Languages of the Jewish People: the Difference Between Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic

The Difference Between Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic: Jerusalem, the City Wall.
Jerusalem, the City Wall. Image by IrinaUzv from Pixabay.

Chances are, you’ve heard of at least one of these three languages. Hebrew and Aramaic are languages of the Bible. All three languages are spoken, in one form or another, by modern groups of people. But what ties them all together? What do they have in common? What is different about them? These three fascinating languages each have a rich history, some of it shared, and other parts of it unique to each individual language. What is the difference between Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic? That is not a simple question to answer. In this article you will also learn how to become skilled in these languages.

The Hebrew Language

Hebrew is the main language that the Bible was originally written in. Many people think of it as the language spoken by the Jewish people but it was not the only language spoken by them historically.

Hebrew is a Semitic language, and it was originally spoken in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It thrived from about 1200 to 580 B.C.E., with the earliest written examples coming from the 10th-century B.C.E. This early written example is not a Biblical text, rather a calendar known as the “Gezer calendar” that contains a list of seasons and agricultural activities.

Hebrew went through a series of different periods, evolving over time and splitting off into different dialects. The Biblical Hebrew periods began in the 10th century B.C.E. and ended in the 3rd century B.C.E. The oldest Biblical texts come from the Archaic Biblical Hebrew period, though the majority of them come from the Standard Biblical Hebrew period, which came later. The last of the Biblical Hebrew periods is the Late Biblical Hebrew period. In this period, they stopped using the Proto-Hebrew script and began using the Imperial Aramaic script.

A later period of Hebrew is the Dead Sea Scroll period (3rd century B.C.E. to 1st century C.E.). This is, as the name implies, the period in which the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were written. This period saw a change from the Imperial Aramaic script to a new Hebrew square script that is still used today.

The last period of Ancient Hebrew is the Mishnaic Hebrew period (1st to 4th century C.E.). This is where the language really started to decline as a spoken language, though it saw a rise in rabbinic and religious texts. After this point, it was considered a dead (or extinct) language.

Hebrew continued on as a language of Judaism into the medieval period, being used in Jewish prayer services, rabbinic literature, and poetry. A fascinating thing about the Hebrew language is that it is the only extinct language that could successfully be revived. It once again began to be used as a spoken language and taught to children as their native tongue in the 19th century. It eventually became the official language of the State of Israel and is now spoken by over 9 million people worldwide. Of it, 5 million are native speakers.

The Aramaic Language

Aramaic is another Semitic language, making it related to Hebrew. It is one of the reasons for the decline of Hebrew as a spoken language. At the beginning of the Common Era, it had replaced Hebrew as the main language of the Jewish people.

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Aramaic was the language spoken by the Arameans. They were a people who lived in Aram, in what is now parts of Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Turkey. The language began to spread and ended up being spoken in parts of what is now Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.

One interesting fact is that Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke, not Hebrew! He spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic, which can also be found in the original texts of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Ezra in the Bible.

Aramaic is also a notable language because of the script used to write it. The Aramaic alphabet ended up being adopted for use in other languages. The modern Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac scripts are all descended from the Aramaic alphabet.

Aramaic was not just used by the Jewish people or for religious reasons. It actually became a language that was highly regarded and was used as a language of trade in many areas of Asia and Europe for a time. It was also used by government scribes under the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the First Persian Empire.

Because of its vast geographical spread, Aramaic split into several different dialects, some of which are even now considered to be different languages that are descended from Aramaic. Unlike Hebrew, Aramaic never became a dead language.

Eastern Aramaic and Western Aramaic are two examples of Aramaic languages spoken today. Eastern Aramaic is spoken in parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Western Neo-Aramaic is also spoken in Syria. Mandaic and Syriac are two other Aramaic languages, though these are used as holy languages by a variety of religious communities.

Unfortunately, the Aramaic languages are now seen as being endangered, despite their long history. Aramaic is one of the oldest recorded living languages, and there is currently an effort to record as much of it as possible so that we can still learn from it, even if it does go extinct.

The Yiddish Language

Yiddish is not a Semitic language like Aramaic and Hebrew. It is also not a language with a millenary history.

Yiddish was first spoken in Central Europe in the 9th century by Ashkenazi Jews. It was referred to by many different names, with “Yiddish” not becoming popular until the 18th century. Before that, it was referred to as “the Language of the Ashkenaz” and “mame-loshn”, which means “mother tongue.” The name “Yiddish” comes from another old name for it, “Yidish Taitsh” which means “Jewish German.”

As you may infer from “Jewish German,” Yiddish is indeed a Germanic language. It is based on High German, but it also contains many elements of Aramaic and Hebrew. A few elements from Slavic and Romance languages can also be found in Yiddish. It is written using the Hebrew script.

The Difference Between Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic: Jewish Wedding
Isaak Asknaziy (1856-1902), Jewish Wedding with Klezmer Band.

