but there is no trace of Greek in Yiddish. After the Mongolians invaded Poland in 1241, the country was poor and wanted to reconstruct itself. Prince Bolslav V allowed Jews to live in Poland. Germany was an extremely dangerous place for Jews during the Crusades and at the time of the Black Death in 1348, although a year later there were similar massacres in Poland. King Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) enacted laws allowing Jews to lend money and have certain rights in 1334, 1364, and 1367.

In 1569, Poland and Lithuania united into a very big country that included what is now Belarus and Ukraine, as well as a bit of Romania. Much of this area became the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the place where Jews were permitted to live.

If Jews switched from Judeo-French to Yiddish, why didn't they switch from Yiddish to Judeo-Polish Judeo-Lithuanian, Judeo-Ukrainian, etc.? The answer, I believe, is that the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was very large and multilingual. Lots of people could speak lots of languages. There was no single language that was found all over the country. Yiddish was one language among many.

Any identifiable group — ethnic, professional, political — has its own way of speaking. Occasionally, this means no more than words, lexical items needed in a particular setting. Observant Jews, for example, need a word for the designated selection from the Prophets that is read in the synagogue on a particular Sabbath of the year. It is so much easier to say haftarah or haftorah than to say "the designated selection from the Prophets that is read in the synagogue on a particular Sabbath of the year." Often, however, lexical items form part of a larger system that includes grammatical rules and intonation patterns. Jewish languages serve at least two purposes: providing vocabulary and reflecting identity.

In every society, and therefore in every language, there are subjects that are considered embarrassing or frightening and not to be discussed directly. I will define "taboo" as any area of discourse that might be avoided for any reason: sex, elimination, foreigners, danger, disease, words prohibited for religious reasons, etc. In Jewish languages, the Hebrew-Aramaic component has been used as a way of dealing with taboo concepts.

Borrowing is probably a linguistic universal. In bilingual societies, speakers inevitably borrow words from one language into another. Minority communities in general and immigrant communities in particular are likely to be bilingual. Jews in the Diaspora have always been minorities and have often been immigrants. Furthermore, they have always studied Hebrew. When borrowing is frequent, concepts that are either taboo, emotionally charged, or connected with danger are likely to be expressed in a second language. For example, English-speaking children of immigrants in America often use words of their parents' native languages for bathroom functions. When my family and I lived and taught in China in 1984, the word cesuo 'bathroom' entered our family dialect. We still use it today. The word is not euphemistic in Chinese; it is the most common word for 'bathroom'. Nor is it euphemistic in our family. Rather, its foreignness gives it a relaxed quality that no English equivalent has.

Words that are associated with science, scholarship, or aristocracy are somehow less threatening. This seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. In every Jewish language, words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin represent both learning and religion. A word may be considered learned simply because it is recognized as Hebrew. In English, words of Latin or Greek origin that are associated with science, scholarship, or aristocracy are for that reason less threatening. Carcinoma and sarcoma sound less shocking than cancer. The use of learned or foreign words as euphemisms seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon.

Perhaps it was President Franklin Roosevelt who first said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." An examination of the words for 'fear' in Jewish languages shows that they are frequently part of the Hebrew-Aramaic component of the language, which suggests that they are or once were euphemisms. People always have feared fear itself, whether or not they said so in so many words. In Yiddish, moyre seems to be an unmarked word — the everyday word for 'fear'. The same is true for Judeo-Italian paxad 'fear', paxadoso 'timid' and impaxadito 'frightened'. David Bunis lists paxad as item 3285 in his Lexicon of the Hebrew-Aramaic Component in Modern Ladino (1993). In Western Yiddish, we find eme for 'fear'. Bunis gives us ema lemilxama 'fear of war' as item 158.

These words don't feel like euphemisms; that is, they don't sound polite, indirect or evasive. For that matter, they don't sound foreign. They have been unmarked — except for their spelling — for as long as anyone can remember. It is possible that Yiddish ikh hob moyre may once have meant "I am anxious," but now simply means "I'm afraid." As euphemisms become more frequently used, they become familiar and lose their euphemistic quality. Sometimes new euphemisms have to be created. Euphemisms are fragile. The same reasons that lead speakers to replace a given word with a euphemism remain in force and lead a later generation to think of a new euphemism. When carcinoma becomes too familiar, it may be replaced by neoplasm. Some speakers feel they have to replace bathroom, itself a euphemism, with washroom, restroom or lavatory — or cesuo.

If we speak about death, we find both euphemisms and dysphemisms. Words for 'funeral' in Jewish languages include levaye in Yiddish and misva in Judeo-Italian. The Yiddish word is euphemistic merely because it comes from the Hebrew-Aramaic component; the Judeo-Italian word is doubly euphemistic, since a funeral is only one of many commandments, or mitsvot. Sarah Benor lists levaya in the glossary of her article on Orthodox Jewish English (1998, p. 44). On the other hand, Judeo-Italian pegare and Yiddish peygeren 'to croak, to kick the bucket', from Hebrew peger 'corpse', could never have been polite. Bunis lists peger as item 3650 and glosses it as 'non-Jewish corpse'.

Bereaved persons, one might think, do not need euphemisms to describe them. Be that as it may, grief is an unpleasant subject, and we find almone 'widow' and almen 'widower' in Yiddish. Bunis gives us almana (item 205) and almon (item 204). Oddly, in Voltaire's short story "Zadig," a woman described as a young widow is named Almona, suggesting that Voltaire knew the word and had heard an Ashkenazic pronunciation. The title character of the story, Zadig himself, is described as a righteous man, suggesting Hebrew or Yiddish tsadik. I don't know why Voltaire chose these names.

