Profile of an Endangered Language: Yiddish

Lionbridge onDemand is proud to be bringing you this blog series designed to profile some of the world's thousands of endangered languages. Yes, that's right - some languages are, in fact, in danger of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets forth the criteria for and categorizes languages that may be endangered or extinct.

This particular blog post is centered around a culturally and historically rich language: Yiddish. After reading, check out some resources on Yiddish and see what you can do to help preserve its legacy!

what is yiddish?

Yiddish literally means "Jewish." In some older materials, Yiddish is referred to as "Yiddish-Taitsh," which translates to "Jewish German." And Jewish German is a very precise descriptor of the language, indeed, based on the historical location of its speakers. However, some scholars now speculate, based on DNA evidence, that Yiddish may have originated in Turkey, not Germany.

Yiddish, which first came into use around the 9th century AD, is the traditional language of the Ashkenazi Jews, who are the Jews of Germany. As such, Yiddish is composed of Germanic elements as well as Hebrew elements. In fact, Yiddish is basically a hybrid of German and Hebrew. 

Modern Yiddish has two major groups: Eastern Yiddish and Western Yiddish. Eastern Yiddish, which is the much more common group, includes speakers from Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Lithuania, and Hungary. Western Yiddish (spoken in Western Europe) has less than 6,000 active speakers today.

Prior to the Holocaust, which wiped out a staggering six million Jews, there were approximately 10-13 million speakers of Yiddish. Unfortunately, another ripple effect of this tragedy was an overwhelming decrease in Yiddish users across Europe, as over 85% of Holocaust victims were Yiddish speakers. Emigration out of Europe after the Holocaust served to further dilute the Yiddish-speaking population.

Less than 1.5 million people currently speak Yiddish as a first language. These speakers are spread across Europe (mostly Central and Eastern portions), Israel, and parts of North America (mostly New York). UNESCO currently defines Yiddish as "Definitely endangered."

fun facts about yiddish

Here are some informational tidbits that you may not have known about Yiddish!

Some common Yiddish words. Recognize any?

Some common Yiddish words. Recognize any?

  • Yiddish is written in Hebrew script.
  • Yiddish is not only the name of a language, it's also an adjective used to describe a culture - ie, "Yiddish music."
  • The popular Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem's book of stories Tevye and his Daughters, originally published in Yiddish. The American version of the musical, although performed in English, does include some Yiddish vernacular.
  • The movie musical Yentl, starring Barbara Streisand, was also based on Yiddish source material - Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy."
  • Modern English has borrowed innumerable words and phrases from Yiddish - yet many people may not even know their true origins. Words like "klutz," "schmutz," and "mensch" are all commonly used. You probably know what they mean without even having to look up the definitions. But did you know their Yiddish roots? For a list of more commonly-utilized Yiddish words and phrases, you can visit this handy website

yiddish resources

Here are a few websites that can provide more education about the history and preservation of Yiddish!

The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

Voices from the Shtetl: The Yiddish Memories Project

WJC International Yiddish Center

Effort To Preserve Yiddish Works Not 'Bupkes'

the bottom line

Yiddish has a long and proud history filled with adversity and struggle. It has prevailed for hundreds of years, from its time spoken in Central European shtetls to its near-destruction during the horror of the Holocaust. Despite its current "Definitely endangered" status, Yiddish still has more speakers than Gaelic, which was profiled in our last entry. On top of this, there are several institutions dedicated to the protection and revival of the language, including Hampshire College's Yiddish Book Center, which aims to preserve books written in the Yiddish language. 

You may still encounter a situation where a Yiddish translation is needed. If the need arises, call on your good friends at Lionbridge. Our vast network of over 25,000 linguists allows us to source translators for hundreds of languages, including Yiddish. To learn more about our services and our onDemand portal, visit our website.

See you again for our next endangered language profile!


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