How to Learn Yiddish if You Already Know Hebrew from your Jewish School

A long-awaited post, and sorry I haven’t been writing much in a while.

Too often I get asked if Yiddish is an easy language for English speakers to learn. Is it easy in comparison to a language such as Greenlandic or Hungarian? Most definitely. Is it easy in comparison to Romance Languages? Hard to really say, because Yiddish is an entirely different challenge depending on your background.

  • Are you a native English speaker? Expect a lot of words you’d recognize from the shared Germanic experience.
  • Are you a native German speaker? You’ll get a lot of vocabulary, probably by far the biggest advantage, but don’t expect the language for free. There are a lot of vocabulary gaps you’ll encounter even with the most basic words (as an absolute beginner). Not only that, but the grammar will be simpler than that of Hochdeutsch. Your accent WILL also need to sound like something further east (speakers of a language like Polish don’t even need to try to put on a Yiddish accent at all sometimes!)
  • Are you a native speaker of a Slavic language? If it’s Polish, Ukrainian or Russian, expect a good deal of words to be familiar to you. Otherwise those otherwise familiar words may be vaguely familiar, not also to mention the sentence structure of Yiddish being closer to that of a Slavic language rather than to High German.
  • Do you know Modern Hebrew? You’ll recognize many words that entered Modern Hebrew via Ancient Hebrew using Yiddish as a bridge. But some words will have their meaning drastically altered, including, in some cases, a normal word in Hebrew being a profanity in Yiddish.
  • Do you know Ancient Hebrew or Talmudic Aramaic? Many phrases were lifted from both into Yiddish because of Jewish religious scholarship.
  • Did you at any point have an immersion in an Orthodox Jewish atmosphere? You’ll encounter many, MANY phrases and grammatical forms you’ll recognize because of “Yeshivish”. A teacher of mine once described “Yeshivish” as “English but with the Hebrew / Aramaic components of Yiddish still intact”.

But by far the biggest issues with students across the board in making their Yiddish from good to great is the “Loshn-Koydesh” portion of Yiddish, which also uncannily resembles the situation of Sanskrit / Pali loanwords in a language like Thai or Burmese.

Yiddish is a phonetic language for the MOST PART. This means that you read words exactly the way they are spelled. There is one noteworthy exception, however, and that is the Loshn-Koydesh words. The words lifted from the Bible and the Talmud into Yiddish (many of which hopped over to Modern Hebrew in turn) are spelled the way they would be written in Hebrew.

This is an issue because in Yiddish, like in European languages, individual characters represent vowels (so “ayin” is always an “e” sound and one vav makes an “u” sound [in Lithuanian Yiddish, that is]). But in Semitic languages such as Hebrew, the vowels are not written out and are expressed with notations below and above the letters. (Although sometimes letters afterwards can provide some clues).

And the pronunciation of these words in Yiddish is almost NEVER the same as the way they are in Modern Hebrew! And the syllable stress is different! (Compare “ShaBAT”, meaning the Sabbath in Modern Hebrew, to “SHAbes” in Yiddish).

Sephardi Hebrew was chosen by Zionists in order to be more distant from the Ashkenazi Diaspora (and later this served to accommodate the background of Mizrahi Jews as well, to whom Yiddish was unknown).

So you’re dealing with two drastically different pronunciation schemes.

What do you do about it?

For one, realize that, much like in English, you will have to memorize each the pronunciation of each Hebrew word or phrase individually. “Yaakov”, meaning Jacob, is “Yankev” in Yiddish and there is no “n” sound articulated anywhere in the spelling at all. Yom Kippur becomes “Yonkiper”, with the m indicated in writing being fully transmuted into an n sound. This largely had to do with Polish phonology patterns which Yiddish imitated.

The good news is that many of these are very frequently used and, in some rare cases, may actually match the way they would be pronounced if they were phonetic Yiddish words.

However one thing to watch out for is the fact that sometimes Hebrew PIECES end up in words, in which you pronounce the word phonetically except for the Hebrew part. “Hargenen” (to murder) one such example, with the “HRG” component being written with no vowels, the same with “farsamte” (poisoned), in which “SM” may cause some students to read it as “farsmte”.

In dictionaries you’ll find these words fully spelled out in terms of the way they should be pronounced.

In summary (with some added tips):

  • Knowing Hebrew of any form is likely to be an advantage when you learn Yiddish
  • Do keep in mind that in comparison to Modern Hebrew the syllable stress follows Indo-European, not Semitic, forms.
  • Some Ashkenazi Jews nowadays use a combination of Israeli pronunciation with Ashkenazi Pronunciation. This does not work for Yiddish, even spoken in contemporary Hasidic communities today. Get a Yiddish dictionary (or find one online) and follow the pronunciation guides there.
  • The Hebrew spelling is a very rough guide to the pronunciation.
  • Sometimes pronunciation of one word can have some variations. “af tzu lokhes” = out of spite. Sometimes “lakhes” or “lehakhes” as well.
  • Sometimes pieces of Hebrew words end up smushed between normally-spelled pieces (see above with “farsamte”)
  • Lastly Soviet Yiddish spells the entire language phonetically with the Hebrew origin words intact but not spelled the way they would be in Hebrew.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (May it be with fortune!)

kegn dem shtrom

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