The use of particular lexical items to refer to non-Jews introduces another semantic area where we find both euphemisms and dysphemisms. Speakers of Jewish languages, generally a vulnerable minority, could use these as secret words if they were talking about members of the surrounding majority. Jewish languages have served as secret languages. It is easier to speak rudely in a language that is foreign to those one wishes to exclude. However, dysphemisms, like euphemisms, are fragile. The Yiddish word goy is so well known that it is found in English dictionaries. The same word may be found in Judeo-Italian, but a more frequently used word is ngarel, from a Hebrew word meaning uncircumcised. The feminine form is ngarela, which suggests that the primary meaning of the Hebrew word has been forgotten. Bunis lists both arel and arela as Ladino (item 3233), defining them as 'non-Jew, Christian (in opposition to Moslems or Jews)'. Perhaps Yiddish orel is a more private or polite word for goy.

Furthermore, there was a need to distinguish between the clergy and houses of worship of Jews and gentiles. The Hebrew-Aramaic component of Jewish languages filled the need. Judeo-Italian has tongeva or tuneva from a Hebrew word meaning 'abomination'. My mother's Central Yiddish had time, which would be tume in Standard Yiddish, from a Hebrew word meaning 'impurity'. These words clearly reflect hostility. I once wrote that "the hostility is lost as the primary meaning of the Hebrew source word is forgotten" (1981b, p. 113). I have since changed my mind about this question. When I returned from a visit to my mother's home town, Ropczyce in Polish, Ropshits in Yiddish, my uncle asked me whether I had seen the time and made it clear that he knew the primary meaning of the word. Yiddish tifle 'church' (Hebrew 'folly') was not used in my family. As for Christian priests, we find galekh in Yiddish and galax in Judeo-Italian, from a Hebrew word referring to a tonsure.

The word for 'Jesus' in Judeo-Italian is duish, from Hebrew oto ha-ish 'that man'. Bunis lists oto aish (item 114) with the same meaning. Sarah Benor has informed me that oyso (ha)ish exists in Yiddish as well, as does toluy, 'hanging one'.

One would expect there to be words for 'anti-Semite' in Jewish languages. Yiddish antisemit is clearly not of Hebrew-Aramaic origin, although soyne 'enemy' is. sone is Bunis's item 3805. Zalman Yovely, who collected Judeo-Italian lexical items, glosses sone simply as 'anti-Semite' (see Jochnowitz 1981a, p. 150). He also lists the very common Judeo-Italian word xalto, which he glosses as 'bigoted'(p. 153). The origin of this word is unclear. Yovely suggests that it is from Hebrew hol, 'secular, profane'. Whatever the etymology, the word does occur with the Hebrew noun-forming suffix -ut, pronounced -ud in Judeo-Italian: xaltud 'bigotry'.

Related to taboo items is the practice that James Matisoff calls "malo-fugition" or "Deliver us from evil" (2000, p. 43). It is common in Jewish languages to use such expressions frequently. The most common and familiar is Yiddish keyn ayn-hore 'no evil eye'. Matisoff illustrates its use with the following example: Ober mir geyt dos, keyn aynore nit, zeyer gut 'But for me things are going — no evil eye — very well' (p. 43). Bunis gives us aynarax 'the evil eye' and aynarax ke no te apode (item 3119) meaning 'may the evil eye not have power over you'. I have heard ngayin araang se ne pozza 'may the evil eye have no power' from a woman living in Florence whose family came from Venice. According to Matisoff, "An indication of the vitality of the evil eye concept in Jewish culture is the fact that on ayn-hore has been calqued back into modern Israeli Hebrew in the form bli ayin raa 'without an evil eye'" (note 35, p. 136). In that case, it is a very well-traveled expression indeed. Benor tells us that bli ayin hara in Orthodox Jewish English comes from Modern Hebrew bli eyn hara, originally calqued on the Yiddish expression (p. 42).

Is 'thief' a taboo word? Robbery is certainly a taboo activity and an unpleasant side of life. We have Yiddish ganef, Ladino ganav (Bunis item 894) and Judeo-Italian ganav or ganavve. As for the verb to steal, it is formed by adding Indo-European affixes to the Hebrew root: ganvenen, ganavear, ganavviare. A female thief in Judeo-Italian is una ganavessa.

Certain body parts are typically taboo. Yiddish tokhes, Judeo-Italian taxad and Ladino taxad (Bunis item 4042) all refer to the buttocks and come from a Hebrew word meaning 'under'. taxad, like Yiddish tokhes is a word used with confidence and without embarrassment. Judeo-Italian berid and Ladino beri (Bunis item 727) both mean 'penis' and come from the Hebrew word for 'covenant'. Although bris is a Yiddish word meaning 'circumcision ceremony', I know of no Hebrew-Aramaic word in Yiddish with this meaning.

Hebrew-Aramaic words for bathroom functions in Jewish languages are typically quite euphemistic. mashtin zayn 'urinate', nekovim gedoylim and nekovim ketanim 'big holes and 'little holes', geyn af gedoylim and geyn af ketanim "to defecate' and 'to urinate' are indirect and learned ways to avoid saying kakn or shaysn and pishn.

Jews who know no Yiddish may nevertheless use words such as goyim, shikse, sheygets, tuxes, ganef, and others.

A holy language and a language of dirty words. A language that appeared in the 14th century but has traces going back to the days of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Yiddish is all of these at the same time.

A version of this article appeared in the July-August 2004 issue of Jewish Currents.