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.
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.
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.
Here is a typical Yiddish sentence taken from a literary source (in Latin transliteration; Yiddish has always been written in Hebrew characters):
MAIN EYDIM IZ NEBAKH GIVEN A PROSTER BALMELOKHE, VOS HOT KAM MIT TSORES TSUNEYFGISHTUKEVET DI BIDNE KHEYUNE
(Yeysef Rabin, talented Soviet Yiddish author). Translation:
'My son-in-law, the poor guy, was a simple artisan who had the hardest time eking out a meager living'.
Here Germanic, Hebrew and Slavic elements blend to yield a harmonious Yiddish utterance. The same can be said for:
A ID A LAMDN GIT ZEKH AN EYTSE
'a learned Jew finds a solution'.
Needless to say, a person with a knowledge of German cannot understand these examples. Thousands and thousands of sentences like these occur in Yiddish literature as well as in Yiddish spoken by native speakers. The inner structures and mechanisms of Yiddish are highly original and do not coincide with any form of German, e. g. word order within a sentence; numerous examples can be furnished.
This is not only the result of Slavic and Hebrew influences; the finished product is inherent in the development of Yiddish as a separate Jewish linguistic entity which embodied Ashkenazic-Jewish culture and civilization in Eastern European countries.
I am Richard Zuckerman (Rakhmil Tsukerman), a professional linguist who has devoted decades to researching, teaching and using Yiddish in spoken and written form (e. g. journalism). Yiddish has always been and still is my native language. I am also specialized in Slavic and Germanic philology.
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.
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.
I have my own definitions of dialect and language. Perhaps they are helpful.
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.)
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.)
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.
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).
I believe Richard Zuckerman's answer calls for a bit more of a rebuttal than I can give in the comment field. I said he was "cherry-picking" when he gave an example of Yiddish that would be incomprehensible to a German speaker. Here is a counter-example, taken from the authoritative Yiddish translation of the bible by Yehoash. I think it is pretty close to German:
In ânheb hât Gott baschaffen dem himmel un die erd. Un die erd is gewe’en wüst un ledig, un finsternis is gewe’en auf’n gesicht vun tehum, un der geist vun Gott hât geschwebt auf’n gesicht vun die wassern. Hât Gott gesâgt: soll weren licht. Un es is geworen licht. Un Gott hât gesehen dâs licht as es is gut. Un Gott hât vonander-gescheidet zwischen dem licht un zwischen der finsternis. Un Gott hât gerufen dâs licht “tâg” un die finsternis hât er gerufen “nacht”. Un es is gewe’en âwent, un es is gewe’en frühmorgen. Éin tâg.
It is true that I've adopted a spelling convention which is German-friendly, but my convention is 100% phonetic in the same way German is itself 100% phonetic if you interpret the diphthongs correctly eg. german "au" is read as "oy" in Yiddish.
It is also true that there are many Hebrew and Slavic words in Yiddish, but they hardly change the structure of the language. The Hebrew component, in addition to including all words of a religious nature, also includes words for just about every abstract noun: "hatred", "anger", "jealousy", "mercy", etc. In most cases the German equivalent would have also been understood by a Yiddish speaker. The Slavic component includes many words from the agricultural economy, including things like "onions", "horseshoes" and "cucumbers".
As an aside: it's funny that in @chirlu's response to Zuckerman, he identifie's as "standard German" the words "Maloche" and "Tzores". Surely he's being a little tongue-in-cheek here? Don't all German's recognize these as Yiddish imports? Although I recall that some Germans think "mies" (ugly) is native German. I'm just saying.
- 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.
Jiddisch hat seine eigene hochentwickelte Phraseologie, die mit deutschen Ausdrücken nichts zu tun hat. Die Grammatik, der Satzbau, der Wortschatz, und sogar die Aussprache des Ostjiddischen sind gründlich beeinflusst und bereichert worden von den slawischen Nachbarsprachen und auch von dem hebräisch-aramäischen sprachlichen Erbgut. Jiddisch ist eine selbständige, eigenartige linguistische Erscheinung und ist älter als die hochdeutsche Schriftsprache. Jiddisch verkörpert die jüdische Kultur der osteuropäischen Juden. Es ist schade, dass die Deutschen es nicht begriffen haben vor dem Holocaust. . . Richard Zuckerman, 25 April, 2016
Die bislang vorliegenden Antworten und Kommentare sind unannehmbar. Sie zeigen z.T. mangelnde Jiddischkenntnisse oder übertreiben. Die meisten Zusammenhänge kann man ohne Kenntnisse der reichen jiddischen Literatur auf keinen Fall erfassen.
