A Beginner’s Guide to the Yiddish Language

Have you ever wondered where the Yiddish language comes from? The answer is not difficult to find, as Yiddish /(j)ɪdɪʃ/ literally means ‘Jewish’. Indeed, this is an Indo-European language derived from a High German variety originally spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews.

Despite its growing recognition, many foreign language learners sometimes stay away from Yiddish because they think it’s too difficult and remote. At Listen & Learn, we believe that this a fascinating language, so we have put together a list of useful and witty Yiddish expressions that might change your mind and make you want to learn more about it!

But first, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences between Yiddish and Hebrew, the language with which it’s often confused.

Yiddish vs. Hebrew

If you’ve ever seen Yiddish and Hebrew writings, you might have assumed that they were the same language. This is because they present a few similarities which can be summed up as follows:

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Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

– Both languages are mainly spoken by the Jewish population.

– They share the same alphabet.

– They are read from right to left.

– Neither of them uses capital letters.

However, the differences between Yiddish and Hebrew are far more numerous and significant. Let’s talk a look at some of them:

– Yiddish, which derives from High German, belongs to the Indo-European family. Hebrew, on the other hand, belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family.

– Yiddish is a “fusion language”. It integrates elements from such diverse languages as German, Aramaic, and French. Hebrew, by contrast, is purely Semitic.

– In Yiddish, multi-syllable words are usually stressed on the penultimate syllable. Hebrew, in opposition, stresses these words on the last syllable.

If you want to know more about Hebrew, make sure you check our blogs on the most useful survival phrases and our list of the most surprising facts about this enchanting language.

The Yiddish Phrasebook

Learning a language is not just about memorising grammar rules and vocabulary lists. When you learn a language, you get to know a new culture full of wonderful traditions and idiosyncratic habits.

Below, you will find seven curious expressions that reflect the uniqueness of the Yiddish culture.

1. baleboste /bɑːləˈbʌstə/ (באַלעבאָסטע)

In the Yiddish language, a baleboste is an efficient and dedicated housewife, a woman who’s in charge of her home and will go out of her way to make you remember it.

After sweeping her finger on a spotless, shiny piece of furniture, a mother-in-law might admit that her son’s wife is a true baleboste.

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

2. bupkes /ˈbʌp.kɪs/ (באָבקעס)

A somewhat vulgar term, bupkes means “goat or horse excrement”. American Jews also use this expression to mean “worthless”, “banal”, or “useless”, or to say that one has got an unbelievably small amount of something.

A person who has just been fired without getting any compensation, for example, might bitterly complain that he was bupkes.

3. Feh! /fex/  (פֿע‎)

This is an onomatopoeic word. Onomatopoeia is the process of creating words whose pronunciation imitates or suggests the very sound they describe. Feh! is an expression of disgust or displeasure which resembles the sound of spitting.

While watching a trailer for a historical movie about Judaism in which the actors exhibit modern American accents, a Yiddish man might be heard saying this word more than once.

4. Goy /ɡɔɪ/ (גוי)

Often used pejoratively, a goy is a non-Jew or a Gentile. This word is used both in Yiddish and in Hebrew, and its plural is not “goys” but goyim. The adjective form is “goyish”, and it’s generally used to describe behaviours that go against Jewish tradition.

Adding big amounts of mayonnaise to your smoked turkey, for example, might be seen as a goyish habit.

5. Mazel Tov  /ˈmɑːzəlˌtɔːv/ (מזל טוב)

Often translated as “good luck”, this expression doesn’t always refer to a future situation. On the contrary, it is often said to comment on something that just happened. As a congratulatory expression, it can be used ironically to mean “it was about time”.

For instance, the parents of a 35-year-old man might use this phrase after he finally announces he’s going to get married.

6. Shlemiel /ʃləˈmiːl/ (שלימיל)

Derived from the Hebrew phrase שלא מועיל‎ (“one who is not helpful”) a shlemiel is a clumsy, incompetent person. This phrase is an illustrative example of Jewish humour, which often depicts clumsy people in unfortunate situations.

Somebody who spills his Jewish chicken soup all over his clothes, for example, might be called a shlemiel by the other diners.

7. Yiddish kop /(j)ɪdɪʃ kop/ (ייִדישער קאָפּ)

A Yiddish kop is literally a “Jewish head”. This expression is used to refer to an astute or ingenious way of thinking. It might also mean that one simply has the intellectual skills needed for traditional Jewish scholarship.

After hearing that his granddaughter has just graduated from college, a proud grandfather could say something like “I always knew she was a Yiddish kop”.

The Importance of Learning Yiddish

Although there have been reports about the near demise of the Yiddish language, these have been proved to be inaccurate. Actually, recent studies show that the total number of Yiddish speakers around the world is over two million. This is very good news indeed. Yiddish is a huge part of the history of the Jewish people. Their idiosyncrasy, their traditions, their literature, all these aspects of the Yiddish culture live in their fascinating language.

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Photo by Freepik via Freepik

One of the main reasons why not so many people study Yiddish today is because finding native tutors might be very a bit difficult in some areas. However, at Listen & Learn, we make it possible. You just have to contact us on our website and we’ll put you in contact with a Yiddish teacher who will boost your fluency in this language with a tailor-made curriculum adapted to your needs and requirements!