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The Glories of Yiddish

History of the Yiddish Language

by Max Weinreich, edited by Paul Glasser, translated from the Yiddish by Shlomo Noble with the assistance of Joshua A. Fishman
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research/Yale University Press, two volumes, 988 pp., $300.00


Max Weinreich (1894–1969) was born in the Courland region of Latvia, then Russian, into a family of German-speaking Jews, and learned Yiddish only in his teens. His doctorate in linguistics at Marburg University (he wrote on the history of Yiddish dialects) was awarded in 1923, the year he published, in Yiddish, Shtaplen (Rungs), featuring essays on Yiddish philology. This was the beginning of a scholarly career that culminated, four years after his death, with the publication of his truly monumental Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language). The publisher was YIVO—the Yiddish acronym for the Jewish Scientific Institute—initially housed by Weinreich in a room of his apartment in Vilna, Lithuania (the city was then part of Poland). By good fortune, Weinreich and his older son Uriel were in Denmark when Hitler’s war began on September 1, 1939, and they continued on to New York City, to be joined there in 1940 by his wife Regina and their younger son. From that year on, Weinreich was director of research at YIVO in New York City and professor of Yiddish at CCNY. Uriel Weinreich, also an eminent linguist, became professor of Yiddish at Columbia but died at the age of forty.

The masterpiece of Max Weinreich, his History, was published in a curtailed translation by the University of Chicago Press in 1940, which unfortunately omitted the thousand pages of notes, now restored in the superb new Yale University Press edition. The notes, extraordinarily copious and rich, are unlike any others I know. I have been reading them for several months in a proof copy, and cannot come to an end, because every subject they discuss involves the processes by which Jewish culture was transmitted and survived. The story of Yiddish, in a sense the Jewish language, parallels and embodies the history of the Jewish people.


Like some other European languages, Yiddish evidently began around the year 1000, and sprang up in the Carolingian Rhineland. It was not at first called “Yiddish.” When Jews migrated from Lombardy and France to the Rhine region of such towns as Cologne and Metz they spoke what in Hebrew was called La’az, a “foreign people’s language,” called “Loez” by Weinreich. This was a form of neo-Latin that was fused with the Germanic language of their Rhenish bad neighbors, and protectively was always written in Hebrew letters. In Hebrew, Germany was named Ashkenaz, in contrast to Spain, called Sepharad. Further east, Loez fused with Slavic languages, intricately yet randomly. Weinreich’s phrase for the nature of Yiddish is a “fusion language,” and he carefully informs us that Loez itself had earlier fused Hebrew and Aramaic elements with Old Italian and Old French. Similarly Yiddish and Middle Rhenish German are utterly distinct languages, with very different sorts of metaphor, since the culture informing Yiddish rhetoric is primarily Talmudic.

In a very useful handbook by Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (1990), Weinreich’s exemplary refusal to study the nostalgias many Jews felt for previous forms of Yiddish (which would have been a poor response to Hitler’s murder of Yiddish) is dismissed from the perspective of twentieth-century Yiddish literature, so much of which was written in the United States. To Weinreich’s fusion processes, Harshav adds that Yiddish invariably was a language open to new expressions, since it tended to be used by speakers who knew, more or less, other languages as well. Phrases always were liberally borrowed from those others, whether German or Slavic or American English. Ironically, the movement of Yiddish into Slavic lands and later to America emancipated Yiddish from its German component.

But then, irony is endemic in the very nature of Yiddish, a fusion always conscious of its otherness, whether in regard to German, Russian, or American English. Any native speaker of Yiddish (I am one) can sense that the language’s curious wealth belies its apparent paucity of vocabulary, when compared to English. Harshav, an immensely sophisticated linguist (who began as a Yiddish speaker in Vilna, where his playfellow was Uriel Weinreich), shrewdly catches the aura of connotative possibilities in Yiddish:

Yiddish speakers speak not so much with individual referring words as with such clusters of relations, ready-made idioms, quotations and situational responses. Since each word may belong to several heterogeneous or contradictory knots, ironies are always at hand. It is precisely the small vocabulary of the language that makes the words more repetitive and more dependent on their habitual contexts, hence weightier in their impact (like the words in the limited vocabulary of the Bible). It is not the range of denotations that the language covers but the emotive and semantic directions of the hearer’s empathy. In this mode of discourse, the overt clash, ironic or clever, between words of different stock languages in one sentence is a major source of meaning, impact, and delight.

Readers of the fiction of Chaim Grade—for example his novel The Yeshiva1—or the poetry of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, who emigrated to New York from Galicia in 1908, and of Jacob Glatshteyn, who arrived from Lublin in 1914, instantly will recognize what Harshav describes. Here is Glatshteyn’s “1919,” a poignantly comic vision of the poet lost in the streets of New York, yet better off than in an Eastern Europe awash with pogroms:

di letste tsayt iz keyn shpur nit mer geBLIbn
fun yankl bereb yitskhok,
nor a kleyntshik pintele a kaylekhdiks,
vos kayklt zikh tseDULterheyt iber gasn
mit aROYFgetshepete, umgeLUMperte glider.
der oyberhar hot mit dem himlbloy
di gantse erd aRUMgeringlt
un nito keyn retung.
umeTUMfaln “ekstras” fun oybn
un tsePLEtshn mayn vaserdikn kop.
un eyner mit a langer tsung
hot mit a shtik royt mayne briln oyf eybik bafLEKT
un royt, royt, royt.
ir hert:
ot di teg vet epes aZOYNSin mayn kop platsn
un mit a tempn krakh zikh ontsindn dort
un iberlozn a kupke shmutsiklekhn ash.
un ikh,
dos kaylekhdike pintele,
vel zikh dreyen in eter oyf eybikeytn
mit royte vualn aRUMgehilt.

