Tips and Resources to Help You Begin Learning Yiddish

Virtually every American knows something about Yiddish whether they know it or not. 100 years ago, Yiddish newspapers were so mainstream and respected that they often received election results before ENGLISH newspapers. The Yiddish literature rush that occurred from the 19th century up until some decades after the Holocaust is considered by some the largest outpouring of human thought in all of history, anywhere.

Yiddish has changed countless lives, and not just those of Jews. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke of it as a language never spoken by people in power (you are welcome to debate this accordingly). In comparison to languages of nobility and large, established countries, Yiddish established itself as “mame-loshn”, a mother’s language, not necessarily tied to any earth or ground, but transcending the Jewish experience wherever it may go.

In online Polyglot Communities, there’s one Yiddish-speaker or Yiddish learner that seems to get everyone enchanted with one Yiddish phrase, or at least cause others to take another look at it.

Well, today we’re going to teach you exactly how to BEGIN that journey.

Before we begin, however, let’s outline exactly how Yiddish is different from High German (with which it shares a lot of words):

  • The pronunciation of words is different. Yiddish has a distinctly more Slavic lilt to it, and those who speak languages from that area of the world can often just use their “home accents” and be passable (e.g. Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, etc). There are vowel shifts that are followed with great consistency. German au becomes Yiddish oy. In many Yiddish dialects, the German ei sound is pronounced like “ey” (to rhyme with “hey”).

 

  • The grammar is also closer to that of English or even that of a Slavic language at times, although it can also follow German conventions. “Du herst?” (are you listening?) makes complete sense as a question, even with the subject first…much like the casual English “you hear?!!?”

 

  • Some common words in German have vanished completely and replaced with Hebrew / Aramaic or Slavic equivalents. Surprisingly I’ve noticed that linguistic borrowings from liturgical languages follow similar patterns in language throughout the world (e.g. Tajik uses Arabic loan words in many of the same places that Yiddish would, such as the word for “maybe” being an Arabic work in Tajik (Mumkin) and a Hebrew one in Yiddish (Efsher).

 

  • Using too much German pronunciation and / or Germanic loan words in your speech results it what is called “Deitschmerisch”, which was a variety used by some Yiddish speakers in more enlightenment-related spheres to make it more acceptable. Throughout most of its history Yiddish was deemed the language of “women and the uneducated”.

 

  • German can help, but using too much German influence in your Yiddish can have negative effects. Knowledge of Jewish Liturgical Languages definitely helps, especially given that “Yeshivish” exists (or, roughly put, English spoken amongst some Orthodox Jews with the Hebrew / Aramaic Loanwords from Yiddish intact). Knowledge of Slavic Languages can also prove helpful, especially given that some gendered nouns in Yiddish can lean more towards Slavic than Germanic (not also to mention many Latinate loan words end in “-tziye”, which shows obvious Slavic influence).

 

Keep in mind that there is also a lot of incomplete and flawed material out there, but you probably knew that.

 

Yiddish also has no centralized academy. Among secular Yiddishists, the prestige dialect will be Lithuanian Yiddish (which I speak). Among many Hasidic communities, the prestige dialect will vary depending on the sect. For example, among the Satmar Hasidim, Hungarian Yiddish will rule (which sounds slightly more like High German and a very, VERY distinctly Finno-Ugric rhythm to it. In areas of Williamsburg you can hear it spoken on the street with regularity. Did I also mention that you can order your MetroCards in Yiddish in various subway stations in New York?).

 

Oh, and one more thing! With the exception of Yiddish texts from the Soviet Union, the Hebrew and Aramaic words will be SPELLED the way they are in Hebrew and Aramaic, but the pronunciation is something you’ll need to MEMORIZE! And I bet you’re wondering, “oh, if it’s the Hebrew word, I could just memorize its Hebrew pronunciation, right?”

 

Nope! Because Israeli Hebrew uses the Sephardic pronunciation (precisely so the Zionists could detach themselves from the “Diasporic” pronunciations of Hebrew words) and Yiddish’s Hebrew and Aramaic components use the Ashkenazi Variety (which is still used by some Orthodox Jews in prayer). The Yiddish words “Rakhmones” (mercy) would be “Rakhmanut” in Hebrew, although they are spelled the EXACT SAME WAY.

 

The meanings aren’t necessarily the same either. A normal word in Hebrew can be a profanity in Yiddish (I won’t give examples here).

