For much of the last millennium, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. It continues to be spoken by many Jews today, especially in Chassidic circles. Read on for 13 facts about this delightfully zesty and expressive language.

1. It Is Over 1,000 Years Old

While the exact origins of the Yiddish language are still shrouded in some uncertainty, all agree that it has its roots in the 9th–10th centuries, when the first Jews settled in the Rhineland and the Palatinate (in present-day Germany).

Read: Why Do Jews Still Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

2. It Is Distinct From German

Living in the Rhineland, where Germanic languages were developing, the Jews concurrently developed their own unique language, Yiddish.1 This explains why many Yiddish words have similar counterparts in modern German.

Read: 15 Facts About the Jews of Germany

3. Yiddish and Hebrew Have Different Uses

Jews over the ages generally refrained from using Biblical Hebrew, the “Holy Tongue,” for day-to-day speech. Hebrew was therefore reserved for holy, spiritual speech such as prayer and Torah scholarship, while Yiddish became the language of regular conversation.2

Read: Why Is Hebrew Called the Holy Tongue?

4. It Crossed Borders and Oceans

While Yiddish originated in the Germanic lands, when Jews immigrated to Eastern Europe they brought Yiddish along with them. Immigrants to the United States (and elsewhere) in the 19th-20th centuries helped spread the language, giving Yiddish a global distribution.

Watch: Yiddish in the Soviet Union

5. The Lower East Side Was a Yiddish Hotspot

A Yiddish storefront sign. Lower East Side, NYC, 1908
A Yiddish storefront sign. Lower East Side, NYC, 1908

At the turn of the 20th century, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a magnet for newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In its heyday, Yiddish dominated the neighborhood, with storefront signs, advertisements, and newspapers all written in Yiddish. The same was true on a smaller scale in many other neighborhoods in Northeastern United States and beyond. (Case in point: For the first half of the 20th century, Yiddish was Montreal’s third language, following French and English.)

Peruse our list of Yiddish Words Defined

6. It’s Here to Stay

By the onset of World War II, there were about 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide, most of them located in Eastern Europe. Although this number dwindled drastically due to the Holocaust, the Americanization of immigrant families, and other factors, the language remains alive and well and is in fact growing in many Jewish circles, most notably in Chassidic communities.

Read: 17 Facts Everyone Should Know About Hasidic Jews

7. It Has Several Dialects and Accents

Since Yiddish was spoken in so many locales, it is no wonder that various dialects developed over time. German Jews spoke a unique dialect of Yiddish with closer ties to German than its eastern counterpart. Similarly, the Yiddish of Poland and Galicia differed from that of Lithuania and White Russia, mostly in pronunciation. These differences persist in Yiddish speakers today based on their familial origins. For example, Jews of Polish ancestry enjoy kigel on Shabbos, while Russians eat kugel.

8. It Incorporates Hebrew, Slavic, and More

While the bulk of Yiddish shares its origins with German, a large array of words and expressions were incorporated from other languages, most notably Hebrew. Thus, seyfer is a sacred book, kholem is a dream, and levone is the moon—all Hebrew words. As the language traveled eastward, it adopted a variety of Slavic words, such as tchaynik, “teapot,” and yagde, “berry.” Other notable inclusions are words stemming from Aramaic, such as mistame, “probably.”

Read: 10 Foolproof Yiddish Words to Use All the Time

9. There Are Yiddish Words in English

Skim through an English dictionary and you’re bound to encounter some Yiddish words that have become naturalized enough to be considered part of the English language. How many can you spot in this sentence? “Harry and Bertha schmoozed over bagels and lox at the kosher restaurant, but began to kvetch when that klutz of a waiter had the chutzpah to spill their coffee.”

Take the Quiz: Do You Know Enough Yiddish to Order a Bagel in New York?

10. Colorful Expressions Abound

Yiddish is known for its abundance of vibrant expressions and aphorisms. Here is a small sampling:

  • A clever person knows whatever he says; a fool says whatever he knows.
    A kliger veys vos er ret, a nar ret vos er veys
    א קליגער ווייס וואס ער רעדט, א נאר רעדט וואס ער ווייס
  • A child can be worse than a thief, yet you dance at his wedding!
    A kind ken zayn erger vi a gazln, un m’tantzt nokh af zayn khasene
    א קינד קען זיין ערגער ווי א גזלן, און מ’טאנצט נאך אויף זיין חתונה
  • The world is full of troubles, but you only feel your own.
    Di velt iz ful mit tzores, nor yederer filt nor zayne
    די וועלט איז פול מיט צרות, נאר יעדערער פילט נאר זיינע
  • Not everyone is happy with his looks, but everyone is happy with his brains.
    Nisht yeder iz tzufridn mit zayn ponim, ober mit zayn seykhl iz yeder tzufridn
    נישט יעדער איז צופרידן מיט זיין פנים, אבער מיט זיין שכל איז יעדער צופרידן

Read: 22 Yiddish Expressions About Telling the Truth

11. It Is Semi-Holy

A Jewish clockmaker depicted reading the Yiddish newspaper "Haynt" (Clockmaker, 1914) - Yehudah Pen
A Jewish clockmaker depicted reading the Yiddish newspaper "Haynt" (Clockmaker, 1914)
Yehudah Pen

Although Yiddish is a mundane language (unlike Biblical Hebrew, the “Holy Tongue”), the fact that it was used for Torah study and mitzvah observance for centuries gives it a measure of sanctity beyond other non-Hebrew languages.3 (Certain other languages—such as Aramaic4 and ancient Greek5—similarly have a level of holiness.)

Read: Aramaic, the Yiddish of the Middle East

12. It Has Other Names

The Yiddish language has been referred to by various names throughout its history, including: “Lashon Ashkenaz” (“language of Germany”), “teitch” (“translation,” and a reference to Deutch, “German”), “Zhargon” (“vernacular”), and “Mamme Lashon” (“mother tongue”). Its most famous name, of course, is Yiddish, which means “Jewish”—and indeed, the language is practically synonymous with the people who speak it.

Read: Where Does the Name “Yiddish” Come From?

13. There Are Many Other Jewish Languages

Yiddish is not the only non-Hebrew language spoken exclusively by Jews. Ladino, the language of Jews from Spanish-speaking countries, is still in use today, albeit limited to a small and diminishing demographic.

Read: Will Ladino Rise Again?

Additionally, there are many Jewish languages that are almost or already extinct, such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Persian, Jewish Malayalam, and others.

Read: The Declining Jewish Languages