Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi Jews (that is, Jews whose ancestry hails from Central and Eastern Europe), which was spoken by approximately thirteen million people before World War 2. Its origins date back to the eleventh century when Jews settled in German-speaking lands and came to speak a language that fused elements from Middle High German dialects with Hebrew-Aramaic and Romance. With the eastward migration of Jews in the Middle Ages, Yiddish was transplanted on to Slavic soil, adding Slavic into the mix of languages that shaped the structure and form of Yiddish.
For many centuries, Yiddish defined Jewish existence in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in those New World countries to which Jews emigrated. It was the language not only of the home, but also of a rich literary culture which, like Yiddish itself, combined Jewish motifs and content with European form. Classics of Yiddish literature include the works of Sholem Aleichem (the pen-name of Sholem Rabinowitz, 1859-1916), whose Tevye stories are known to a general audience as the basis for the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), who became to only Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.
The secularisation of Jewish culture at the end of the nineteenth century transformed Yiddish also into a symbol of Jewish nationalism and socialism. While the Nazis’ mass murder and the Stalinist persecution of Jews killed the bulk of Yiddish speakers and destroyed much of Yiddish culture and society, Yiddish is by no means a dead language. It is a native language for many Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and is increasingly studied and embraced as a foreign language by Jews and non-Jews alike who wish to gain an understanding of the European Jewish experience and explore the cultural and literary traditions of a language that has always transcended national borders.
Studying Yiddish at Undergraduate level
Undergraduates reading Hebrew or Jewish Studies (in the Honour School of Oriental Studies) have the option of taking a paper in Yiddish literature (as set out in the Examination Regulations under Jewish Studies paper c, Section III (q)).
Undergraduates reading for a degree in Modern Languages can offer Yiddish literature or Yiddish linguistics as a Special Subject (Paper XII).
For both the Yiddish literature and Yiddish linguistics papers, students will need to have adequate competence in the Yiddish language. University funding is available to enable students to pursue Yiddish language study at one of the many summer programmes offered in Europe and the United States. These programmes, which combine study of Yiddish language with courses in appreciation of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, are best taken in the summer of the second year.
For further information please contact
Dr Kerstin Hoge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
University Lecturer in German Linguistics and Fellow of St. Hilda’s College
Taking Yiddish as a Special Subject (Paper XII) in the Final Honour School
Paper XII: Yiddish
The Special Subjects paper in Yiddish can be taken as EITHER (A) Yiddish Literature OR (B) Yiddish Linguistics
(A) The reading list for Yiddish Literature is as follows:
- Sholem Aleykhem: Gants Tevye der Milkhiker [Tevye the Dairyman (Stories)] (Vilna: Kletskin, 1925 or any other full Yiddish text).
- Sh. An-Ski [Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport]: Der dibek [The Dybbuk] (in Di yidishe drame fun tsvantsikstn yorhundert [ New York, 1977], vol. ii or any other full Yiddish text.
- Dovid Bergelson: Opgang [Descent] edited by Joseph Sherman (New York: Modern Language Association, 1999).
- Isaac Bashevis [Singer]: selected stories from Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen [The Mirror and Other Stories] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979).
- Poetry: selections from the work of Dovid Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Leyb Kvitko and Moyshe Kulbak in A shpigl oyf a shteyn [A Mirror on a Stone] (Tel-Aviv: Peretz-farlag, 1964) (the work of Soviet Yiddish poets murdered by Stalin).
(B) The requirements for Yiddish Linguistics are as follows:
This papers offers the opportunity to study the linguistic structure and sociolinguistic context of Yiddish – a language related to German but unique in its own right. The historic vernacular of Ashkenazic Jews, Yiddish is a language without country that wears the settlement history of its speakers on its sleeve, having fused Hebrew-Aramaic, German, Romance and Slavic elements into a new linguistic form. Jewish multilingualism meant that for most of its life, Yiddish existed in a diglossic relationship with Hebrew. However, changes to European Jewish life at the end of the nineteenth century fundamentally changed the sociolinguistic situation of Yiddish, and saw Yiddish become a symbol of Jewish nationalism and thus subject to language planning efforts and normative demands. Yiddish also provides a case study of language shift, loss and maintenance as a language that has often been pronounced dead but is still very much alive!
Areas of study may include the following: (i) the origins of Yiddish, (ii) Proto-Yiddish, (iii) structural and lexical aspects of Yiddish as a language in contact, (iv) Yiddish dialectology, (v) external and internal Jewish multilingualism, (vi) Yiddish standardisation and (vii) Yiddish language maintenance.
While candidates need not be fully competent in Yiddish, the paper will require prior knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet (which is easily learned!) and willingness to acquire a basic knowledge of Yiddish grammatical structures. Examination of this paper is by three-hour examination.
(i) indispensable and accessible introductory reading:
Katz, Dovid (2004). Words on fire: the unfinished history of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books.
(ii) see also:
Aptroot, Marion (to appear, 2007). Jiddisch: Geschichte und Kultur einer Weltsprache. Munich: Beck.
Birnbaum, Solomon A. (1979). Yiddish: a survey and a grammar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Estraikh, Gennady (1996). Intensive Yiddish. Oxford: Oksforder Yidish Press.
Landis, Joseph C. (ed.) (n.d.). Yiddish then and now: studies in the life of a language. Flushing, NY: Yiddish Books, Queens College.
Peltz, Rakhmiel (2003). Yiddish. In Deumert, A. & Vandenbussche, W. (eds.), Germanic standardizations: past to present. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 455–69.
Weinstein, Miriam (2002). Yiddish: a nation of words. New York: Ballantine.