The figures in the portrait, Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Bookseller), I.L. Peretz, and Sholom Aleichem, are known in Yiddish as "di klasiker". These three men constitute the pillars of modern Yiddish literature, modern Jewish culture and modern Jewish identity. Inspired by the Haskalah (Enlightenment), all three began their literary careers as Hebrew writers, but soon came to understand that the language of the people, Yiddish, was the medium in which they would succeed. Thus, Yiddish became a literary language and modern Yiddish literature, as we know it, was born.
Yiddish was the primary language of Ashkenazic Jews in the shtetl, found throughout eastern and central Europe. One of the Germanic languages, Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters (some of them used differently than for writing Hebrew – to see the differences, visit http://www.yivoinstitute.org/yiddish/alefbeys.htm).
Yiddish (meaning "Jewish") arose between the 9th and 12th centuries in southwestern Germany as an adaptation of Middle High German dialects to the special needs of Jews. To the original German were added those Hebrew words that pertained to Jewish religious life.
Later, when the bulk of European Jewry moved eastward into areas occupied predominantly by Slavic-speaking peoples, some Slavic influences were acquired. The vocabulary of the Yiddish spoken in eastern Europe during recent times comprised about 85 percent German, 10 percent Hebrew, and 5 percent Slavic, with traces of Romanian, French, and other elements (thus the blended colors in the Yiddish logo at the top of the page).
Many English words and phrases later entered Yiddish, becoming an integral part of the language as it is spoken in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Apart from vocabulary changes, modern Yiddish differs from modern German mainly in the simplification of inflections and syntax, the acquisition of a few grammatical traits influenced by Slavic speech, and its looser pronunciation of Germanic words. Yiddish pronunciation was also significantly influenced by Slavic languages.
Yiddish is a very assimilative language, rich in idioms and possessing remarkable freshness, pithiness, and pungency. Since it was spoken by ordinary people rather than by scholars, its vocabulary is weak in abstractions and lacks many words describing items which the Jews of old were not familiar with. However, it does contain a wealth of words and expressions that are descriptive of character and of relations among people.
Yiddish makes liberal use of diminutives and terms of endearment and exhibits a variety of expletives - the use of proverbs and proverbial expressions is considerable. These qualities and usages give Yiddish a uniquely warm and personal flavor.
For an exhaustive list of colloquial Yiddish phrases, click here. Note that the Adobe Acrobat Reader is required to view this document.
In the early years of the 20th century Yiddish was spoken by an estimated 11 million people living mainly in eastern Europe and the U.S. The use of the language has been declining since then. The initial cause was the extermination of the Jewish communities in Poland and other eastern European countries during World War II. An important factor that also contributed to the decline in usage was the adaptation by Jews to the languages predominant in the United States and in the Soviet Union.
In 1984, however, a Russian-Yiddish dictionary containing essays on etymology and grammar was published in the USSR; since then a few novels by Russian Jews have been written in Yiddish. In Israel, the Hebrew language is predominant, and Yiddish is a second language cultivated largely by members of the older generation who have an eastern European background; only a few modern Israeli poets write in Yiddish.
In an effort to ensure its preservation, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem teaches Yiddish, as do certain American schools and colleges. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, founded in Poland at the turn of the century and moved to New York City in 1940, includes the study of the development of the Yiddish language as part of its effort to preserve the history of Eastern European shtetl, or village, culture.
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