Saturday, January 19, 2013

Yiddish vs. Hebrew.

Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss - Hebrew version on the left, Yiddish version on the right.

Just to prove to you how ignorant I can be, I have lived in the US for more than 40 years and over that time, have befriended a lot of people of the Jewish faith. All these years, I have never known the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish. I thought they were basically two different words for the same language. I couldn't have been more wrong so in an attempt to set my ignorant self straight, I decided to read up about the two languages. While they are different, they do share similarities - they both use the same alphabet, they share similar words, and they are both spoken primarily by Jews.


So, what are the differences? Let's start with Yiddish.

The Yiddish alphabet.
Yiddish was born from biblical Hebrew.  Yes, it goes back that far in time.  Before the destruction of the Second Temple, biblical Hebrew was the spoken language.  For a thousand years after the loss of the temple, Hebrew was abandoned as a spoken language as it was deemed too holy for everyday speech.  But Jews continued to learn religious texts and to pray in biblical Hebrew so they couldn't abandon the language completely.  So the Ashkenazi Jews (living in countries around Germany and Poland) slowly developed a new language which we now know as Yiddish.  Linguistically, Yiddish is a conglomeration of several different languages including biblical Hebrew, German, Aramaic, and various other languages.  It was spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Europe until the time of the Holocaust. Even today, small groups of Hasidic Jews (mostly in Israel and the New York area) speak Yiddish as their primary language.

The Hebrew alphabet.
 Hebrew or what is often referred to as Modern Hebrew, which also stemmed from biblical Hebrew, is the language spoken primarily in Israel today and is the country's national language.  Hebrew was born when the modern state of Israel was born.  The creators of Israel did not want to take on Yiddish as a national language. They felt that Yiddish was a language of the shtetel (self-created ghetto) and that a modern nation needed a language of pride rather than one of shame. So they created modern Hebrew, a language based on biblical Hebrew but with a modern twist.
 
Because Yiddish and modern Hebrew are both partially based on biblical Hebrew, the two languages have many similarities. The most obvious similarity is the fact that they use the same written letters.  However, the vowels used in Hebrew are often omitted in Yiddish.  Instead, the consonants of ע (ayin) and א (aleph) as well as various forms of י (yud) represent different vowel sounds.

In addition, Hebrew language has well-defined grammar rules whereas the rules of Yiddish are filled with exceptions reflecting grammar rules of the various languages that shaped it.

I love listening to hearing people speak in foreign languages.  Before I leave for Israel, I will try to learn a few simple Hebrew phrases and if I'm lucky, I'll pick up a few more while I'm there!