1) BAM SOF FUN DER MILKHOME HOT DER SEYNE GIKHAPT A VISTE MAPOLE.
2) MAIN EYDIM IZ NEBAKH GIVEN A PROSTER BALMELOKHE, VOS HOT KAM MIT TSORES TSUNEYFGISHTUKEVET DI BIDNE KHEYUNE.
3) IKH HOB NIT KIN MEYRE FAR DAINE STRASHUNKES.
4) ER TASKET A SHVERN TSHEMODAN.
5) DER REBE HOT EM GI'EYTSET, ER ZOL ZEKH ARAINKLERN INEM DOZIKN FARPLONTERTN INYEN.
6) DI MEZINKE OISGIGEBN.
7) ER IZ A PUSTE KEYLE, A PASKUDNYAK, A MENUVL UN VOS IN DER KORT.
8) DI ZELNER HOBN ZEKH IZDYEKEVET IBER DI PLEYTIM.
9) ZI HOT A TEVE FUN KHALESHN.
10) EYDER ER IZ GIKUMEN TSU OT-DEM OISFIR, HOT ER ZEKH MEYASHEV GIVEN MIT A MUMKHE.
11) DERHERT AZEYNE DIBURIM, HOT ZI A KVETSH GITON MIT DI PLEYTSES.
12) AZ M'HOT IR ONGIZOGT DI BSURE, HOT IR ONGIKHAPT A PAKHED UN ZI'Z GIFALN IN KHALOSHES.
13) DER PASTEKH HOT A SHMEYKHL GITON, BAVAIZNDIK DI LEYDIKE YASLES.
14) HAGAM ER IZ GIVEN A BOKHER A KHVAT, VOLT ER ZEKH MIT KIN GANOVIM NIT FARFIRT, FAR KEYN SHUM EYTSRES.
15) VI AN UNTERGIKOSYETER HOT ER A FAL GITON AFN GILEGER UN ZEKH TEYKEF TSEKHROPET.
16) IKH BIN AROIS FUN SEDL UN ZEKH GILOZT TSUM SHLIAKH UN TSUM YAM-BREG. 17) DI ALTITSHKE SARVERN HOT GINUMEN VORTSHEN UN ZEKH BREYT TSEGENETST. 18) A ID A LAMDN GIT ZEKH AN EYTSE.
19) DER TAKHSHIT HOT MIR A LOZ GITON IN PONIM ARAIN DEM REYKH FUN ZAIN LIULKE.
20) NIT OPGEBNDIK ZEKH KIN DIN-VEKHEZHBN, HOBN BEYDE TSDODIM ZEKH TSEAMPERT.
Übersetzen Sie bitte diese Sätze (aus der jiddischen Literatur, transliteriert für Sie in lateinischen Buchstaben) auf deutsch. Ihre Meinungen sind oberflächliche Eindrücke und sind nicht sachlich begründet.
For my English-language readers: I have read all the comments here concerning the Yiddish language which many people (with hardly any or no knowledge of authentic Yiddish) take pleasure in denigrating. Yiddish is not a scapegoat or a target for people with sadistic tendencies. The entire structure of East-European Yiddish is hebraicized and slavicized; every part of speech underwent these influences. To this we can add the unique development of Yiddish for more than a thousand years as an independent Jewish language embodying Ashkenazic Jewish culture. Like English, Yiddish is a fusion language; it is not simply a matter of Hebrew and Slavic loanwords. Yiddish phraseology is highly original and is light-years away from any form of German. Yiddish is my mother tongue; I have used it extensively and enthusiastically for decades in spoken and written form in my interactions with other native speakers. The authors of the other comments seem to be outsiders with respect to the Yiddish milieu. Germanized (falsified) Yiddish texts should not be used as a basis for comparison. Needless to say, subjective impressions and opinions based on incomplete knowledge have no place in a serious linguistic discussion.
There are many excellent answers here, mainly in the strain that the difference between a dialect and a language is not well defined.
I would like to contribute an analogy that for some reason remained unmentioned: Yiddish and English.
The basis for the analogy:
- English is a germanic language
- Its vocabulary has significant foreign component (mainly French)
- It has hundreds of years of development relatively independent from both French and German
Is English a language or a dialect?