Jewish Language & Translation

Various Yiddish Types: Judeo-German

This past week, a client asked me to translate a Yiddish journal written in Hungary from the 1840s. The journal turned out not to be written in Yiddish, but in German in Hebrew characters. Mendelssohn biurMoses Mendelssohn was famous for doing this in the late 1700s with his German Bible translation in Hebrew letters. In the image at right, Mendelssohn’s German translation appears under the header “Targum Ashkenaz.” This is also known as Judeo-German. Yiddish speakers today, trained at YIVO, often cry “Daytshmerish!” when they hear Germanized Yiddish, or the use of an out-of-bounds German word. This distinction between “daytshmerish” and “correct” Yiddish usage came out of early twentieth-century Jewish nationalist politics and the desire to create a respectable, self-aware Yiddish language out of the shadow of its German father. Employing the term “daytshmerish” signals that a person should use a word with a Hebrew or Slavic root instead. (In the Chassidic community today, such distinctions are not made, and their Yiddish does have more similarities to German than YIVO klal Yiddish.) But this distinction between a German-infused Yiddish (daytshmerish) and standard Yiddish is simply a question of word choice. There are other factors involved than simply word choice when it comes to true German written in Hebrew chracters. Knowing the difference between Judeo-German and Yiddish can also better refine answers to the question, what is the difference between German and Yiddish?

How can you tell the difference between German in Hebrew characters and Yiddish?

Judeo-German sample [Translation below]
Judeo-German sample [Translation below]

I have included a sample from the journal that I am translating at left to showcase the original handwritten style. (At the end of this article, I have provided a transcription of the handwritten Yiddish sample along with English and German translations.) This is a commentary on the Torah, and so at first it was difficult to tell that it was not really Yiddish, since it started by quoting the Hebrew verse under discussion. But as I began translating, it became clear that this was German and not Yiddish. Here are some of the indicators:

1) Word Choice

When a Jewish writer of German wanted to distinguish his writing from Yiddish, he avoided any Hebraicisms to stick to only the German elements of Yiddish. At no time does the author use a Hebrew word (which Yiddish commonly does), except when referencing a word in the original verse from the Torah. In this sample for example, the author even ended his Torah commentary with the word, “Amen,” but chose to spell it according to this four-letter Latinized spelling, rather than the Hebrew three-letter word. Thus he wrote: אמען instead of אמן. This signals to the reader that author is not writing Hebrew or Yiddish, but German.

2) Verb Order

The verb order and word choice between German and Yiddish is different. Among the Germanic languages, German is one of the languages that places verbs at the end of subordinate clauses (VF) rather than in second position (V2). English and Yiddish, as two other example Germanic languages, regularly keep the verb towards the beginning of the sentence, usually in the second position (SVO). Ex. “I don’t know, why I like to eat broccoli.” In both clauses here, the verbs “do” and “like” are toward the beginning of their respective clauses. This verb order holds true for Yiddish as well: “Ikh veys nisht, far vos ikh hob brokoli azoy lib” (איך װײס נישט, פֿאַר װאָס איך האָב בראַקאַלי אַזױ ליב). But in German, the verbs in the second clause here get bunted to the end, so that it reads: “I don’t know, why I broccoli to eat like” (Ich weiß nicht, warum ich Brokkoli gern esse).

3) Umlauts

German Sample in Yiddish, Hebrew characters
“möglich wäre” (would be possible) written in Hebrew letters

This is pretty much a dead giveaway that a text is German and not Yiddish. I am not sure how common this is, as this was the first handwritten sample of this that I had seen, but this writer included an umlaut over an aleph to symbolize the German letters ö and ä. Two examples of this are found next to each other: The umlaut ends up looking like quotation marks (or double apostrophes). Here, the author writes the German möglich wäre (would be possible) in Hebrew letters, and twice uses an umlaut above the aleph to symbolize the ö and ä in those words. In contrast, Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Bible did not do this.

