How Yiddish influenced Modern Hebrew: yes, you read it correct!

The first generation of Modern Hebrew speakers were Jews who grew up speaking several languages – mostly Yiddish. They taught their kids what they believed was their ancestral language that had died out almost 2000 years ago. Even Jesus, “King of the Jews”, was an Aramaic speaker – Hebrew was dying even in his time. By 135 CE it was a dead language.

Changing languages as adults to a completely different language with a different vocabulary is never easy, and Israel managing to maintain this recreated language for 70+ years since independence (a human lifetime) – is considered one of the major miracles of Zionism. And today, even non-Jews like Arab, Druze and Circassian citizens of Israel, speak Modern Hebrew.

Most of the founders of Israel were Yiddish speakers.
But, by 1948, 80% of Jews born in independent Israel spoke only Modern Hebrew.

Jews who did live in the area before Ashkenazim came, spoke Judeo-Arabic.
In the diaspora, many languages were spoken: Ladino, Judeo-Malayalam, Judeo-Amharic, Polish, English, Russian, French etc. These languages would also affect Modern Hebrew, albeit less so.

Today, Modern Hebrew is the most famous example of a dead language brought back to life.
Still, linguist and language revivalist Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann thinks it’s not the same language. Zuckermann, a hyperpolyglot who received a doctorate in 2000 from the University of Oxford, is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He argues that “Modern Hebrew” should be called “Israeli” and ought to be regarded not as a member of the Semitic Languages family but rather as a member of the Revival Languages group. According to Zuckermann, Israeli is neither a pidgin nor a creole, nor an artificial language like Orcish in Lord of the Rings or Klingon..

Prof. Zuckermann proposes that linguists of the Israeli language ought to study Yiddish rather than Semitic languages like Aramaic, which is mandatory in many university programs.

He also suggests that there are significant lessons about the limits of language reclamation that are applicable from the Israeli language to language revivals all over the globe.

The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial and holy purposes. These are the two biggest Jewish communities, hence the push for this revival.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) is regarded as the “father” of Modern Hebrew. The Hebrew revival began during the first Aliyah phase between 1881 and 1903, when Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The revival continued during the British Mandate period (1918-48).

Israel’s national anthem was written in Hebrew. Even it had to be modified to account for language reform.

In the Hebrew language schools, Yiddish-speaking parents put their kids in an immersive environment to switch languages completely.

Interestingly, Yiddish itself is multi-sourced, with influence from German, Russian and other European languages —with an important Hebrew (and Aramaic) component. Thus, there are cases of Yiddish and Hebrew simultaneously influencing Israeli, or Modern Hebrew, in which Yiddish features themselves actually stem from the very same Hebrew elements involved.

Jewish languages other than Hebrew have many things in common. All were stigmatized by the Israeli government who brought social and economic pressures to shift to Hebrew. All were languages associated with Diaspora populations that found it difficult to continue their diasporic identity as they had to assimilate into a new Israeli identity.

However, Yiddish influences still crept into Hebrew. According to Zuckermann, Yiddish did not “influence” but rather “shaped” the very nature of the emerging revival language. He argues that successful revival languages inevitably end up becoming hybrids .
It is not surprising, therefore, that Israelis misunderstand the Hebrew Bible, according to Zuckermann.

In his trailblazing 2020 Oxford University Press book, Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond, Zuckermann writes about this very issue in depth in its first 3 chapters. He demonstrates in impressive scholarly detail, but also with a lot of sense of humour, why “Modern Hebrew” should be renamed “Israeli”.

This seminal book introduces “revivalistics”, in which Zuckermann defines as a global, trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration. The book is divided into two main parts that match the book subtitle: ”From the Genesis of Israeli” (Part One) to ”Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond” (Part Two). These parts reflect Zuckermann’s “journey into language revival from the ‘Promised Land’ to the ‘Lucky Country’ ” (see page xxi in the book).

In this article, I focus only on Part One.