—YIVO transcription

Lately, there’s no trace left
Of Yankl, son of Yitskhok,
But for a tiny round dot
That rolls crazily through the streets
With hooked-on, clumsy limbs.
The lord-above surrounded
The whole world with heaven-blue
And there is no escape.
Everywhere “Extras!” fall from above
And squash my watery head.
And someone’s long tongue
Has stained my glasses for good with a smear of red,
And red, red, red.
You see!
One of these days something will explode in my head,
Ignite there with a dull crash
And leave behind a heap of dirty ashes.
And I,
The tiny dot,
Will spin in ether for eternities,
Wrapped in red veils.

—Translated by Benjamin Harshav

Here kleyntshik pintele, “tiny round dot,” refers to the proverbial Yiddish phrase dos pintele yid, the essence of Jewishness, and it puns on the dot of the letter yud, pronounced yid, which is the tiny vowel sign of the tiniest Hebrew letter. Desperately ironic and wildly gleeful, the brief lyric testifies to a mere but sufficient survival.


The quest of Max Weinreich’s life’s work was to aid in Jewish cultural survival, very much in question now in twenty-first-century America. Throughout History of the Yiddish Language, there is an undertone of post-Holocaust anxiety. It is particularly strong in Chapter 2, “Yiddish in the Framework of Other Jewish Languages,” a kind of litany for all the tongues lost until the resurrection of spoken Hebrew and for the murder of Yiddish by the German people and their assorted European associate butchers.

Weinreich’s account of the bewildering multiplicity of Jewish languages is masterly, since there were at least ten aside from Hebrew and Yiddish. Hebrew itself probably began as a fusion language: the name ivrit (Hebrew) is not biblical, but is a much later word from the Mishna, the principal rabbinic commentary on the Torah. The original Israelites spoke a kind of Semitic, which merged with Canaanite. Isaiah 19:18 refers to the language of Canaan, sefat knaan, always transcribed as Hebrew. Nehemiah 13:24 calls Hebrew yehudit.

Hebrew ceased to be the sole Jewish language with the Exile to Babylon in 586–516 BCE. Babylonian, a sort of Aramaic, gradually replaced spoken Hebrew, so that by the second century BCE the Book of Daniel was composed in (or revised into) Aramaic. After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 65 CE the Jews of Palestine spoke three languages: Greek, Aramaic, and more rarely Hebrew. By his conquests, Alexander the Great (350–323 BCE) guaranteed that the Jews—in Syria, Egypt, and to a somewhat lesser extent in Palestine—would be Hellenized. The third major Jewish language thus became Hellenistic Greek.

Persian (Median) had joined the linguistic cosmos of the Jews when Cyrus the Great ended the Babylonian Exile (for those who wished to return to Zion) in 516 BCE. It saddens me to observe that while friendship once prevailed between Persians and Jews through the centuries, this ended with the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Followers of Zoroaster and of Moses previously had wholly benign relations. A kind of Persian language reverberates in the Babylonian Talmud. This “Parsic” presumably now is mostly extinct, but shards of it remain in Israel among “mountain Jews” of Caucasia and Jews of Bokhara (in what is now Uzbekistan).

Judeo-Persian largely ended with the onset of Arab dominance in what once had been the empire of the Medes and Persians. Weinreich noted how little scholarly knowledge existed as to Judeo-Arabic, though since his death in 1969 there has been a considerable advance in studies of Arabic Spain and its Judaic literary culture. But Judeo-Arabic was less lasting than Ladino, the language of the Jews of Christian Spain, the Sephardi tradition which was the closest rival to Yiddish and to modern Hebrew among Jewish languages.

Like Yiddish, Ladino has a strong Hebrew component, but is far closer to Old Castilian than Yiddish is to medieval German. I have known native speakers of Ladino to be consulted by scholars of Old Castilian, but no instances of specialists in Middle High German working with academics whose mother tongue was Yiddish. It is yet another irony that Israeli Hebrew adopted Sephardi rather than Ashkenazi pronunciation.

Weinreich’s zest for Jewish languages was awesome; you can drown happily in his oceanic discussions of Marranos (converted Jews secretly practicing Judaism) using the Portuguese language, or of deviations from Arabic and Turkish idioms in the other varieties of Ladino. The byways lead Weinreich into folklore, which aids him in asserting that “of all Jewish languages Yiddish has…the largest degree of individuality.” Literary achievement in Yiddish, even now underestimated, sustains the linguistic esteem that Weinreich conferred on a tongue that he himself had not spoken as a child.

The most eminent writers of Yiddish fiction include Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Lamed Shapiro, I.J. Singer and his younger brother I. Bashevis Singer, David Bergelson, and Chaim Grade. Among the best of the poets have been Mani Leib, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, H. Leivick, Aaron Glants-Leyeles, Jacob Glatshteyn, and Itsik Manger. Among these, Peretz, Grade, Halpern, and Glatshteyn seem to me the strongest. There is no Proust or Kafka in this panoply; that is an impossible standard to apply.

  1. 1

    Macmillan, 1977, translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant.

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