The Origins of Yiddish—A Response to Philologos, Part Dray

Aug 26, 2014 by

[NOTE TO READERS: This post is part 3 of a mini-series on the origins of Yiddish. The concluding part 4 will be published after a short summer break, in the week after Labor Day.]

[Many thanks to Merlin Dorfman for bringing the Philologus’ essay to my attention and to Martin W. Lewis for his helpful comments and corrections to this post! I am also grateful to Olaf Koeneman and George Walkden for their invaluable guidance through the maze of comparative Germanic syntax.]


In the previous post, I examined several word order patterns in Yiddish—chiefly, Verb-Second (V2) in embedded clauses—and concluded that despite looking very Icelandic-like, these patterns must have developed in Yiddish independently of their Icelandic counterparts. At the end of that post, I suggested that embedded V2 in Yiddish may even be a reflection of linguistic contact with Slavic languages. Let’s consider this idea in more detail. But before we turn to the embedded V2 in Yiddish, it is helpful to look at the influence of Slavic languages on Yiddish more generally.

Linguistic contact with Slavic languages has had a monumental impact on Yiddish; one could even say that Yiddish as we know it today emerged as a result of contact between the Judeo-German dialects of Ashkenazi Jews and the neighboring Slavic languages. More precisely, the differential contact with Slavic is the underlying cause for the development of two major Yiddish varieties: Western and Eastern Yiddish. The former was largely unaffected by contact with the Slavs and over time withered both in cultural significance and use. Beatrice Santorini writes in her dissertation:

“Until about 1500, the center of gravity of Ashkenazic culture was located in Ashkenaz I [the Yiddish-speaking area of central Europe, where the coterritorial language was mostly German], but as Ashkenaz II [the area in eastern Europe … where the majority of the coterritorial population spoke some Slavic language] grew in area and population, so did its cultural influence. For instance, after 1500, the leading yeshivas, the traditional colleges of rabbinical learning for adolescent boys, were increasingly located in eastern Europe. The growing importance of Ashkenaz II also becomes apparent when we consider the history of printed Yiddish literature.” (Santorini 1989: 18-19)

Eventually, Western Yiddish gave ground to High German in most spheres and remained in use mostly as a colloquial tongue “in traditional rural communities, notably in Alsace-Lorraine, and as a home language in the cities” (Santorini 1989: 21). As Western Yiddish was dying out from the 1700s on, Slavic-influenced Eastern Yiddish became the dominant variety among Ashkenazi Jews and the basis for modern standard Yiddish. Today, according to the Ethnologue, only about 5,000 people speak Western Yiddish, while Eastern Yiddish is spoken by about 1.5 million people.

As mentioned above, Eastern Yiddish was shaped by contact with Slavic languages—Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and later Russian—which “left its mark on all areas of the modern language: phonology, morphology, the lexicon, syntax and pragmatics” (Santorini 1989: 24). It is well-known that Yiddish* borrowed numerous words from its Slavic neighbors, many of which were of a culturally or geographically specific nature (plant and animal names, foods, etc.). More interesting, however, are borrowed basic vocabulary items (e.g. kinship terms zeyde ‘grandfather’, bobe ‘grandmother’, and plemenik ‘nephew’) and even grammatical particles (e.g. take ‘indeed’, the indefinite abi ‘any’, and the focus particle at, cf. Russian vot; cf. Santorini 1989: 25), which are indicative of a more extensive and intense contact. Besides whole words, Yiddish also borrowed individual morphemes, including the agentive –nik (as in nudnik ‘a bore’ from nudne ‘boring’; cf. Russian zanuda ‘a bore’) and the diminutive suffixes ‑tshik and ‑ke.

In addition to borrowing “bits and pieces” (words and morphemes), Yiddish has copied a number of grammatical patterns from Slavic languages. One example involves “calquing” selection patterns between verbs/nouns/adjectives and prepositions they appear with. This type of grammatical borrowing is very common with bilingual speakers, such as immigrants to the U.S. whose first languages becomes restricted to home use and who often use “wrong” preposition under the influence of their dominant language, English. For example, the American Swedish speakers’ choice of prepositions in språka till ‘speak to’ (instead of the “proper” Swedish språka med ‘speak with’) and bo med ‘stay with’ (instead of bo hos**) is influenced by English. Similarly, Russian immigrants saying mnenie na ‘opinion on’ (instead of mnenie о ‘opinion about’) and rabotat’ dja ‘to work for’ (instead of rabotat’ na ‘to work on’) are “calquing” the English preposition choices.

