The Jewish Language & Yiddish
29 SEP 2017
Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament and of the State of Israel, is the most widely spoken Jewish language today. However, because the Jewish people have been scattered around the world for thousands of years, Jews in different countries developed their own languages so they could communicate with each other. For Jews in Europe, that primary language was Yiddish, and they brought Yiddish with them when they immigrated to other countries.
Contemporary Jews often study ancient and modern Hebrew as part of their Jewish education. The Old Testament is written in ancient Hebrew and Jews in Israel speak modern Hebrew, so these two languages are relevant for members of the religion today. Some Jews also study Aramaic, another ancient language that features in the Jewish texts and prayers, but Aramaic is more or less extinct as a spoken tongue. Outside of Israel, most Jews communicate regularly in the language of their country rather than in Hebrew, even if they do speak some Hebrew.
Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany, called Ashkenazi Jews, traditionally spoke Yiddish in their communities. Yiddish is written in Hebrew letters, but linguistically it's based on German. When the Eastern European Jews left that part of the world and came to the United States, Britain and other western countries, they brought Yiddish with them; a Jew from Russia might move to New York and meet a Jew from Germany, and they could communicate in Yiddish. Most surviving Yiddish speakers are elderly first-generation Americans or very religious and living in segregated Jewish communities, but a movement to restore the language and keep it alive is gaining traction.
3 Yiddish Culture
Many people think of Yiddish as the world's primary Jewish language because of the literature, music, drama, radio and other cultural works written in it. In the early 20th century, it was the language of the Jewish intellectuals of Europe, who began publishing newspapers and political journals in Yiddish that were read internationally. Later, Yiddish came to be recognized as a literary and artistic language because of the vast body of Yiddish poetry, drama, song and story, all of which revealed the cultural perspective of Eastern European Jews. In 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature for his work in Yiddish, and gave the first part of his acceptance speech in Yiddish.
While the Jews of Eastern Europe developed Yiddish, the Jews of Spain were speaking Ladino, which is also written in Hebrew letters but linguistically derives from Spanish. From Spain, Ladino spread to Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean area; its speakers, the Sephardic Jews, are still a recognized cultural group, though fewer and fewer people speak the language itself. This decline began in the 1800s as Jews began to assimilate, and then the Holocaust destroyed many of the remaining Ladino-speaking communities.
5 Other Jewish Languages
Historically, wherever Jews have settled, they have formed a local language -- at various times, Jews have had separate languages in Italy, Greece, India, Persia, Georgia, France, Portugal, North Africa and Morocco, among other places. Usually, these languages were essentially dialects of the local language, often written in Hebrew script and incorporating Hebrew words and grammatical elements. With the exception of Yiddish and Ladino speakers, Jews have tended to adopt the local language of their new location each time they moved, and because there has been so much immigration and assimilation across the international Jewish community, most of these small Jewish languages have died out.