Although it is not a national language, Yiddish is spoken as a first language by approximately 5 million Jews all over the world, especially in Argentina, Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, Romania, the United States, and the republics of the former USSR. Before the annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, it was the tongue of more than 11 million people. Growing out of a blend of a number of medieval German dialects, Yiddish arose c.1100 in the ghettos of Central Europe. From there it was taken to Eastern Europe by Jews who began to leave German-speaking areas in the 14th cent. as a result of persecution. By the 18th cent. Yiddish was almost universal among the Jews of Eastern Europe. It has generally accompanied Eastern European Jews in their migrations to other parts of the world.
Phonetically, Yiddish is closer to Middle High German than is modern German. Although the vocabulary of Yiddish is basically Germanic, it has been enlarged by borrowings from Hebrew, Aramaic, some Slavic and Romance languages, and English. Written from right to left like Hebrew, Yiddish also uses the Hebrew alphabet with certain modifications. In 1925 the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) was established in Vilnius, Lithuania. It served as an academy to oversee the development of the language. Later its headquarters were transferred to New York City, where in time it became the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Coping with the problem of dialects, this institute has done much to bring about the standardization of Yiddish.
In the eyes of many, Yiddish has significance both as the language of an important literature as well as a unique expression of the Jewish people. It is widely thought that modern Yiddish literature began in 1864 with the publication of Das Kleyne Mentshele ( The Little Man ) by Mendele mocher sforim. Among the best-known writers in Yiddish literature are Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Isaac Meier Dik, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the first writer in the language to be awarded (1978) the Nobel Prize in Literature. Thousands of Yiddish works are housed at the Yiddish Book Center at Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass.
See M. I. Herzog et al., ed., The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature (1969); M. Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language (1980); D. Katz, Grammar of the Yiddish Language (1987); D. G. Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (1995).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.