In a similar fashion, Yiddish “calqued” some selectional patterns from Slavic languages. For example, consider Yiddish comparatives. From its Germanic roots, Yiddish inherited the construction with vi ‘than’, which appears with the nominative form, as in Er is rajxər vi der man (lit. ‘he is richer than the.NOM man’; Jacobs 2005: 183), similar to the Russian čem ‘than’ (e.g. On bogače, čem tot čelovek lit. ‘he is richer than <that man>.NOM’). But Slavic languages have another comparative construction where the standard of comparison is expressed by the genitive form, with no preposition: On bogače togo čeloveka lit. ‘he is richer <that man>.GEN’.*** Yiddish “borrowed” that construction but rendered it through the preposition fun ‘from, of’ followed by the dative form, as in Er is rajxər fun dem man lit. ‘he is richer from the.DAT man’ (Jacobs 2005: 183).

It is crucial to note that such grammatical borrowing does not necessarily mean copying the exact grammatical pattern of the source language, but rather using the grammatical means of the target language (here, Yiddish) to approximate the structure of the source language. In a similar fashion, Yiddish used its Germanic verbal prefixes to approximate Slavic aspectual distinctions, as in Ikh hob ongeshribn (lit. ‘I have at-written’) to express the completion of the action, in contrast to Ikh hob geshribn ‘I wrote/have written’, comparable to the Russian Ja napisal (lit. ‘I on-wrote’) vs. Ja pisal ‘I wrote/was writing’ (see Santorini 1989: 25).

Even larger syntactic patterns can be “borrowed”; Yiddish exhibits at least two word order patterns that are very un-Germanic and have a distinctive Slavic flair instead. One such pattern involves the so-called “split noun phrases”, where modifiers that normally appear immediately before the noun are separated from it by other material (underlined in the following examples). Santorini (1989: 29) cites the following example, where vifl ‘how many’ is separated from shvigers ‘mothers-in-law’. Note that a word-by-word rendition of this sentence in English is ungrammatical, but in Russian is perfectly fine. (Split noun phrases in Russian are discussed in detail in my work: Pereltsvaig 2007, 2008; a similar pattern in Serbo-Croatian is discussed in Bošković 2005.)

(1) Yiddish:

Men darf tsuzamennemen vifl es iz do shvigers in shtot.

one must together-take how-many it is there mothers-in-law in town

‘One has to round up however many mothers-in-law there are in town.’

(2) English: *One has to round up however many there are mothers-in-law in town.

(3) Russian: Nužno okruglit’ skol’ko tam est’ svekrovej v gorode.

The second word order pattern that Yiddish copied from Slavic languages concerns interrogative sentences with multiple question words. English illustrates the Germanic pattern, where only one question word (boldfaced) appears in the beginning of the sentence, while the others (underlined) remain exactly where answers would appear: Who is going where? What did you show to who(m) when? (The following example illustrates that the second question word is not moved to the end of the sentence: Who ate what for breakfast?). One way to ask a multiple question in Yiddish is to follow this Germanic template, as in Ver geyt vuhin? (lit. ‘who goes where?’; Diesing 2003: 53).**** But there is also another way to say it in Yiddish, where both question words appear in the beginning, à la the Slavic model: the Yiddish Ver vuhin geyt? (lit. ‘who where goes?’; Diesing 2003: 54) is precisely parallel to the Russian Kto kuda idët? (lit. ‘who where goes?’).

But recall from our discussion of comparative constructions that grammatical borrowing does not necessarily mean copying exactly the pattern of the source language; it can involve a more subtle “tweaking” of a structure already in the target language to imitate some aspects of the source language. As alluded to in the previous post, this is precisely how the embedded V2 pattern in Yiddish has emerged. As Beatrice Santorini’s (1989) detailed study of historical texts shows, the embedded V2 phenomenon developed in the 1600s primarily in Eastern Yiddish, exactly the time and place to make one suspect Slavic influence. However, how could Ashkenazi Jews copy the embedded V2 pattern from Slavic if Slavic languages lack V2, in either main or embedded clauses? To understand this, we need to consider this historical change more closely.

