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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

7 Answers 7

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 Slovak/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: Slovak/Czech, not Slovak/Croatian.

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Which Norwegian? :-> – starblue Jan 26 '12 at 7:02

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
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 ( 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
Your definition consideres Swabian, Bavarian, Saxonian, the language spoken in Berlin (Berlinisch), the one in Hamburg (Hamburgisch) — not the Plattdeutsch variant —, Rhineish, Hessian and Franconian as distinct languages from the theoretical construct that is standard German. Okay, maybe Hamburgian is then only a half-language, but my point still stands. As such, I dismiss your definition invalid. –1 – Jan Jul 22 at 10:03
There are no two or more consonant shifts between Swabian and Bavarian nor between any of the other dialects you mention. As such, I dismiss your dismissal as invalid. – Andrew J. Brehm Jul 22 at 20:53

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
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

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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Jiddisch ist kein Dialekt. Ein Dialekt ist eine regionale Variante, die letztlich auf die historischen Stämme in der Anfangsphase der deutschen Geschichte zurückgeht, also auf Franken, Sachsen, Bayern etc.

Jiddisch muß man wohl als eigenständige Sprache ansehen, ursprünglich gesprochen von Juden in Osteuropa, basierend auf einem altertümlichen Deutsch, vermischt mit vielen Elementen aus Nachbarsprachen und Hebräisch, geschrieben mit dem hebräischen Alphabet. Man muß es wohl als deutsche Mischsprache ansehen.

Ich habe mich eine Zeit lang mit Jiddisch beschäftigt. Es ist eine reizvolle und interessante Sprache und man kann viele Entdeckungen machen. Die beste, amüsanteste und leichteste Einführung in Jiddisch ist wohl ein kleines Buch von

  • Salcia Landmann, Jiddisch - Das Abenteuer einer Sprache.


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  • Yes, Yiddish is a German dialect, and so is New High German (Neuhochdeutsch).
  • No, Yiddish is not a variant of New High German and also neither of (written) Standard German (Schriftdeutsch) nor any form of Hebrew.
  • Yes, Yiddish is a (Western Germanic) language.

You could say the same about Low German / Lower Saxon (Plattdeutsch / Niedersächsisch), Dutch (Holländisch / Niederländisch), Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, maybe Luxembourgish and even spoken Swiss German (Schwyzerdütsch), but obviously not for Swiss Standard German (Schweizer Deutsch) or Namibian German, whereas Namibian Black German (Küchendeutsch) is a pidgin, and then there is a single creole based upon Standard German called Unserdeutsch.

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Ein Dialekt ist eine lokale oder regionale Varietät einer Sprache. Daraus folgt, dass ein Dialekt als Abwandlung der vorherrschenden Standardsprache in einer örtlich begrenzten Gegend gesprochen wird. Das trifft auf Jiddisch nicht zu. Die beiden anderen Aussagen stimmen zwar (Jiddisch ist keine Varietät der deutschen Sprache; Jiddisch ist eine Westgermanische Sprache), danach wurde aber gar nicht gefragt. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 11 at 9:19
Schweizer (Hoch-)Deutsch ist eine der drei Standardvarietäten der deutschen Sprache. Schweizerdeutsch ist eine Familie einander ähnlicher deutscher Dialekte. Bei Plattdeutsch gehen die Meinungen auseinander, meiner Beobachtung nach tendiert aber die Mehrheit dazu, es zu den Dialekten zu zählen (die Alternative wäre, es als eigenständige Sprache anzusehen). Niederländisch ist kein deutscher Dialekt, sondern eine Sprache (von der es vermutlich lokale niederländische Dialekte gibt), ebenso Afrikaans, Pennsilveni-Deitsch und Luxemburgisch. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 11 at 9:27
Bei Namibia-Deutsch ist man sich uneinig, ob das eine eigene Sprache, oder eine vierte deutsche Standardvarietät ist. Jedenfalls ist Namibia-Deutsch kein deutscher Dialekt. Angeblich soll in einer der nächsten Ausgaben des deutschen Variantenwörterbuches Namibia-Deutsch als vierte Variante berücksichtigt werden. Über Namibia Black German weiß ich nichts, und Unserdeutsch hast du richtig als Creolsprache (also als eine eigenständige Sprache) klassifiziert. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 11 at 9:31
@HubertSchölnast Ein Stratalekt ist auch ein Dialekt, das ist eine soziale Varietät, z.B. Kiezdeutsch/Kanaksprak/… Jiddisch hat sich als solch ein Stratalekt von einem Regiolekt abgespalten und verselbständigt. Das trifft auf die anderen genannten Beispiele weitgehend analog zu, nur dass die soziale Gruppe nicht per Religion, sondern – grob gesagt – per Staatsangehörigkeit oder eben Wohnort, definiert ist und sich der Zeitraum der Abspaltung sowie natürlich der betreffende Regiolekt (und damit der Verwandtschaftsgrad zum Neuhochdeutschen) unterscheiden. – Crissov Nov 11 at 9:36
PS: My main point is that there is an import difference between “German dialect” and “variety of Standard German”, for instance. – Crissov Nov 11 at 9:49

The definition of language has fundamental problems that are to a large extent parallel to those of the definition of species (or other biological clades).