Hebrew is written from right to left using a Semitic alphabet.
Long before Israel got independence, Jews used this alphabet to write Yiddish and other Jewish languages such as Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, as well as Hebrew, used for prayer.
So, many Jews were actually familiar with the script.

Hebrew alphabet today is used on the Internet – it has a keyboard on computers and smartphones. Hebrew Wikipedia has 269,000 articles; Yiddish has 70,000 articles.

A system of vocalization points to indicate vowels (diacritics), called niqqud (nikúd in Israeli), is used.

Historically, when used to write Yiddish, vowels were indicated, using this system (e.g. אָ for o or without (e.g. using alphabets like א for a, ע for e, י for i).

Today, most Hebrew writing does not use nikúd, except in specialized text such as poems, children’s books, dictionaries or for intro classes/media targeting new immigrants who are unfamiliar with Hebrew.

This system was initially used for Yiddish or Arabic speaking immigrants but today most Israeli immigrants are Russian, French or English speakers.

The word order of what Zuckermann calls “Israeli” is predominately SVO (subject–verb–object). Biblical Hebrew was originally verb–subject–object (VSO).

The modern Germanic languages, like Yiddish, are mostly SVO.

Ask an Israeli what the Biblical sentence אבנים שחקו מים means
[ʔǎbhåˈni:m ʃåħǎˈqu: ˈmajim] (Job 14:19)

they will tell you “stones eroded the water.”

Abhanim shahaku majim
Stones   eroded     Water
Object      Verb        Subject     (OVS)

Of course, after pondering, they would guess that this is semantically unlikely and instead it should be
‘the water eroded the stones.’

A similar phenomenon is when you see Singaporeans, Jamaicans, Irish or Scottish speak English as a first language.

They do not sound like Queen Elizabeth or Mary Poppins do.

Because their native ethnic language influenced the English they speak today and it’s not just the accent or pronunciation, they also have certain unique words and phrases

Eh : Singaporeans always say lah
What lah!! so expensive
The lah gives it effect – entices solidarity

It has no English equivalent

I didn’t mean to cause a stooshie
meaning “I didn’t mean to cause a major fuss/commotion”
The word ‘stooshie’ is unfamiliar to most non-Scottish

Likewise, Yiddish and Ladino speaking Jews carried over their thought processes into Hebrew.

The SVO of modern Hebrew is also most likely because of Yiddish and other European language thought processes affecting their speech.

Had say Arabic or Amharic speaking Jews had bigger numbers and been more prominent in the early stages of migration (or even later maybe), they would’ve had a bigger impact on today’s Hebrew in such ways. But, as Zuckermann shows, it was by and large Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim that reclaimed the ancient language of Isaiah at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

Core vocabulary essentially is the same as Biblical Hebrew but with a different pronunciation. Modern Hebrew has way more words.

Ancient Hebrew had 8000 words, 2000 of which are hapax legomena
(Appear once in a context – like names of mythic creatures or tribes).
Modern Hebrew has 100,000 words.

You need 3700 words to be able to read the news (according to Chinese)

It’s 5,000-10,000 to be fluent in any language according to most experts.
Let’s assume that these numbers apply universally to most languages, Hebrew included.
Many words were added to describe modern concepts alien to ancient people.

There is obviously no Biblical Hebrew word for “computer,” so the Hebrew word מחשב (makhshév), literally meaning “thinker,” was added to the Hebrew vocabulary. Likewise, many other words had to be added like maize tiras (תירס) and tomato ʿagvanyá (עגבניה). These are vegetables that didn’t exist in ancient Israel.

