What do German, Dutch, and Yiddish have to do with each other?

Not COVID19 or politics for a change. A Facebook friend (whose husband is of Dutch ancestry) asked me about the relationship between the languages, being as I speak two of them fluently and can sort-of understand the third.

Grossly oversimplifying: proto-Germanic, the ancestor of all Germanic languages, split up into three branches: East Germanic (now extinct), North Germanic (the ancestor of Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic) and West Germanic (the ancestor of Old English, Frisian, Dutch, German, and Yiddish). The cool video below shows a time evolution on the map:

In brief: the landmass that covers most of today’s Netherlands (minus Friesland), Belgium, and the German-speaking countries saw proto-West Germanic gradually diverge into three principal dialect groups: Low German in the North, Upper German in the mountainous South, and Central German in between.

The boundaries (technically: isoglosses) between them are probably best illustrated by a sentence, “I eat the little red apple”:

  • Dutch (Nederlands): Ik eet het rode appeltje
  • Low German (Plattdeutsch): Ick ete dat rode Äppelken.
  • Central German (Mitteldeutsch): Ich esse dat rode Äppelchen.
  • Upper German (Oberdeutsch): Ich esse das rote Äpfelchen.
North of the Benrath isogloss: Low German; between the Benrath and Speyer isogloss: Central German; south of the Speyer isogloss: Upper German. Picture CC-BY-SA by “Hardcore Mike” on German Wikipedia.

Upper German principally divides into Alemannic dialects (the direct ancestor of spoken Schweizerdeutsch, or Swiss German) and Bavarian dialects as spoken in Bavaria, most of Austria, and the Italian province of South Tyrol.

Central German dialects range from Letzebuergisch (Luxemburgisch) in the West to Obersächsisch (Upper Saxon) in the East (plus, historically, Schlesisch/Silesian in what is now Polish territory). Together, Central German and Upper German are known as Hochdeutsch (High German) — the invention of movable type by Gutenberg (Mainz, 1440) and especially Martin Luther’s Bible Translation set in motion a process of standardization. Thus spake Luther: “My language is based on that of the Saxon Chancery, which is followed by all the princes and kings in Germany” (“Ich rede nach der sächsischen Kanzlei, welcher nachfolgen alle Fürsten und Könige in Deutschland” ). This Early Modern High German is the direct ancestor of modern standard German — to the extent that Hochdeutsch is often used as a synonym for the latter. “Hochdeutsch”, in the sense of Modern standard German, is the sole written standard not only in Germany, but in the entire Germanosphere/Deutschsprachigen Raum. (Some minor modifications apply in Austria and in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland.)

But in the Mundart (spoken vernacular), the dialects survived for centuries. In particular, people in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland will typically speak standard German only with outsiders, and Alemannic-descended Schweizerdeutsch among themselves — while Plattdeutsch or Low German can still be heard in the Northwest of Germany to this day.

Now if you go by dialects, there is no hard boundary between the Plattdeutsch dialects spoken nearest the Dutch border and the Dutch dialects spoken across it (known in Dutch as “Nederduits” or “Nedersaksisch”: “plat Duits” is only used derogatorily since ‘plat [language]’ in Dutch means ‘low-class, low vernacular [language]’). The Dutch (Nederlands) — Plattdeutsch transition is in fact the textbook example of what linguists call a ‘dialect continuum’.

So are Nederlands/Dutch and Plattdeutsch brother and sister? Basically, yes. Plattdeutsch dialects can roughly be divided into Low Franconian and Low Saxon groups: Low Franconian is the direct ancestor of Old Dutch (of which very little survives in writing) and hence the grandfather of Middle Dutch (Middelnederlands). A significant corpus of written Middle Dutch survives, by poets like Jacob van Maerlant or Hendrik van Veldeke, or as anonymous works like Elckerlyc (Everyman), Van den Vos Reynaerde (Reynard the Fox), …

Note: the language did not refer to itself as “Nederlands” yet, but as Diets or sometimes duutsch! (Cf. the Low German word for itself, Plattdüütsch). The word survives in the idiom “iemand iets diets maken” (freely: tell somebody straight up what’s the deal, in plain English). Only with the secession of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (Verenigde Provinciën der Nederlanden) from the Spanish Empire, and the subsequent standardization of Early Modern Dutch (based on the dialects of North and South Holland) did “Nederlands” become the term of choice for the language.

As an aside, the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch” in the eponymous US state were actually Germans (Deutsche), who spoke a western Central German dialect.

Now as it is the Sabbath, what about Yiddish? The name is actually short for “Yidish Taitsh” (Judeo-German); the oldest written mentions in Hebrew refer to it as “lashon Ashkenaz” (tongue of Ashkenaz, the medieval Hebrew name for Germany). Colloquially it is also referred to in Yiddish as “mame-loshen” (mother tongue) as distinct from “loshen-koydesh” (sacred tongue, i.e., Biblical Hebrew).

