(K. Brent Tomer),
IF YOU take the subway around New York, you can sometimes hear groups of young Jewish women chatting quietly, their hair covered. At a distance, it sounds like they’re using German, perhaps Hebrew. In fact, they’re speaking Yiddish, a language once spoken by over 10m people. The wars of the 20th century changed that; barely a million speakers remain. But for all the catastrophes perpetrated against its speakers, Yiddish has endured. In fact, it is undergoing a renaissance.
First spoken by medieval Jews living on the Rhine, it is thought that Yiddish grew out of German (though linguists such as Paul Wexler have offered contrasting theories). It quickly came to embody a distinct Jewish identity: written in the Hebrew script, it shares many terms with Hebrew. Its Eastern European variety—where most Yiddish-speakers once lived—also borrows from local Slavic languages. Práven, a word derived from the Slavic verb “to celebrate”, can be used in Yiddish to denote any happy occasion. This diversity gives Yiddish an incredibly subtle vocabulary. The language has three different words for “important” one each from German, Hebrew and Slavic (the…Continue reading