Some Yiddish words stayed -There are scores of visible loanwords, many with the ‘sh’ sound, notably : שפיץ shpits ‘spear- head’ ; שלוק shluk ‘sip’,שמוק shmok ‘dick, dick-head’,

Much of the Yiddish names for Ashkenazi food did not die as they brought their recipes to their new home
‎בייגלה béygale ‘bagel’, גפילטה פיש gefílte fish ‘stuffed fish’, לאַקס ‘lox’- filet of brine salmon

They kept names of clothing, which had definitely evolved since Jesus’ time. Such Yiddishisms include גטקס gátkes ‘long johns’, קפוטה kapóta ‘capote, long coat/ cape’, and שטריימלך shtréymalakh (plural) ‘shtreimel, beaver hat, a round, broad-brimmed hat edged with fur worn by Hasidic Jews.

Also many Jews in Israel have Yiddish names like Goldstein, Spielberg etc. While Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion urged people to Hebraize their names, not all did and immigrants coming later especially Russians who came in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union did not, preserving many Yiddish names.

Although the following Israeli words are ultimately of Hebrew pedigree, they entered Israeli from Yiddish. khévre ‘guys, the gang חבר‘ה ,’khévreman, בקיצר bekítser ‘shortly and כלבויניק kol-bóynik ‘a table bowl for rubbish (in a kibbutz)

Often Israelis use a Yiddishism without realizing.
Some Yiddish phrases got transliterated

‎ תפס את אלוהים בביצים tafás et eloím babeytsím, lit. ‘caught God in the testicles’, i.e. ‘was very successful’,
Comes from the Yiddish calque
‎האט געכאפט גאט ביי די אייער
hot gekhápt got bay di éyer.
‎הכה בברזל בעודו חם • / iká babarzél beodó kham, lit. hit in the iron while hot’, i.e. ‘strike while the iron is hot’, comes from Yiddish
‎שמיד דאס אייזן כל זמן ס׳איז הייס shmid dos áyzn kol zmán siz heys
i.e. ‘strike while the iron is hot’,

According to Zuckermann, the common Hebrew greeting ‘ma nishma’  מה נשמע  is rooted in the Yiddish expression ‘vos hert zikh’ and parallel expressions in Russian, Polish, Romanian and Georgian, all meaning literally. “what is heard” and actually “how are you”,
won’t be understood by a Biblical speaker as “how are you?”, which is what it means in Israeli.

At least half the idioms in Modern Israeli Hebrew come from Yiddish for that matter.

Some words carried over from other language from Yiddish like Babka (a type of cake) which was used in Yiddish but borrowed from Polish.
Even the Jewish holiday Passover is pronounced ‘ˈpasχa’ today influenced from Yiddish via the Greek word ‘páskha’
In Biblical Hebrew it was pesakh

Phonetics (Pronunciation) and Phonology

The most obvious part in which Yiddish shaped Modern Hebrew is its pronunciation. We can’t know for sure how Biblical Hebrew was pronounced, but linguists presume it was closest to the Yemenite Jewish pronunciation, in terms of variety of sounds – because they were exposed to Arabic and other Semitic language sounds.
However, as the young generation shift to a more standard Israeli accent influenced by Ashkenazi pronunciation, this is dying.

Even though Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have vowel marking, we have poetry and Greek accounts of Hebrew names etc. that can help us gauge how exactly it sounded.

Modern Hebrew doesn’t have pharyngeals and several other sounds that Semitic speakers have. The sounds of “Israeli” are a reflection of how a Yiddish speaker would speak a Semitic language.

In Biblical Hebrew, f was an allophone of p; v was an allophone of b
It was p at the start of a syllable but f in between vowels. The p and the f sounds were in complementary distribution.

In Israeli, however, you can find minimal pairs that demonstrate that the p and the f are two distinct phonemes. For example:

leafér – to throw cigarette ash
leapér – to put make up

In Biblical Hebrew, this would be impossible

Consider the following Israeli sentence, which would have been impossible to utter in Old Hebrew:

‎כיום אני נותן לפחות 70% לפחות סטודנטים מאשר בעבר.

kayóm aní notén lefakhót shivím akhúz lepakhót studéntim meashér baavár

These days I give at least 70 per cent to fewer students than in the past.