Grossly oversimplifying again, Yiddish vocabulary is a mixture of about 60% Middle High German, 30% medieval Hebrew (in the old Ashkenazi pronunciation[*]), and the remainder a varying mixture of Romance and Slavic loan words (the mix depending on the dialect). Structurally it is a Germanic language, but written with Hebrew characters. Some of the latter are repurposed: aleph (א) and ayin (ע) in Yiddish mean “a” and “e”, respectively, rather than glottal stops.

It originally came about in Jewish communities in the Rhineland. When they fled to Eastern Europe following medieval pogroms, they brought the language with them; a smaller community moved westward and developed a distinct West Yiddish dialect. In the East, depending on who you ask, two or three principal dialects developed: Litvak/Lithuanian Yiddish (which is advocated as the ‘purest’ form by the YIVO), Galitz/Galician Yiddish as used to be spoken in Polish and Ukrainian Galicia, plus a third variant that some lump in with Galician Yiddish and others consider a distinctive Hungarian Yiddish dialect. (“Hungary” includes here historically Hungarian regions such as Transylvania/Erdely/Siebenbürgen in present-day Romania.) This latter dialect, which is spoken to this day in chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) neighborhoods of Jerusalem, sounds fairly close to German and can fairly easily be understood if you know both German and Hebrew. (Litvak Yiddish takes more practice, and knowing Polish or Russian will be helpful.)

Most English speakers are familiar with Yiddishisms introduced into the English language by New York Jews in general, and Jewish comedians of yore in particular: meshuga, putz, schmuck, shlemiel, shmear, the whole megillah,… But American English is not unique in this regard: Amsterdam Dutch slang is filled with Yiddishisms that filtered into colloquial Dutch more generally. A selection below (YPoH= Yiddish pronunciation [of a Hebrew loan word]):

  • bajes = jail (from YPoH bayit: house)
  • bolleboos = clever guy, egghead (YPoH ba’al ha’bayit: master of the house)
  • joet = Fl. 10 banknote (from Hebrew letter yod, also 10 in Hebrew arithmetic)
  • meier = Fl. 100 banknote (from Hebrew meah=100)
  • gein = joy, fun (from Hebrew chen = grace, pleasure)
  • tof = great, cool (from Hebrew tov = good)
  • goochem = clever (from YPoH chacham = wise)
  • gonef = crook (from YPoH ganav = thief)
  • jajem = wine (from yayin=wine)
  • jatten = to steal (from Hebrew yad=hand)
  • sjofel = [looking] poor, miserable (from YPoH shafel=low)
  • smeris = cop (from Hebrew shmira=guard)
  • mesjogge = crazy (from YPoH meshuga)
  • penoze = underworld (from YPoH parnasa = source of income)
  • mokum = Amsterdam (from YPoH makom aleph= place A.)
  • gotspe = chutzpah, unmitigated gall
  • lef = courage (from Hebrew lev=heart)
  • kapsones = arrogance (from YPoH ga’avtanut)
  • gajes = rifraff (from YPoH chayot = animals)
  • gabber = mate, buddy (from Hebrew chaver = friend)
  • mazzel = luck
  • koosjer = kosher (also metaphorically. Literal meaning in Hebrew=fit [for a purpose])
  • smoes = pretext (from YPhO shmu’ot=rumors)
  • gozer = bloke, chap (from YPoH chatan=bridegroom)
  • sjlemiel, slemiel = never-do-well, loser (possibly from shelo mo’il=who is not effective)
  • stiekem = in secret (from shtika = silence)
  • sores = trouble (from YPoH tzarot=problems)
  • afgepeigerd = beat, exhausted (from Hebrew peger=corpse)
  • pleite = broke, bankrupt (from plita=flight)
  • hij is gesjochten = “his goose is cooked” (from Yiddish: ritually slaughtered)
  • etc.

Some of these words entered standard German as well, e.g., Schlemiel, koscher, schiker (from Hebrew shikor=drunk), … Interestingly, Schmock [oaf, jerk] entered German as a back-import of Schmuck (which in standard German means ‘jewels’ but in Yiddish is both a euphemism for the male organ and, hence, an obnoxious person…)

[*] The standard pronunciation for Modern Hebrew is a simplified compromise form between various Sephardi and Edot HaMizrach [“Oriental communities”, e.g., Syrian, Iraqi, Yemenite,… Jews] pronunciations. Ashkenazi pronunciation (or “Ashkenozis” as some jocularly call it) differs in some obvious respects:

  • a final letter “tav” (t) is pronounced “s” unless it has a dagesh.
  • the vowel mark “kamatz gadol” is pronounced “o” rather than “a” as in Modern Hebrew. Hence: shabbos instead of shabbat; bais midrosh instead of beit midrash (house of study); Dovid [English approximation: DOHveed] instead of David [English approximation: DahVEED]
  • the vowel mark “cholam” is pronounced “oi” rather than “o”. Hence Moses becomes Moishe (MOIshe) rather than the Modern Hebrew Moshe (moSHE).
  • And yes, the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable is usually stressed, rather than in other Hebrew dialect (and standard Modern Hebrew) which usually favor the final syllable.

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