Yiddish The Yiddish language, like any other, has undergone considerable development and change over the thousand or so years it can be properly identified. Originally a high-German language, spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in a part of Northern Europe which is now France, the Ashkenaz region – a mediaeval Hebrew name for Germany – was just over the border from Spain, and the region inhabited by Spanish Sephardic Jews.
With early Yiddish containing elements of many European languages, early Yiddish incorporated words from the Near East and Europe in equal measure, which were absorbed into a fluid spoken language which developed through natural trade and migration. Some words even have a clear Latin route, indicating travel through France and Italy, either by traders, or family groups moving further into Europe.
Yiddish is spoken in many orthodox Jewish countries all over the world, and even though Hebrew is the formal language of the academic study of Judaism and of prayer and worship, it’s more usual for a Rabbi to speak Yiddish to their followers on a day to day basis, even when discussing religious matters.
Although the development of the Yiddish language remained relatively static over the middle ages, with little noticeable variation between communities relatively closely sited together, significant change has taken place over the last century or so. In addition to the terrible events in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, which wiped out so many millions of Jews, modern communication, travel, and resettlement has contributed to the rapid change of Yiddish. As speakers have moved further afield, obsolete and old-fashioned terms are discarded, and Israeli settlers in particular have adopted modern Hebrew alongside their mother-tongue Yiddish. Communities are noticing increasing difficulties in conversing with each other, even though they can all be considered to be “Yiddish-speaking”. Numbers of current day speakers are hard to estimate, as Yiddish could be considered to have split into numerous distinct dialects.
However, Yiddish has enriched language all over the world – wherever its speakers have taken it, Jews and non-Jews alike pepper everyday speech with numerous Yiddishisms, without even being aware of their origin.