An apparently reasonable definition of species is: Two individuals belong to the same species if they or their close relatives can in principle produce fertile offspring together. This corresponds roughly to the following simple definition: Two people speak varieties of the same language if they can in principle communicate by each using their own variety. But these definitions are not discriminating enough. E.g., dogs can have fertile off-spring not only with wolves (they are arguably still the same species, after all), but also with coyotes and with jackals. The hybrid of African and European honey bees is so successful that it is known as killer bees. Most Europeans have a small admixture of Neanderthal ancestry, so we know that Homo Sapiens occasionally mated with them, and clearly had fertile offspring. On the language side, there is so little difference between colloquial Hindi and colloquial Urdu that they are arguably the same language in the same way that dogs and wolves arguably belong to the same species. Similarly, speakers of the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, the two major varieties of Norwegian, and their various dialects) have little trouble communicating with each other, and the same holds for Serbian and Croatian, and for Czech and Slovak. Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian are also mutually intelligible to some extent, and the same is true for many pairs of Romance languages.

We can try to correct our first definitions by saying that two families belong to the same species if they have a solid chance to actually produce fertile offspring together. In other words, they must live more or less in the same region and their mating behaviours must be compatible. And since it doesn't make sense to claim that dogs at different ends of the country belong to different species (or very small dogs and very big dogs), we must take the transitive closure of this relation: I.e., if there is a good chance for fertile offspring from families A and B, from families B and C, and from families C and D, then families A and D are still part of the same species even if they live too far apart to meet or if they are incompatible for some other reason. They are still part of the same gene pool, after all.

One amazing problem with this definition is explained in the Wikipedia article on ring species. It appears that ring species may not actually exist in practice because in reality the chain is always broken in some (non-obvious) place. But this doesn't mean that ring species are impossible in principle.

Actual communication between the speakers of two varieties is a good approach to defining what it means for two varieties to belong to the same language. Yiddish and German may actually form an example of a 'ring language' if we use this definition. The two languages are mutually intelligible to some extent, but for two large groups of speakers mutual intelligibility is very limited and there is little motivation to try it out even if some of them happen to live in the same city: Orthodox Jews with no relation to Germany and Germans with no relation to Judaism. Yet pure Eastern Yiddish full of Hebrew words as spoken in some Orthodox communities is (at least to some extent) mutually intelligible with Yiddish as spoken by descendants of German Jews, some of their dialects of Yiddish are mutually intelligible with certain German dialects, and these German dialects are mutually intelligible with Standard German.

Altogether: There is a degree of mutual intelligibility, and not too long ago there were probably varieties that could be considered dialects of both German and Yiddish. But altogether actual communication between the speakers, and consequently the exchange of linguistic innovations between German and Yiddish, is too insignificant for us to have to consider them a single language. We still could consider them a single language if this were politically opportune (in much the same way as certain 'dialects' of Chinese), but it is not. Therefore: No, Yiddish is not a variety of German (let alone a dialect), even though it comes close just like Dutch does.

PS: One or two centuries ago, my answer would have been different. Speakers of Western Yiddish (then known as Judendeutsch, i.e. Jewish German) had as much or more daily contact with speakers of more 'normal' regional dialects of German than with speakers of Eastern Yiddish. Jewish emancipation initiated a great degree of affirmation of German culture. It was therefore natural to understand Yiddish as a dialect of German, and to use 'proper' German for the same reasons that speakers of regional dialects did and still do. It is no wonder that Western Yiddish became relatively insignificant even faster than regional dialects did, and that around the mid-19th century Jewish Germans stopped writing in Judendeutsch.

As far as I know, Eastern Yiddish intellectuals later got into intensive contact with German in Vienna. Apparently it was in this era that (Eastern) Yiddish became an expressive literary language quickly by adopting various words and linguistic patterns from German and consequently becoming more similar to German again. But the Nazis put a stop to this, and I guess Yiddish today is mostly in contact with English and Hebrew, so that German and Yiddish are diverging again.

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