 

So here are various resources you can use to begin:

 

For one, Mango Languages is put enough together with good accents to the degree that you can begin using Yiddish with your friends RIGHT AWAY. The Hebrew alphabet can be learned accordingly with writing out the words on the screen. (Also! Words that are not Hebrew or Aramaic in Origin are written phonetically, exactly as they are spelled. If you are a reading a Soviet Yiddish text, ALL words will, much like Lao standardized Pali and other foreign loan words. Communism did the same thing to two completely different language families).

The book I started with nearly ten years ago was Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbooks, which were very well put together and also outlined the differences between Yiddish and English / Hebrew / German. Between dialogues there were various songs and the grammar was explained clearly in a way that you can begin making your own sentences in no time!

 

Uriel Weinreich’s immortal classic “College Yiddish” is also a fantastic choice, given that the stories themselves are extremely topical and cover a wide range of secular and religious topics. Some of the topics include: Chelm Stories (the equivalent of Polish Jokes in the US and Swedish / Norwegian jokes in Norway and Sweden respectively), sociology, songs, Jewish holiday origin stories, and even a quaint piece about moving furniture.

 

The book is mostly in Yiddish although glossaries are provided with English translations.

 

Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish also covers usage of the language in classroom situations, ordinary conversation, as well as stories about Hasidic Masters and the aforementioned Chelm stories (which you can never truly get away from when you know enough Jewish people).

 

The Yiddish Daily Forward is also very well put together, with topical articles that would be equally at home in its English edition (and sometimes featured in both). What’s more, the articles will come with an in-built glossary function where you can highlight any word and have it defined.

 

If you choose to get it sent to your inbox, the titles and summaries will be bilingual in English and Yiddish, which makes for good practice even as an advanced student because then you can see how the translation changes things.

 

Lastly, SBS Radio Australia has its archives of Yiddish programming, given that Yiddish was discontinued (I believe). That said, a lot of interesting interviews with fluent Yiddish speakers from throughout the world are provided as well as “snippets” of English that can also provide context clues for the beginner. If you want to know how to discuss politics in Yiddish, THIS is the place to find it.

Yiddish will change your life. It provides a huge amount of untranslated literature that you can spend several lifetimes with. Your other languages will be enhanced with new idioms that possess the story of a people who have been everywhere and continue to be everywhere. You will become more theatrical, you will become cooler and, best of all, all Yiddishists everywhere will pretty much be willing to become your friend.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (Good luck!)

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What the Irish Language Revival Needs

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh! (Happy St. Patrick’s Day to All of You!)

Having spent my adolescence in New England and the week before my freshman year of college in County Kerry (including walking through areas of the Gaeltacht), Ireland has always had a warm place in my heart (including countless attempts to learn Irish with mixed results and yes, conversations in Irish throughout the year. )

I myself am of Irish-American heritage (although sadly I don’t know which county my ancestry stems from). The Kerry Way and rural Connecticut clearly have similar architectures and layouts, much like rural Sweden and rural Wisconsin seem eerily similar to each other.

My parents, having met in New York City, never found Hiberno-English foreign or even strange. When I began my studies of Irish in 2014 (with the Duolingo course and Transparent Language, for better and for worse, guiding me through the pronunciation), I realized exactly how much influence this language had on English as well as the American brand thereof in particular. (Yiddish also had a similar feeling as well, not also to mention when I studied Italian before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2014).

As an Ashkenazi Jew I realize how the Irish-American and the Jewish-American stories are so SIMILAR. Large diaspora communities and profound influence on American culture as a whole, systematic discrimination throughout the 20th century as well as having ceased to be a minority in many respects (as far as the United States was concerned), having posters of our holy lands throughout our classrooms, mixing our ancestral languages with English, prizing our music and our religious traditions and, of course, the debate about to what degree our victimhood narratives really serve us and cultural intricacies and narratives so deep that most foreigners will never understand how much of a “minefields” our internal politicking really is.

The Irish Language, despite being increasingly accessible with each coming year, is also a point of many, MANY heated debates, including alarmism of “the language is dying!” and some people saying “why keep it alive anyway?” not also to mention countless, COUNTLESS debates with a lot of hurt feelings and confusion.

That said, I think that, contrary to what many scholars think, if there is a future for ANY language, it will likely be in part because of L2 Learners. I think that Irish-Language learners the world over have the possibility to provide the salvation this language needs. The fact that the Duolingo Course, warts and all,  became the SECOND language course to be released from the community (ahead of languages like Russian, Swedish, Japanese and even Mandarin Chinese) and also reached more than FOUR MILLION learners deserves to be celebrated.

