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Language spoken by East European Jewry, approximately 1,000 years old. Jews have always spoken the language of the land in which they lived. Babylonian Jews spoke Aramaic; Jews who lived under Arab dominion spoke Arabic; and those of France spoke French in their daily lives. The language of Jewish religious life was Hebrew. Yiddish began to develop when French Jews settled along the Rhine, and their vocabulary was augmented by many words from the various medieval German dialects of their new neighbors.

Expulsions and persecutions forced the Jews to move from place to place, increasing the difference between their speech and that of the surrounding population. When the German Jews migrated to Bohemia, Poland, and Lithuania, they took their medieval German dialect with them, at the same time adapting more Hebrew and Slavic words. Jews in the ghetto were alienated from the cultural life of the surrounding people; this isolation, added to the special Jewish way of life, was also a basic factor in the development of the Yiddish language. Also, Yiddish reflects the East European Jews’ concentration in cities and consequent separation from nature; few terms for flowers and trees, birds, animals and fishes exist in Yiddish. On the other hand, Yiddish may be pungent, colorful, and even sentimental, but it is rarely pompous (there was little room for sham in the ghetto). Jews continued to move eastward, and Ukrainian, White Russian, and Russian elements entered the Yiddish language. When Yiddish-speaking immigrants moved westward, to the New World, Yiddish vocabulary expanded to include English terms in the U.S. and Spanish words in Argentina, all of which has enriched the language. In all, Yiddish has a vocabulary of approximately 150,000 words.

Yiddish is the creation of Ashkenazic Jewry. Even before 1500, Yiddish was spoken in Ashkenazic communities. Beginning with the 13th century, as the role of Ashkenazic Jews in Jewish history became more prominent, the Yiddish language gained in importance. From the 16th through the 18th century, it was the spoken language of Ashkenazic Jews everywhere. Yiddish is still the language of communication among Jews in the various centers of the world. It is heard wherever Jews from diverse countries meet, for example, at Zionist Congresses. There are approximately 130 Yiddish periodicals internationally.

For many generations, Yiddish was the language of Jewish education. In the heder, the Bible was interpreted in Yiddish; in the yeshiva, Yiddish was used to study the Talmud. The 20th century saw the development of secular Yiddish schools. In North America, Yiddish afternoon schools have functioned since 1910. There are Yiddish day schools in Canada, Mexico, and other countries. In the U.S., Yiddish is taught at several colleges and universities.

It is estimated that before World War II, between 10 and 11 million Jews spoke Yiddish. Of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, at least five and a half million spoke Yiddish. To this loss must be added the linguistic assimilation in the U.S. and other countries. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews who speak Yiddish today.

Although there is a renewed interest in Yiddish in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, the era of Yiddish as a major language of culture and literature has come to an end. The only Jews who continue to transmit the language to their children as a language of everyday speech are the Hasidim.

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