In Biblical Hebrew, this would be impossible. Both lefakhót and lepakhót would have been pronounced in Biblical Hebrew with an f.

When it comes to pronunciation,
to an outsider, Israelis speaking English are more often mistaken for German or Dutch speakers rather than Arabic speakers, when someone first hears their accent. This reflects the Yiddish impact on the sounds of Modern Hebrew.

Even in New York today, when I meet Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews, they have a distinct accent that sounds more like Amish or White South Africans talking English than when Arabs do.

The Israeli R sound is a lax uvular approximant [ʁ̞], similar to the [ʁ] in many Yiddish and German dialects, very different from that in Hebrew or Italian, and from that in English.

Biblical Hebrew had an alveolar trill r [r] sound, similar to when Arabs or Italians talk.

Modern Hebrew has most of its vowel inventory from Yiddish.

I’m Sri Lankan, I have met Sri Lankans born in different parts of the world : Australia, the UK, USA etc who were born in those countries, who speak with the accent of the country they grew up in rather than their parents’ Sri Lankan accent.
A child of any race, born in any random country will most likely speak in the accent of the place he grew up in rather than his parents’ accent.

So, Jews of Middle-Eastern origin simply picked up ‘European sounds’ after living there for 2000 years.

Morphology has to do with forms. Morphemes are by simplified definition, the smallest units of meaning in the language.

By and large, the most Hebrew/ Semitic component in Israeli is probably its morphology.
However, Yiddish and European influence has penetrated even this domain.
Some productive (commony-used in new expressions) suffixes in Israeli are specifically of Yiddish descent.

For example, the endearment diminutive ‘לה σσ-le. Consider אמא’לה ímale ‘mummy, mommy’, אבא’לה ábale ‘daddy’, סבא’לה sábale ‘granddaddy, grandpa’, סבתא’לה sáftale ‘granny’, חמודה’לה khamúdale ‘cutie’. This suffix is common in first names, e.g. שירה’לה shírale, רינה’לה rínale.

The Israeli agent suffix -ניק σ-nik is even more productive. Consider the following ‘hybrids’:
‎• קיבוצניק kibútsnik < Israeli קבוץ kibúts ‘kibbutz (collective settlement)’ (<Medieval Hebrew ‘community’ < Biblical Hebrew ‘collection of idols’) + Israeli -ניק σ-nik.
‎• מילואימניק miluímnik ‘reservist, reserve soldier (in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF))’ < Israeli מלואים miluím ‘reserve’ (lit. ‘fill-ins’) + Israeli -ניק σ-nik.
‎• כלומניק klúmnik ‘good for nothing, talentless, unimportant person’ < Israeli כלום klum ‘nothing’.

After Arabic, English, Russian and French, Yiddish is a spoken language in Israel.
Yiddish speakers tend to be ultra Orthodox Hasidim who have more kids, remain isolated and are more likely to retain the language.

So although Biblical Hebrew influenced Yiddish, due to time and currents, Yiddish also influenced Modern Israeli Hebrew because Ashkenazi Jews were important in Hebrew revival, and even after this founder effect are the largest Jewish group even in the diaspora and so it will most likely continue to do so.

Despite the founders of Israel best efforts to bring back Biblical Hebrew over other Jewish languages, they could not eliminate Yiddish influence on it and created a new revived language that has a lot of it imprinted in its structure and has carried its cultural memory to descendants of non-Yiddish speakers.

A more in depth analysis can be seen if one reads Zuckermann’s groundbreaking book.

About the Author
Avi Kumar grew up in Sri Lanka. As a member of the Tamil minority, he has a unique perspective when it comes to growing up in a war zone. From an early age in order to survive, he learned to remain silent about controversial issues when it wasn't safe to speak about them. Avi has lived in five different countries and speaks ten different languages. Fortunately, one of his ten languages is English, you wouldn't have had the slightest idea what you are reading. Avi loves wildlife photography and writing about religious and political issues with his unique perspective.
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