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About Yiddish Language

Yiddish (ייִדיש yidish or אידיש idish, literally "Jewish") is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet.

The language originated in the Ashkenazi culture that developed from about the 10th century in the Rhineland and then spread to Central and Eastern Europe and eventually to other continents. In the earliest surviving references to it, the language is called לשון־אַשכּנז (loshn-ashkenaz = "language of Ashkenaz") and טײַטש (taytsh, a variant of tiutsch, the contemporary name for the language otherwise spoken in the region of origin, now called Middle High German; compare the modern New High German Deutsch). In common usage, the language is called מאַמע־לשון (mame-loshn, literally "mother tongue"), distinguishing it from biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, which are collectively termed לשון־קודש (loshn-koydesh, "holy tongue"). The term "Yiddish" did not become the most frequently used designation in the literature of the language until the 18th century.

For a significant portion of its history, Yiddish was the primary spoken language of the Ashkenazi Jews and once spanned a broad dialect continuum from Western Yiddish to three major groups within Eastern Yiddish, namely Litvish, Poylish and Ukrainish. Eastern and Western Yiddish are most markedly distinguished by the extensive inclusion of words of Slavic origin in the Eastern dialects. While Western Yiddish has few remaining speakers, Eastern dialects remain in wide use.

Yiddish is written and spoken in Orthodox Jewish communities around the world. It is a home language in most Hasidic communities, where it is the first language learned in childhood, used in schools and in many social settings.

History

The Ashkenazi culture that took root in 10th century Central Europe derived its name from Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3), the medieval Hebrew name for the territory centered on what is now Germany. Its geographic extent did not coincide with the German Christian principalities; Ashkenaz included northern France. It also bordered on the area inhabited by the Sephardim, or Spanish Jews, which ranged into Southern France. Ashkenazi culture later spread into Eastern Europe.

The first language of European Jews may have been Aramaic,[5] the vernacular of the Jews in Roman-era Palestine and ancient and early medieval Mesopotamia. The widespread use of Aramaic among the large non-Jewish Syrian trading population of the Roman provinces, including those in Europe, would have reinforced the use of Aramaic among Jews engaged in trade. In Roman times, many of the Jews living in Rome and Southern Italy appear to have been Greek-speakers, and this is reflected in some Ashkenazi personal names (e.g., Kalonymus). Much work needs to be done, though, to fully analyze the contributions of those languages to Yiddish.

Nothing is known about the vernacular of the earliest Jews in Germany, but several theories have been put forward. It is generally accepted that it was likely to have contained elements from other languages of the Near East and Europe, absorbed through dispersion. Since many settlers came via France and Italy, it is also likely that the Romance-based Jewish languages of those regions were represented. Traces remain in the contemporary Yiddish vocabulary: for example, בענטשן (bentshn, to bless), from the Latin benedicere; and the personal name Anshl, cognate to Angel or Angelo.[citation needed] Western Yiddish includes additional words of Latin derivation (but still very few): for example, orn (to pray), cf. Latin "orare."

Members of the young Ashkenazi community would have encountered the myriad dialects from which standard German was destined to emerge many centuries later. They would soon have been speaking their own versions of these German dialects, mixed with linguistic elements that they themselves brought into the region. These dialects would have adapted to the needs of the burgeoning Ashkenazi culture and may, as characterizes many such developments, have included the deliberate cultivation of linguistic differences to assert cultural autonomy. The Ashkenazi community also had its own geography, with a pattern of relationships among settlements that was somewhat independent of its non-Jewish neighbors. This led to the consolidation of Yiddish dialects, the borders of which did not coincide with the borders of German dialects.

Apart from the obvious use of Hebrew words for specifically Jewish artifacts, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which the Yiddish spoken in any earlier period differed from the contemporary German. There is a rough consensus that by the 15th century Yiddish would have sounded distinctive to the average German ear, even when restricted to the Germanic component of its vocabulary.