As Santorini (1989: 135) shows, the change from the word order in which the finite verb (usually, an auxiliary or a modal) appeared sentence-finally, as in medieval High German, from which Yiddish has emerged, to the modern Yiddish embedded V2 order proceeded in two steps. The first innovation (also discussed in Santorini 1993) involved a gradual change in the placement of the auxiliary itself: instead of always being at the end of the sentence, it started appearing in the second position. However, at this intermediate stage, the only element that could precede the auxiliary in the second position was the subject. Moreover, the two word order patterns, illustrated with the examples below (from Santorini 1989: 111, 114), continued to co-exist for over 200 years. (In the following examples, the modal/auxiliary is shown in boldface, the element in the pre-V2 position is underlined, the embedded clause is bracketed.)

(4) that/if – Subject – … – Auxiliary

… ds [zi droyf qivarnt vern].

that they thereon warned were

‘…that they might be warned about it.’


(5) that/if – Subject – Auxiliary – …

… dz [zi verdn bshirmt fun irh bitrh peyn]

that they are protected from their bitter pain

‘…that they are protected from their bitter pain.’

Interestingly, this variation can be seen already in the earliest historical sources, dating from the 1400s and is documented in both Western and Eastern Yiddish.***** Yet in Eastern Yiddish this innovation took place earlier than in Western Yiddish; Santorini (1989: 135) writes:

“For while INFL-final subordinate clauses [i.e. the pattern in (4)] remain well established in West Yiddish throughout the 1700’s, they have already become marginal in East Yiddish by the beginning of the century. By the early 1800’s, INFL-final subordinate clauses have become virtually extinct in East Yiddish.”

Note, however, that the pattern in (5) is not yet a true embedded V2, as only the subject—and not any other, non-subject element (marked “XP” in (6) below) —can precede the verb at this stage. The change from the pattern in (5) to the true embedded V2 in (6) is the innovation that occurred, according to Santorini, only in the Slavic-influenced Eastern Yiddish (the following example has been adapted from Santorini 1989: 156).

(6) that/if – XP – Auxiliary – Subject – …

das [in zeyn her tsihn iz eyn goyh tsu ihm gikumin].

that in his here pulling is a non.Jewish.woman to him come

‘… that in his wanderings a non-Jewish woman came up to him.’

Thus, what Ashkenazi Jews copied from their Slavic neighbors is not the placement of the finite verb in the second position per se, but rather the possibility of placing non-subjects before the finite verb. Beatrice Santorini suggests that this “tweaking” in the syntax of Yiddish happened under the influence of the so-called topicalization construction, which is quite common in Slavic languages and illustrated with the Polish and Russian examples below (the Polish example is from Santorini 1989: 170). In this construction, the italicized non-subject (here, direct object) is placed in front of both the subject and the verb. Crucially, the verb here does not appear in the second (V2) position.

(7) Polish:

Jestem przekonany, że czekoladę Jan lubi najbardziej. convinced that chocolate Jan likes best

‘I am convinced that Jan likes chocolate best.’


(8) Russian:

Ja xoču, čtoby šarlotku Vanya otnës na večerinku.

I want that apple.cake.ACC Vanya.NOM took to party

‘I wish that Vanya will take the apple cake to the party.’

However, Slavic languages (illustrated below with Russian) have another set of constructions, which John Bailyn unified under the term “Generalized Inversion” (GI; see Bailyn 2004, from which the following examples have been adapted). In all of these constructions the verb appears in the second position and is preceded by a non-subject (or at least by a non-nominative element). Also, all of these constructions can appear as either main or embedded clauses (for the sake of presentation all of the following examples contain main clause GI):

(9) Object-Verb-Subject

Perestroiku obščestvennogo soznanija načal v 1980 izvestnyj … kritik … Troitskij

perestroika.ACC public consciousness began in 1980 well-known critic Troitsky.NOM

‘The transformation of public consciousness was begun in 1980 by the well-known … critic … Troitsky.’


(10) “Adversity impersonal” (Yes, Russians have a special way of talking about “shit happens”! For more on this construction, see Lavine & Freidin 2002)

Lodku otneslo volnoj ot berega.

boat.ACC swept.away wave.INSTR from shore

‘The boat was swept away from the shore by a wave.’


(11) Locative PP-inversion (also discussed in Babyonyshev 1996)

Na posadočnuju polosu prizemlislsja samolët.

onto runway.ACC landed aircraft.NOM

‘On the runway there landed an aircraft.’


