Yiddish is a phenomenal amalgamation of different languages: Written in either Hebrew script or Latin letters, it is a combination of Hebrew and Central/Eastern European languages. Yiddish dialects varied with where and when individual Jewish populations lived—there is no one Yiddish. Yiddish words have been a charming addition to American English, but clearly, there is more to know—so, how to learn Yiddish online? It depends how far you want to go with it.
Good Resources: How to Learn Yiddish Online?
There are many easy-to-find websites, images, and videos to get you
started. However, if you are serious about taking a high-quality online
course, consider the Yiddish course from the Israel Institute of
While this course is labeled on the site as a beginner
course, it is much more than a casual primer. The course is accredited
by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Israel Institute uses a convenient online learning platform,
giving you a virtual student locker with all of the recorded lectures,
assignments, and reference materials you need in one place.
Recorded lectures give you schedule flexibility; however, live study sessions, discussion forums, blogs, and live lectures with experienced professors give the human touch of a traditional, in-person academic experience.
Ultimately, these are features that you should expect, in some form, from any high-quality online course.
By the course’s end, you will know that Yiddish is much more than
isolated words. Furthermore, Israel Institute courses are strongly
interdisciplinary: Even from the beginning, the instructor will help you
see how Yiddish developed from Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and its
relationship with Aramaic; you will put Yiddish in cultural and
Throughout the course, Yiddish literature, poetry,
and songs are used as you progress to the point of being able to
A perk of learning Yiddish is that you will be familiar with the
Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew linguistic, phonetic, and grammatical
rules—all of which ultimately makes learning Hebrew, and even
potentially Aramaic, easier.
What Exactly Is Yiddish?
Most people know Yiddish from popular borrowed words: one might think Yiddish is little more than a collection of Jewish (but also oddly German)-sounding words that some people, who are not necessarily Jewish, seem to inject into their speech. While relatively few people actually speak the full language in today’s time, Yiddish is, in fact, a complete language with its own alphabet, grammar, and syntax.
The reason Yiddish sounds so German is because, to a great extent, it is German-based. Yiddish originated in the European Middle Ages, as Ashkenazi Jewish populations spread and settled throughout Europe. As the Jews lived and worked in Northern France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and Slavic nations, they assimilated to some extent—or at least, there was some degree of mutual influence and exchange of words, ideas, and culture. A similar phenomenon happened farther west, in Southern France and in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), but this distinct population is known as Sephardic Jews.
Much of Central Europe speaks (and has historically spoken) some dialect of German, and so it is understandable that German is the strongest influence. However, many Yiddish words are also traced to Russian, Ukrainian, and even to Hungarian and Romanian.
Jewish people write Yiddish using Hebrew letters and script; like Hebrew, Yiddish is read from right to left. Yiddish also uses the diacritical marks—called niqqud—that Medieval Jewish scholars in Europe added to Modern Hebrew. In general, Yiddish is a sort of German-Russian dialect rendered with Modern Hebrew letters.
However, to confuse matters, Western readers generally read Yiddish from transliterations in Latin script. When transliterated this way, Yiddish looks very much like German. (If you know some German, you can probably figure out many Yiddish sentences.)
How Does Yiddish Differ From Hebrew?
In the early 1st Millennium, Aramaic took hold initially as a practical trade language for the region surrounding Israel/Palestine but progressed both to change Hebrew and to replace it as the language most Jews spoke in their households. With this Aramaic influence intact, Modern Hebrew was formally standardized in the Middle Ages; however, by then, it functioned more often as a religious scholarly language than as a spoken language of the Jewish people.
Instead, various dialects of Yiddish became the commonly spoken languages of the Jewish people as they spread throughout Medieval and Renaissance Europe. So, because Aramaic blended somewhat with Biblical Hebrew as Modern Hebrew evolved, there are traces of Aramaic in Yiddish, too.
Many Yiddish dialects have been identified. However, as happened with Modern Hebrew, Yiddish has now become a standard language. The Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute, or most commonly, YIVO) in Lithuania is the leading organization of standardization, promotion, and instruction of the Yiddish language and its associated literature, linguistics, and culture. This is a critical resource to keep in mind.
Indeed, Modern Hebrew is the primary language of modern Israel, and Biblical Hebrew is still used for historical, theological, scholarly, and anthropological studies of Judaism and the ancient Jewish people. However, Yiddish could be viewed as the representative language of modern Jewish culture, at least for the large Ashkenazi population that spread throughout the Western world. Preserving Yiddish is linked to remembering modern Jewish history, including the Holocaust, pogroms, and other persecution events of Central-Eastern Europe.
Who Has Spoken Yiddish?
Yiddish is the original language of the Ashkenazi Jews (or Ashkenazim, in Hebrew plural). The Ashkenazim initially were located in northwestern Europe around the end of the 1st Millennium, but over the next few centuries, persecution forced most to go east towards Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkan and Baltic countries.
However, in the past few centuries, some Ashkenazim have spread back westward to other parts of Europe. During this time, they grew to be the largest Jewish population group in the world, before being almost decimated by the Holocaust. The Holocaust and pre-Holocaust persecutions in Central and Eastern Europe drove many Jewish people even further west, even out of the continent—to the United States especially.
