The Hebrew and Yiddish Languages: Similarities and Differences

By Keren Perles

When you look at the two languages—Yiddish versus Hebrew—they might seem similar at first. After all, they both use the same alphabet, they share similar words, and they are both spoken primarily by Jews. However, they are actually two separate languages. So, what's the difference?

The Origins of Yiddish

In order to understand the origins of Yiddish, it is important to understand biblical Hebrew. Although biblical Hebrew was not spoken as a primary language for over a thousand years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Jews continued to learn religious texts and to pray in biblical Hebrew. The language, however, was deemed too holy for everyday speech. Therefore, Ashkenazi Jews (living in countries around Germany and Poland) slowly developed a new language: Yiddish. Linguistically, Yiddish is a “fusion" language, which means that it is a conglomeration of several different languages: biblical Hebrew, German, Aramaic, and various other languages. This became the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe until the time of the Holocaust. Even today, small groups of Hasidic Jews (mostly in Israel and the New York area) speak Yiddish as their primary language.

The Origins of the Modern Hebrew Language

The modern Hebrew language, which is spoken primarily in Israel today, stemmed from biblical Hebrew. Those who created the modern state of Israel did not want to take on Yiddish as a national language. They felt that Yiddish was a language of the shtetel (self-created ghetto) and that a modern nation needed a language of pride rather than one of shame. Therefore, they created modern Hebrew, a language based on biblical Hebrew but with a modern twist. This became the national language of the modern state of Israel.

Similarities and Differences

Because Yiddish and modern Hebrew are both partially based on biblical Hebrew, the two languages have many similarities. The most obvious similarity is the fact that they use the same written letters. However, the nikudos (vowels) used in the Hebrew language are often omitted in Yiddish. Instead, the guttural consonants of ע (ayin) and א (aleph) as well as various forms of י (yud) represent different vowel sounds.

In addition, the Hebrew language has well-defined grammar rules whereas the rules of Yiddish are filled with exceptions. This is mostly due to the fact that Yiddish is a fusion language, so it takes on the grammar rules of various other languages. For example, there are two basic ways to form a plural in Hebrew—by adding ים (im) or ות (os) to the end of the word. In Yiddish, however, there are several ways to form a plural depending on the source of the word being pluralized. For example, the plural of “chaver," (friend) a Hebrew word, would be “chaverim" in Yiddish. However, the plural of “bubbe" (grandmother) would be “bubbles" in Yiddish.

So what's the difference between the Hebrew language and Yiddish? Plenty.