'The Joys of Yiddish' presents a rich collection of words from a language that has been moving around the world for the last 1000 years. The book records the Yiddish words that have imprinted themselves on to the English language, following the huge migration of Jewish communities to America and England during the 19th and 20th centuries. For many of us today, words such as schmaltz, shmooz, or chutzpa are part of a familiar, everyday vocabulary.
The origins of Yiddish
Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazim, the Jews of central and Eastern Europe. It is a mixture of German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Scholars believe it first arose in the Rhineland among Jewish settlers from France. There the Jews adapted the German language into a new vernacular, picking up German words orally, and spelling them out phonetically using the Hebrew alphabet. These words were then mixed with Hebrew names and phrases, and moulded into a new tongue. While Hebrew was the sacred language of worship, Yiddish was the everyday spoken language used in the street, the marketplace and the home.
A language on the move
Yiddish is a magpie language. As the Jews have fled persecution over the last 1000 years, so the language has grown, gathering up words as and where temporary homes were made. Historically, Jewish ghettos have acted as incubators of Yiddish - segregated communities have needed to create a homogeneous language for themselves. However, Rosten is writing about the development of Yiddish in late 20th century America, a largely assimilated culture. In this environment Yiddish words have become embedded into everyday English: Rosten observes that a new language - Yinglish - is now encountered everywhere from movies and nightclubs to bus-stops and grocery stores.