A quick perusal of any piece about Ashkenazim or Yiddish reveals that the migrations and instances of cultural assimilation and exchange are highly complex: A full understanding of just this part of Jewish history demands extensive linguistic, phonetic, sociological, geographical, historical, theological, and philosophical considerations. Therefore, any basic definition of Yiddish is inevitably leaving out the unique stories of many individual Jewish people.
Who Speaks Yiddish Now?
One might guess that very conservative Jewish populations would favor the use of Hebrew—in both daily life and religious study. This is true to the extent that devout Jews are likely to know more Hebrew, or to travel or move to Israel where Modern Hebrew is spoken. However, one of the most conservative Orthodox Jewish sects—Hasidic Jews—actually favors Yiddish. Likely this is because Hasidism started in a certain Yiddish-speaking Medieval Ukrainian population of Ashkenazi Jews.
Hasidim are part of a category of highly orthodox Jews known as Haredi Jews. Haredim subscribe to a very strict and literal interpretation of Jewish law, and consequently live lives very different from those around them, especially most modern non-Jews. Hasidim, as a subcategory, are distinguished by a tradition of mysticism and asceticism: They aim to connect with God, even in the mundane acts of life. To do this, they apply traditions of behavior and prayer on every occasion.
Ironically, the other population that uses Yiddish enthusiastically is a secular one: American urbanites, especially in New York City. Jewish immigrants brought Yiddish to the United States, and many Americans took isolated Yiddish words (in their transliterated Latin spellings) as part of their vocabulary, often using them to add zest and emphasis to their speech and writing.
Why Learn Yiddish?
If you are looking up how to learn Yiddish online, then you probably have reasons in mind. The most common is wanting to connect with one’s Jewish roots; indeed, Yiddish is an excellent way to achieve this, in more ways than one: Yiddish has a very complex history; by following the development of Yiddish, you go deep into the migrations, assimilations, struggles, and persecutions of European Jews from the medieval period to modernity.
If, for any reason, you wish to connect with or work with a Yiddish-speaking community, likely Hasidim as described above, knowing their language will make it much easier for them to welcome you and feel comfortable with you. (As a general rule, knowing any group’s language or lingo is a great way to show you truly want to hear what they have to say.)
Another incentive to learn this language is the Yiddish creative tradition—there are many engaging works of prose, poetry, and lyrics originally written in Yiddish. Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz are two of the biggest names in Yiddish literature: Both wrote about the struggles of Jewish life in ways that are nuanced, sympathetic, and arguably underrated for their innovative creativity and unique philosophy that really transcends Jewish experience.
Alternatively, maybe you have heard Yiddish words passed around your whole life and would like to know more about the origins of these words and how they became part of your language. In a world with countless YouTube videos and free (or economically priced) online tutorials for almost everything—you naturally wondered how to learn Yiddish online.
English Loan Words From Yiddish
When considering Yiddish loan words, always be respectful: These have often been taken by non-Jews as cute words to throw around affectionately, but at times, the tone could suggest parody or disparagement. Instead, Yiddish loan words should be viewed as a celebration of the contribution Diaspora Jews have made to the USA and other places to which they have emigrated.
That said, most Westerners find that these words roll off the tongue in a fun way and are a great way to add emphasis or variety to their writing or speech; Yiddish words also tend to lend a city-wise, common-man flare to conversation, because of their association with a prominent urban immigrant population.
Popular American TV shows of the 70s are full of Yiddish loan words. The Carol Burnett Show used such words as schlep (“walk”), yenta (“busybody woman”), and ganef (“swindler”), among others—both by Jewish and non-Jewish characters. Vantz, a Yiddish word for “bedbug,” initiated the plot in an episode of MASH. More recently, in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a non-Jewish character said to a Jewish one, “You’re a putz!”
Similarly, in real life, it would not be that strange for an American student to hear a teacher say, “Stop putzing around!” (As a noun, putz means “fool”; as a verb, “messing around unproductively.”)
Why Yiddish Is Still Relevant
While relatively few people in the world today speak Yiddish, the language serves as an introduction to still-established languages like German, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; also, Yiddish could be used as part of a comparative or comprehensive study of such language groups.
Yiddish is perhaps the one of the best examples of languages merging, evolving, and being shaped by one another—very interesting from a linguistic and etymological perspective. Also, it has a link to ancient studies, as it carries some of the phonetics of Hebrew and the use of the Hebrew alphabet (descended from ancient Semitic glyphs.) Arguably, it is as relevant as the commonly taught Classic languages, Latin and Greek.
Learning more about Yiddish and the contribution of the Jewish people to a staggering number of other cultures is also potentially a great way to combat anti-Semitism. Despite the well-known long history of painful persecutions, forced segregations, and struggles to assimilate, anti-Semitism still persists.
Ultimately, it is important to realize that none of the major monotheistic religions have a perfect ethical record: Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all unnecessarily excluded, abused, battled, and even murdered one another on many occasions throughout their histories.
That said, many modern thinkers are looking for ways to promote empathy and peace among all religions and sects. Even just seeking how to learn Yiddish online, and then being curious about Modern Hebrew art and culture, is one possible intellectual path to join this greater movement.