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Yiddish was the vernacular language of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II. Today, it is spoken by descendants of those Jews living in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world.
The basic grammar and vocabulary of Yiddish, which is written in the Hebrew alphabet, is Germanic. Yiddish, however, is not a dialect of German but a complete language—one of a family of Western Germanic languages, that includes English, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Yiddish words often have meanings that are different from similar words in German. The term "Yiddish" is derived from the German word for "Jewish." The most accepted (but not the only) theory of the origin of Yiddish is that it began to take shape by the 10th century as Jews from France and Italy migrated to the German Rhine Valley. They developed a language that included elements of Hebrew, Jewish-French, Jewish-Italian, and various German dialects. In the late Middle Ages, when Jews settled in Eastern Europe, Slavic elements were incorporated into Yiddish.
The Yiddish language developed more than a thousand years ago on the banks of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. Weinreich proves that Yiddish was not, as some believed, a borrowed version of German, but rather an autonomous and organic fusion of elements of the sacred tongue Hebrew with languages of German and later Slavic lands. The study of Yiddish is intriguing because of the way Jews continued to develop their indigenous culture while integrating new material from the surrounding population. Jewish linguistics is as singular as Jewish history.
Yiddish is an endangered heritage language. It is the 1,000-year-old language of Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. European Jews). Ashkenazic Jewish Civilization represented one of the highest peaks in the history of Judaism: Yidn (Jews) spoke Yiddish (the language of the Jews).
Yiddish is a highly plastic and assimilative language, rich in idioms, and possessing remarkable freshness, pithiness, and pungency. There were an estimated 11 million speakers of Yiddish before Holocaust (two out of three Jews in the world spoke Yiddish ), and on the eve of WW II, there were 60 Yiddish daily newspapers and 300-400 daily periodicals in 30 different countries. Truly international in scope, Yiddish works were published on all five continents. It is estimated that a quarter of a million works of Yiddish literature were published in the mere 80 years that represent the height of modern Yiddish culture (approximately 1860-1940). Today there are an estimated one million speakers world-wide. It remains on the UN list of endangered languages.
For nearly a thousand years, Yiddish was the primary, sometimes the only language that Ashkenazi Jews spoke. Unlike most languages, which are spoken by the residents of a particular area, or by members of a particular nationality, Yiddish, at the height of its usage, was spoken by millions of Jews of different nationalities all over the globe. While the mid-twentieth century marked the end of Yiddish as a widely spoken language, and of the unique culture the language generated, some groups continue to use Yiddish as their primary language to this day. In addition, the language is now fully acknowledged and widely studied in the non-Jewish and academic worlds.
In the thirteenth century, the Jews tended to migrate eastward to escape persecution. Thus, Yiddish arrived in eastern Germany , Poland , and other eastern European territories for the first time. The exposure of Yiddish to the Slavic languages prevalent in the east changed it from a Germanic dialect to a language in its own right. Consequently, a division began to develop between the eastern Yiddish of the Jews living in Slavic lands, and the western Yiddish of the Jews who had remained in France and Germany.
By the sixteenth century, eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had become the center of world Jewry. Thus, the language of the Jews increasingly incorporated elements of Slavic, and the divide between the two main dialects of Yiddish grew. It was also in this period that Yiddish became a written language in addition to a spoken one. Yiddish was, and is, written using Hebrew characters.
After about 1700, western Yiddish began a slow and inevitable decline, and the eastern dialect became the more important and widely spoken one. The ebbing of the former was due in large part to the Haskalah and emancipations sweeping through western Europe, while the latter was aided by the Yiddish culture that flourished primarily in eastern Europe. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the Holocaust and the repression of Soviet Jews under Stalin resulted in the dramatic decline in the usage of either strain of Yiddish.
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