The most likely reason, however, that I haven’t become fluent in Irish yet, despite all of this time, is…well, my self-discipline actually.

But I think that if the Irish language were easier to rehearse, then we would NOT have a system in which place in which people learn Irish and school and then forget it.

How many people have you met that learned English and school and then forgot it entirely? That’s because the MEDIA in which English is used are readily available. And in addition to creating Irish-language resources (of which there are plenty), there also need to be a multitude of ways to engage with the language.

Here are some ideas:

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  • Cartoon Dubbings (with various degrees of being learner-friendly)

 

Yes, I’ve used TG4 before, but often a lot of the sentences eluded me. I think that if there were the possibility to add subtitles (as, for example, is common and REQUIRED in Norway) and possibly even vocabulary lists (as what the Yiddish Forward does—you can highlight any word to see its English meaning), these TV shows would become VERY accessible and people would flock to learn the language and try it out with cartoon shows.

 

  • A Richness of Music in Many Different Styles

 

No doubt it already exists, somewhere, but often what is readily available when one searches “Ceol as Gaeilge” in YouTube is a number of covers of English-Language pop songs. I’m EXTREMELY grateful for that, but the world of Irish music also needs to expand into re-interpreting old classics in novel ways (much like Faroese music has done), and also venture into realms like Gangsta Rap and Techno (Burmese music got me hooked just because of the sheer variety—also because the albums were about $10 for 100+ songs, but that’s another story).

The music should also come with translated lyrics as well as, yes, you got it, vocabulary lists for learners.

  • Less Alarmism in Journalism Discussing the Irish Language

There IS a threat to the language, and no one is denying that in the slightest. However, playing it up for clicks is not helpful nor does it even motivate most people to learn the language (except for altruists such as myself).

  • More Richness of Learning Materials

 

Believe me, if the Irish Language had material that was even one-fifth of what a language like Spanish or even Turkish had in regards to websites and books and apps to learn it, no one would be fretting about its future.

More games, more interactive materials, more unique ways to engage with the language for ALL levels of learners, and we’d be in for many, many problems solved.

 

  • Fewer People Calling It “Useless”

 

Do I really need to discuss this point any more than I already have on this blog?

 

  • Making People Realize that Irish-Speakers REALLY Want to Help You Learn!

 

This was even referenced on Ros na Rún several times. Only today did I read a post decrying the idea that many Swedes seemed to be discouraging of people wanting to learn their language (I’m addressing this in a point next week—don’t worry, it is VERY encouraging!). With most Irish speakers, you won’t encounter this at all.

 

Much like secular Yiddishists helped me learn Yiddish at every opportunity and in every possible way, Irish speakers have given me very much the same. (I have a feeling that the rest of the world, especially in the west, will be on track for that as English continues to expand in its usage. I don’t mean to imply that languages of Northern Europe will be endangered much like Irish or Yiddish is now, by the way).

 

  • Encouraging Fluent Speakers to Make Their Own Media on YouTube (with possible monetary stipends)

A language like Finnish or German was easy for me to learn in comparison to Irish (despite the grammatical difficulties with both) given how EASILY I could find videos related to pretty much any topic in either. That, and also a lot of very popular videos would have Closed Caption Subtitles in these languages. Irish doesn’t even come close to having that luxury. Or, at least, not yet.

Within the past few years I’ve noticed Welsh-language gaming channels popping up and even some in Irish (although sometimes they fall out of use after some times). We need to get these projects going (and given YouTube’s new monetization guidelines instituted in February 2018, it is more of a battle).

I’ve seen it over and over again with people choosing their languages – the more opportunities they have to use it in some capacity, the more alluring that language is. Every video, post or song in Irish helps!

  • Making More Social Opportunities to Use Irish in Ireland, the other Celtic Nations and in Big Cities Throughout the World.

New York City has a lot of Irish speakers. I know because I’ve met many of them. But sometimes the Meetup groups fall out of usage because their owner can’t pay the fees anymore, or if they do exist they post events about once a year.

With apps like Amikumu and HelloTalk in the fray, it seems that we can create these opportunities. Sometimes we as individual language learners are held back. We don’t need to be scared. The world needs us. Now more than ever!

Have YOU ever learned Irish or any other Celtic Languages? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!