Yiddish Language

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Yiddish is an endangered heritage language.  It is the 1,000-year-old language of Ashkenazi Jews  (i.e. European Jews).  Ashkenazic Jewish Civilization represented one of the highest peaks in the history of Judaism:   Yidn (Jews) spoke Yiddish (the language of the Jews).   

Yiddish is a highly plastic and assimilative language, rich in idioms, and possessing remarkable freshness, pithiness, and pungency.   There were an estimated 11 million speakers of Yiddish before Holocaust (two out of three Jews in the world spoke Yiddish ), and on the eve of WW II, there were 60 Yiddish daily newspapers and 300-400 daily periodicals in 30 different countries.   Truly international in scope, Yiddish works were published on all five continents.   It is estimated that a quarter of a million works of Yiddish literature were published in the mere 80 years that represent the height of modern Yiddish culture (approximately 1860-1940).  Today there are an estimated one million speakers world-wide.  It remains on the UN list of endangered languages.  

Yiddish is a “fusion” language, its development a rapid process of growth and dissolution.  It is based originally on a mixture of Middle High German dialects and coalescing into a language around the Rhine region of Mainz and Spires around 1100.   Written in Hebrew characters, it initially served as an auxiliary to Hebrew, which was the language of prayer, ritual, and scholarly and legal commentaries.   But it soon acquired an international scope (reflecting the travail of wandering, exile, dispersion), borrowing freely from almost every Indo-European language.  With an estimated vocabulary of 180,000 words, it is one of the richest languages in the world.  Approximately 80 percent of its vocabulary is derived from the Germanic; 15 percent is Hebraic; and five percent is from Slavic, Latin and Romance languages.

It is also categorized as a Germanic “folk” language.  Since it was spoken by ordinary people rather than by scholars, its vocabulary is weak in abstractions, and has few items descriptive of nature (with which the Jews of Eastern Europe had relatively little contact).  Yet it has a wealth of words descriptive of character and of relations among people.  It also makes liberal use of diminutives and terms of endearment and has a variety of expletives.  Use of proverbs is considerable.  These qualities and usages give Yiddish a uniquely warm and personal flavor.

Yiddish is a language rich in irony, as exemplified by the following proverb on economic theory: “Rich and poor both lie IN the ground together, but ON the ground the rich lie more comfortably.”

Yiddish at UCLA

Yiddish has been taught at UCLA for well over 30 years.  UCLA is one of the few universities in the world to offer two years of Yiddish language learning (Yiddish 101 and 102), and will soon be one of the few to have a Chair in Yiddish.

In Yiddish 101, Elementary Yiddish, students have an opportunity to learn the basics of this unique, rich, and endangered language.  Language skills taught include:  reading and writing, fundamental grammar, and conversational skills.   Students also receive an introduction to Yiddish culture through popular folk and theater songs, humorous and serious readings, viewing a classic Yiddish film, and attending at least one local Yiddish cultural event.  By the end of the first year, students are able to write descriptive essays on a host of relevant topics, and to read works from Yiddish literature in the original.

In Yiddish 102, Intermediate Yiddish, students have an opportunity to deepen and broaden their exploration of the language and the culture to which it gave rise. Language skills are taught through: advanced readings of the literature, intermediate grammar and conversation, theatrical skits, popular folk and theater songs, viewing a classic Yiddish film, and attending at least one local Yiddish cultural event.   Readings include stories by great modern Yiddish masters (e.g., IB Singer, Avrum Sutzkever, Sholem Asch), poetry, and plays.

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