Yiddish was once in use by large Jewish communities all over Europe, from France to Lithuania. In fact, 75% of all Jewish people were once Yiddish speakers. This means that there were about 13 million Yiddish speakers at its height. While many Jewish people also knew Biblical Hebrew and/or Aramaic, these were considered to be “holy languages.” Yiddish was the language used at home, the language children learned as their mother tongue.

There are two main varieties of Yiddish, Eastern Yiddish, and Western Yiddish. Eastern Yiddish has a stronger presence of Slavic language elements than Western Yiddish. Western Yiddish saw some decline over the years due to both the revival of Hebrew as a mother tongue and the fact that many Jewish children began going to secular, not Jewish, schools. Instead of learning Yiddish, these children learned German. Eastern Yiddish continued to flourish, as it became part of the secular culture.

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Unfortunately, 75% of all Yiddish speakers were killed during the Holocaust. This caused an immediate and massive decline in the use of the language across Europe, of both Western and Eastern Yiddish.

Today, Yiddish is spoken by about 1.5 million people. It is no official language and has no “homeland.” Instead, it is spoken mainly by small communities of mainly Orthodox Jews in parts of Europe, Israel, North America, and other areas where Jewish communities are found.

The Difference Between Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic

All of these languages were, at one point or another, spoken by the Jewish people, as native tongues, and as holy languages. As you can imagine, there are some key differences amongst them, even if they do share some similarities.

One of the biggest differences in the languages themselves is that Yiddish does not belong to the same language family as Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the Afro-Asiatic family and are in the same subgroup as Semitic languages. Yiddish is an Indo-European language. This is the same language family that many European languages, including English, Spanish, and Russian, belong to. The subgroup that Yiddish belongs to is the Germanic subgroup, making it more closely related to German, English, and Dutch. While Yiddish does contain some elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is at its heart not a Semitic language.

Another difference is the age of the languages. The earliest known forms of Aramaic date to 900 B.C.E. and the earliest known forms of Hebrew date to about the same time period. Yiddish was not developed and spoken until much later, the 9th century C.E., at the earliest.

Hebrew is also the only one of the three to become a dead language, though it was later revived. Aramaic is currently in danger of becoming a dead language, but it is still, to date, the oldest recorded living language. Yiddish experienced a huge decline as well but is not currently considered to be an endangered language.

Where Can I Study These Languages?

Learning Aramaic Language: A Course Banner

Are you interested in learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and/or Yiddish? If there isn’t a course available where you live, you can always study these languages online. The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies is a great resource. This institute has a network of professors who are passionate about sharing their knowledge of these languages, as well as other languages and Biblical topics. Their main goal is to spread this knowledge around the world, with as many people as possible. An added bonus when you learn through the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies is that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem accredits all their courses so you can obtain college credits from the space of your own home.

Study Hebrew

If you want to study Hebrew, you have two options: Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew is better for those who want to study historical and religious texts, such as the Hebrew Bible. This is not exactly the same as the Hebrew that people speak today, but it is useful if you have an interest in theology. There are five levels to this course, ranging from Beginner to Expert. You will read ancient texts in order to gain an understanding of Ancient Hebrew. This is also a great way to better connect to the texts of the Bible if you are Jewish or Christian, as you will gain a more in-depth understanding of the stories and poems found within the Bible.

If you are hoping to take a trip to Israel or just want to learn how to speak an exciting foreign language, Modern Hebrew is the course for you. There are eight levels of Modern Hebrew, from Beginner to Advanced and then four Expert courses. This course is less about Biblical stories and more about learning grammar and phrases you can use to connect with people in a modern setting. You’ll start by learning basic introductions and greetings and, if you get all the way through each level, end up being able to read Hebrew literature and poetry like a pro. Hebrew does not use the Latin alphabet, so you’ll learn an entirely new set of letters as well! You will also learn about Israeli history and culture while you learn the language.

Study Yiddish and Aramaic

Aramaic is not spoken today, though you can find some languages related to it. Biblical Aramaic is a great language to learn if you are interested in reading Biblical texts in their original language, as not all of them are written in Hebrew! In the Beginner course of Biblical Aramaic, you will use texts such as the well-known legend of Daniel in the Lions’ Den to study the language. You will also learn about the Book of Ezra, another part of the Bible written in Aramaic. Additionally, you’ll learn the history of Aramaic and the people who used to speak it.

You can’t learn Yiddish without also learning the rich history and culture of the Jewish people who speak it. There is currently one course in Yiddish, the Beginner course. In this course, you will start by learning the basics, such as how to introduce yourself, how to greet people, how to ask questions, and how to talk about your family. There are lessons on Chanukah, classic Yiddish songs, Yiddish proverbs, the Sabbath, and the Holocaust. In order to truly understand the language, you’ll come to know the people who speak it as well.

Start Learning Today

If you have any interest in Jewish history, Biblical studies, or just in learning a new language, any of these three languages may be a good fit for you. All three have interesting histories, and you can learn about a whole new culture, in addition to learning a new language.

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