Many “German” Words have Yiddish Roots

Die Presse (02/02/04)

A Short Journey Through the World of Language

Vienna - "Reden wir Tacheles" (Let’s speak seriously) - He who hears this expression can hardly pretend not to understand because "tacheles" and other Yiddish expressions can be found in everyday German. In many cases they have their roots in Hebrew. The well-known New Year’s wish, "Guter Rutsch," is a linguistic mutation of the Yiddish "Gut Rosch," which one wishes a person during the Jewish New Year, Rosch Haschana. Less recognizable are the Yiddisch-Hebrew roots found in the phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch," (break a leg), in Yiddisch, "Hazloche un Broche," meaning good luck and may you have my blessing.

"Wer in einem Schlamassel steckt, hat keine Mazel," (He who is in a mess has no luck). And "wer noch dazu Pleite geht," (he who is also broke) is probably not aware of the fact that the Hebrew word, pele’ita, (rescue from great distress), has its roots. Most likely the person concerned will end up having Zoff (English: end - meaning problems) with the Mischpoche (English: family) or even Ganoven (English: crooks) who are all meschugge (English: crazy). Oh what a Schmonzes (English: rumor)!

The roots of "Jewish German" can be found in the Rheinland in Germany where the people of Israel settled during the 10th Century A.D. When the pest swept throughout Europe in the 14th Century A.D., many Jews were persecuted and fled from pogroms to Poland. It is there that Yiddish became interfused with Slavic elements.

During the time of the Enlightenment the German Jewish Philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, wanted to abolish the Yiddish jargon. For this reason he translated the Bible with Hebraic letters into German. The development in Eastern Europe, however, was different: Here one kept Yiddish. Through the works of the three great Yiddish classics of Mendele Moscher Seforidm, Shalom Alejchem and J.L. Perez, it blossomed, reaching its peak.

Interesting is the development it undertook at the end of the 19th Century A.D.: When Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement was at its zenith, the Jewish socialist ‘Bundisten’ movement was founded as its counterpart . While the Zionists supported Hebrew, the ‘Bundisten’ used Yiddish as a mouthpiece. The soviet Union created even during the 1920s an autonomous Yiddish republic in far east Birobidzan. It lasted, however, for a very short time.

Today, almost sixty years after some six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, Yiddish has become rare – although it is popular worldwide: Language courses from Buenos Aires to Krakau are booked out.