Status as a language

There has been frequent debate about the extent of the linguistic independence of Yiddish from the languages that it absorbed. Some commentary dismisses Yiddish as mere jargon, although in Yiddish that term is also used as a colloquial designation for the language without any pejorative connotation. There has been periodic assertion that Yiddish is a dialect of German, or even "just broken German, more of a linguistic mishmash than a true language". Even when recognized as an autonomous language, it has sometimes been referred to as Judeo-German, along the lines of other Jewish languages like Judeo-Persian or Judeo-French. A widely-cited summary of attitudes in the 1930s was published by Max Weinreich, quoting a remark by an auditor of one of his lectures: אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט (a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot — "A language is a dialect with an army and navy", facsimile excerpt at, discussed in detail in a separate article). More recently, Prof. Paul Wexler, of Tel Aviv University in Israel, has proposed that Eastern Yiddish should be classified as a Slavic language, formed by the relexification of Judeo-Slavic dialects by Judeo-German. However, from a linguistic point of view, all of these arguments lack foundation. If Yiddish is close enough to Modern High German that speakers of both could understand one another, it might be considered a dialect of German. If it is different enough from Modern High German that speakers cannot understand one another, than the two could be considered different languages. Referring to an entire language which people use as their mother tongue and in daily interaction as "jargon" has no linguistic meaning - jargon refers to specific elements of speech such as a word of a phrase - not an entire language. Basque also has no army and no navy, yet it is quite clearly accepted as a language.

Religious communities

The major exception to the decline of spoken Yiddish can be found in Haredi communities all over the world. In some of the more closely-knit such communities Yiddish is spoken as a home and schooling language, especially in Hasidic, Litvish or Yeshivish communities such as Brooklyn's Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, and in Monsey, Kiryas Joel and New Square. (Over 88% of the population of Kiryas Joel is reported to speak Yiddish at home.) Also in New Jersey Yiddish is widely spoken mostly in Lakewood but also in smaller Yeshivishe towns with yeshivos such as Passaic, Teaneck and elsewhere. Yiddish is also widely spoken in the Antwerp Jewish community and in Haredi communities such as the ones in London, Manchester and Montreal. Among most Ashkenazi Haredim, Hebrew is generally reserved for prayer, while Yiddish is used for religious studies as well as a home and business language. In Israel, however, Haredim commonly speak Hebrew, with the notable exception of many Hasidic communities. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Haredim who use Modern Hebrew also understand Yiddish. Many send their children to schools in which the primary language of instruction is Yiddish. Members of movements such as Satmar Hasidism, who view the commonplace use of Hebrew as a form of Zionism, use Yiddish almost exclusively.

Hundreds of thousands of young children around the globe have been, and are still, taught to translate the texts of the Torah into Yiddish. This process is called טײַטשן (taytshn) – "translating" . Most Ashkenazi yeshivas' highest level lectures in Talmud and Halakha are delivered in Yiddish by the rosh yeshivas as well as ethical talks of mussar. Hasidic rebbes generally use only Yiddish to converse with their followers and to deliver their various Torah talks, classes, and lectures. The linguistic style and vocabulary of Yiddish have influenced the manner in which many Orthodox Jews who attend yeshivas speak English. This usage is distinctive enough that it has been dubbed "Yeshivish".

While Hebrew remains the language of Jewish prayer, the Hasidim have mixed some Yiddish into their Hebrew, and are also responsible for a significant secondary religious literature written in Yiddish. For example, the tales about the Baal Shem Tov were written largely in Yiddish. As well as the Torah Talks of the late Lubavitch leaders are published in their original form, Yiddish. In addition, some prayers, such as the Got fun Avrohom, were composed and are recited in Yiddish.

Moreover, many Hasidic girls in the Diaspora are not taught Hebrew at all, and therefore do not understand either ancient or modern Hebrew. Even those who are taught parts of the Bible will still use prayer books with Yiddish translation and commentaries, as their comprehension of Hebrew is deficient.

 

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