Transcription of the Handwritten Judeo-German Sample Above

(I hope the various browsers show the Hebrew characters correctly.)

“Yiddish” OriginalGerman (if these words were written in Latin characters)English
דער ניכטס ברינגט װאָהל אַבר פֿיעלע מיהע אונדder nichts bringt wohl aber viele Mühe undthat indeed brings forth nothing, but makes for much effort and
זאָרגען מאַכט-זאָנדערען %חנוך לנער על פי דרכי גםSorgen macht—sondern “חנוך לנער על פי דרכי גםworry—rather “Train a child according to his way; even
כי זקן לא יסור ממנון. אים פֿריהלינג בערײטעט מאן דעןכי זקן לא יסור ממנון.” Im Frühling bereitet man denwhen he grows old, he will not turn away from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) In the spring, one readies the
זאָממער, דען װאס דא פֿעראַבזײמעט דאַס ברינגטSommer, denn was da verabsäumet, das bringtsummer. Because what one neglects to do, that can
דער זאָממער ניממער אײן דאס קאן אַלזאָ װאָהל דערder Sommer nimmer ein. Das kann also wohl dernever bring forth the summer. That can therefore
פּראָפֿעט געמײנט האַבען % הוי משכמי בבקר שכרProphet gemeint haben “הוי משכמי בבקר שכרwell be what the prophet meant, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning;
ירדפו מאחרי בנשף יין ידלקו װער אין זײנען פֿריהעןרדפו מאחרי בנשף יין ידלקו” Wer in seinen frühenthey pursue strong wine. They sit until late in the evening; wine inflames them.” (Isaiah 5:11) Whoever surrenders in his early
יוגענד אן אַנבעגין דעס טאַגעס נור מיט שװאַכען לײדענJugend an Anbeginn des Tages nur mit schwachen Leiden-youth, at the dawn of the day, with only weak
שאַפֿטען זין ערגיבט אָ! װיא אונבעמערקט האטאיהםschaften Sinn ergibt, oh! Wie unbemerkt hat ihmpassions, oh! How unnoticed has
זיין אַבענד מיט ענטצײנדענדען בעגירדען אײן, דאַsein Abend mit entzündenden Begierden ein, da-his evening in-? him with inflamed lust. Therefore
הער בעמערקט פֿאָרטרעפֿליך דער עקדה אונד זאַגטher bemerkt vortrefflich der Akeida und sagtthe Akeida excellently notes and says
וישכם בברהם בבקר אַברהם מאַכטע זיך אין זײנער“וישכם בברהם בבקר” Abraham machte sich in seiner„Abraham arose in the morning“ (Genesis 22:3) Abraham rose in his
פֿריהען יוגענד אױף, ויחבש את חמורו אונד ערfrüher Jugend auf, “ויחבש את חמורו” und er-early youth, “and he saddled his donkey,” and
אָבערטע דאס אירדישע. אויך אונזער ערצפֿאַטערoberte das Irdische. Auch unser Erzvaterconquered the worldly. Even our patriarch
אברהם געריטה אין אַנגסט אונד פֿורכט אַלס איהם גאָטטAbraham gerieth in Angst und Furcht als ihm GottAbraham became scared and fearful when God
דיא באָטהשאַפֿט פֿערקינדעטע אונד זאַגטע איהםdie Bothschaft verkündete und sagte ihmannounced his message to him and said to him
כי אם אשר יצא ממעיךהוא ירשך דען דאַכטע„כי אם אשר יצא ממעיך הוא ירשך” denn dachte“But the one who will spring forth from your innards—he will inherit you.” (Genesis 15:4) because he thought,
ער, שאָהן אים העבסטע, שאָהן דעס װעלקענס פרײזer, schon im Hebste, schon des Welkens Preis,“Already in autumn, already the prize of the wilted,
  1. Acknowledgement: Scanned copy of Mendelssohn’s Bible translation.;view=1up;seq=706


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