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I would call it a dialect of German, and I wonder if people would agree with that characterization? I am posting a link to my musical translation of the epic Yiddish poetic ballad "Monisch" so people can compare for themselves. I hope the closed captions are helpful.

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possible duplicate of Yiddish: common in Europe? –  John Smithers Jan 22 '12 at 17:55
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The difference between a dialect and a language isn't a technical one; it's determined by culture, society and/or politics (cf. Danish/Swedish/Norwegian or Slovakian/Czech*).

Personally, I would consider Yiddish a different language, given the stark and obvious differences between the users of each language, even though as a learner of German, Yiddish is fairly understandable to me.

*edit: Slovakian/Czech, not Slovakian/Croatian.

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Yes, of course you're right about culture and politics. But am I wrong or isn't it Slovakian/Czech and Croatian/Serbian? –  Marty Green Jan 22 '12 at 12:31
    
Perhaps there is a mix-up of Slovakian and Slovenian. Slovenian/Croatian/Serbian are quite similar. –  knut Jan 22 '12 at 19:25
    
Ha, yeah! You're right. I was first going to put Croatian/Serbian and Czech/Slovakian, but I decided to put one Slavic and one Germanic. Must have got my wires crossed! –  Spring Blossoms Jan 23 '12 at 2:26
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Which Norwegian? :-> –  starblue Jan 26 '12 at 7:02
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I have my own definitions of dialect and language. Perhaps they are helpful.

  1. If the difference consist of regular vowel shifts but no regular consonant shifts, it's a dialect. (I.e. Yiddish would be a dialect of German.)

  2. If the difference consists of one regular consonant shift, it's a half-language. (I.e. two dialects with such a difference between them would be half-languages in relation to each other.)

  3. If the difference consists of two or more regular consonant shifts, it's a language. (I.e. English and German are separate languages.)

Note that "dialect", "half-language" and "language" are here distances between ways of speaking, not titles for such ways. Yiddish and English are different languages. Yiddish and German are different dialects of the same language.

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Andrew, I've responded further to your comment in reponse to Jules' post. I think it's an interesting test, and I wonder how it applies to Russian and Ukrainian, for example. And would v-to-w be a vowel be a consonant shift or a vowel shift? even in some variants of Yiddish there is a semi-regular shift where blaue augen goes to blove oygen; I think that still falls within your 1st category. Interesting that you don't set a percentage of core vocabulary which needs to be shared; are there examples of what would be dialects by your definition where only a fraction of the words are in shared? –  Marty Green Feb 1 '12 at 15:44
    
For Ukrainian and Russian we'd have to find a consonant shift table. I wouldn't know. As for v-to-w shifts, I think it is possible for a consonant to be pronounced differently and ultimately such might become a consonant shift. The difference between the first and the second is that when the first is current, both pronunciations are still understood as equivalent. –  Andrew J. Brehm Feb 1 '12 at 17:15
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As for vocabulary, I think a language is based on rules, i.e. grammar and rules about how to form words. Two forms of speech using totally different vocabulary could still be the "same language" according to my definition, they would just be two registers (or whatever we want to call it). Examples are languages that indeed do have two different sets of words for different situations (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoidance_speech) or English (which has a set of Germanic words and a set of French-derived words used in different situations). –  Andrew J. Brehm Feb 1 '12 at 17:18
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Do you know the famous Yiddish quote by Max Weinreich?

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot. (אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט)

Eine Sprache ist ein Dialekt mit einer Armee und Flotte/ A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

I'd say it's a language, especially after 1945. Without citing or knowing proper linguistic evidence, I'd say it's about as similar and intelligible as Dutch is for Germans. And Dutch is considered a separate language.

Edit: The big W suggests this criteria to distinguish:

Language varieties are often called dialects rather than languages:

  • because they have no standard or codified form,
  • because the speakers of the given language do not have a state of their own,
  • because they are rarely or never used in writing (outside reported speech)
  • or because they lack prestige with respect to some other, often standardised, variety.

All of which would've been true pre-Shoah, but is different after.

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Yes, the Weinreich quote is nice. I have to say that we English speakers are at a disadvantage when talking about relative mutual intelligibility, because for us either someone is talking English or they aren't. There are funny accents, but there are really no dialects. Having said that, I find the parallel with Dutch unconvincing. I don't think Dutch, for instance, would pass Andrew's test for consonant shifts, as Yiddish does. The interesting thing about Andrew is he doesn't seem to care how much vocabulary substitution you have: as long as the core vocabulary is common, that's enough... –  Marty Green Feb 1 '12 at 15:40
    
I quoted Weinreich, to point out that this distinction is often political and not scientific. Besides mutual intelligibility is not easily determined either. I'm a native German from Cologne. I grew up in the Ripuarian dialect group, which greatly facilitates understanding/reading Dutch. This might be a lot more challenging for a Bavarian. –  Jules Feb 1 '12 at 16:28
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Dutch and (High) German have between them distinct consonant shifts. There are dialects between Dutch and German that vary from the one or the other only by one consonant shift (half-language) or incomplete consonant shifts. –  Andrew J. Brehm Feb 1 '12 at 17:20
    
I don't think intelligibility can be ab objective criterion for whether two forms of speech are distinct languages or dialects of the same. My method is objective. Of course it doesn't map perfectly onto intelligibility but neither does any one standard of intelligibility map perfectly onto any other. –  Andrew J. Brehm Feb 1 '12 at 17:22
    
@Marty: You really think that English has no dialects? Unfortunately many of the dialects are somewhat dying out, but they definitely still exist. –  Tara B Jun 5 '12 at 15:37
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Wikipedia says, Yiddish descends from Middle High German, as it was spoken in the High Middle Ages in the Rhineland. When I stumble across a yiddish phrase, I can mostly get the meaning - as I can with Dutch, but I come from a rural area near Salzburg (Austria) where a dialect is spoken, which is closer to Middle High German than to Standard German.

I would say, Yiddish is a close relative to modern Standard German, as it shares the same roots, but no dialect, because a German speaker won't be able to understand it immediately and it has no political connection to a German speaking state (same group as, for example, Pennsylvania Dutch).

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