(12) Possessive PP-inversion

U nego rodilas’ dočka.

at him was.born daughter.NOM

‘He had a daughter born.’


(13) “Bad health” verbs

Sestru tošnilo ot ryby.

sister.ACC nauseated from fish

‘The sister got nauseated from the fish.’


(14) Dative experiencer

Vane nravjatsja deti.

Vanya.DAT please children.NOM

‘Vanya likes (the) children.’

Provided Bailyn’s analysis of the verb’s position in these sentences is correct, these GI constructions are exactly like the V2 pattern in Yiddish in three respects: the (finite) verb appears in the second position, the first position is occupied by non-subjects, and the pattern can be embedded:

(15) Alexej Rybyn napisal, čto [perestroiku obščestvennogo soznanija načal v 1980 izvestnyj … kritik … Troitskij]

Alexej Rybyn wrote that perestroika.ACC public consciousness began in 1980 well-known critic Troitsky.NOM

‘Alexej Rybyn wrote that the transformation of public consciousness was begun in 1980 by the well-known … critic … Troitsky.’

A close consideration of the technical aspects of Bailyn’s analysis, couched in the parametric framework (see Baker 2001), is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that he suggests that Yiddish and Russian are very close in their syntax, with the only difference being that in Yiddish the finite verb must always appear in the V2 position, whereas in Russian it does so only if the pre‑V2 position is occupied by a non-nominative element, as in sentences (9) through (15). Based on Bailyn’s analysis, it is not difficult to imagine that linguistic contact—especially the assimilation of Slavic speakers into Jewish communities in case of intermarriage—would instigate the second innovation in Santorini’s analysis: the introduction of the true embedded V2. In Slavic speakers’ mindset, if the verb is in the V2 position, a non-subject must precede it—exactly the structure that was absent at the intermediate stage in the development of Eastern Yiddish. All the Slavic speakers had to do was to introduce the structure in (6), already familiar to them in their mother tongues—and voila!—a true embedded V2 syntax emerged.

So the Take-Home Message is: not all grammatical borrowing is exact copying of patterns from the source language. Sometimes, speaking a West Germanic syntax with a Slavic “accent” produces… Icelandic! Language is funny that way.




*In what follows, I use (unmodified) “Yiddish” to refer to Eastern Yiddish.

**Hos has no good English translation; its closest counterpart is the French chez, as in names of restaurants (e.g. “Chez Pierre”).

***Polish, Belarusian, and Ukrainian—like Russian—also have two comparative constructions. See also Santorini (1989: 26).

****Things are actually a bit more complicated than presented here: unlike in English, where the second (third, etc.) question word remains in situ, in Yiddish it immediately precedes the (non‑finite) main verb if there is one, despite the fact that the normal word order is Verb-Object: hence, Ver hot vos gekoyft? (lit. ‘who has what bought?’) rather than *Ver hot gekoyft vos? The interested reader is referred to Diesing (2003) for a more detailed discussion.

*****It is also attested in German dialects that were not in contact with Slavic languages, such as Swabian (see Santorini 1989: 167).




Babyonyshev, Maria (1996) Structural Connections in Syntax and Processing. Studies in Russian and Japanese. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.

Bailyn, John Frederick (2004) Generalized Inversion. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 22(1): 1-50.

Baker, Mark C. (2001) Atoms of Language. The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar. Basic Books.

Bošković, Željko (2005) On the locality of left branch extraction and the Structure of NP. Studia Linguistica 59(1): 1–45.

Diesing, Molly (2003) On the Nature of Multiple Fronting in Yiddish. In: Cedric Boeckx and Kleanthes Grohmann (eds.) Multiple Wh-fronting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 51-76.

Jacobs, Neil G. (2005) Yiddish. A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lavine, James and Robert Freidin (2002) The Subject of Defective T(ense) in Slavic. Journal of Slavic Linguistics 10(1-2): 253-289.

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2007) Split Phrases in Colloquial Russian: A Corpus Study. In: Magdalena Goledzinowska et al. (eds.) Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics 15: The Toronto Meeting. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 262-280.

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2008) Split Phrases in Colloquial Russian. Studia Linguistica, special volume on spoken language, 62(1): 5-38.

Santorini, Beatrice (1989) The Generalization of the Verb-Second Constraint in the History of Yiddish. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Santorini, Beatrice (1993) The rate of phrase structure change in the history of Yiddish. Language Variation and Change 5: 257-283.







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