Yiddish Basics

Basics of the language.

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1. The alphabet. Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, which con­sists of the following 22 letters:
 

Yiddish has combined some of these letters, and added some dia­critics, to better represent the speech sounds of the language. Some of these letters are:

Yiddish is read from right to left (as is Hebrew). In words of more than one syllable, the accent usually falls on the next-to-the-last sylla­ble, as in , .

2. Grammar. The following is a greatly simplified description of some of the basic rules of Yiddish grammar. For serious study, we recommend Uriel Weinreich's classic text, College Yiddish, published by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Articles. The Yiddish indefinite article, a, an, is used the same way as the English article a, an. But unlike in English, the Yiddish definite article is distinguished by gender in the singular: der yingl (the boy, masculine); di mame (the mother, feminine); dos kind (the child, neuter). The plural has only one definite article, di: di kinder (the children).

Adjectives. Gender is important also in forming adjectives. When modifying a masculine noun, the adjective ending is -er (masculine): a guter fraynd (a good friend); with a feminine noun, the ending is -e: a gute neshome (a good soul); with a neuter noun, the adjective ending is also -e when it is preceded by a definite article; and regardless of gen­der, the plural ending of an adjective is also -e: di sheyne hayzer (the beautiful houses).

Nouns. Yiddish nouns take chiefly the following plural endings:

-n, -en, as in shuln (schools), nodlen (needles)

-er, as in kinder (children), hayzer (houses)

-s, -es, as in fishers (fishermen), zaydes (grandfathers)

-ekh, as in shtetlekh (towns)

-im, as in khaveyrim (friends)

Verbs. The infinitive of Yiddish verbs has the ending -n or -en, as in esn (to eat), zingen (to sing). The past participle of Yiddish verbs is formed by adding the prefix ge- and the ending -(e)n or -t to the base of the verb. For example, the past participle of kumen (to come), is gekumen, and of nitsn (to use), is genitst. The past tense of verbs is formed by adding the past participle to the auxiliary verbs hobn (to have) or zayn (to be)--for example, ikh hob gezen (I saw, I have seen); zey zaynen (or zenen) gekumen (they came, they have come).

Yiddish vs. Hebrew

Contrary to what people might think, Yiddish and Hebrew are very different languages. The reason why the two are often linked in people's minds is that Yiddish speakers have usually learned how to read Hebrew in childhood, since the Bible and Jewish .prayers are written in classical Hebrew. But this form of Hebrew is very different from the modern Hebrew spoken and written in Israel, which few Yiddish speak­ers speak or understand. The fact is that linguistically Yiddish and Hebrew are as different from one another as Japanese is from Chinese.

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Payson R. Stevens

Payson R. Stevens was President and Creative Director of InterNetwork Inc. and well as InterNetwork Media Inc.

Charles M. Levine

Charles M. Levine has worked as an editor and publisher for over three decades. He conducts editing workshops for undergraduates at Hofstra University.

Sol Steinmetz

Sol Steinmetz is an expert on etymologies and lexicographer. He has published over 35 dictionaries and reference books and served as an editorial director for Random House Reference.