Multilingualism & Identity

Yiddish Words in German

A collection of illustrated Hebrew texts for auction at Sothebys; Copyright: picture-alliance Maloche, Schlamassel, meschugge – with many of these words, we are conscious of their connection to Jewish culture and its languages Yiddish and Hebrew: for instance, “Mischpoche” (riffraff; clan), “Chuzpe” (chutzpah, brazenness), or when something doesn’t seem to us to be “koscher” (kosher). With others, we hardly notice this: for example, the “Malocher” (drudge) of the Ruhr Valley, or the “Macke” (kink, loose screw) that someone has, the “miese” (wretched, miserable) weather, the government’s “Schmusekurs” (schmoozing up) or the neighbour who is well “betucht” (well-off).

The linguist Hans Peter Althaus has compiled 1,100 words of Yiddish origin in his Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft (i.e., Encyclopaedia of German Words of Yiddish Provenance), including old acquaintances like the “Großkotz” (braggart) and the “Schmiere stehen” (to keep a look out), but also some which strike one as exotic in German like “Machascheife” (witch) or “Besomenbüchse” (“smelling salts”, “perfume flacon”) and which occur only in a few German dialects, technical jargon or argot.

The development of Yiddish

What are these words doing in German? In order to answer this question, one must look more closely at the history of the German language in the Middle Ages. For there were Jews who spoke Yiddish not only in Eastern Europe but also in the German-speaking area. Yiddish arose from Old High German about 1000 years ago, probably either in the region round Speyer and Worms on the Rhine or round Regensburg on the Danube. The medieval Jews laid the foundation stone for the development of Yiddish by taking up the spoken languages of their surroundings, supplying them with Hebraic elements, integrating into them borrowings from the Romance languages and mixing them through supra-regional contacts with various characteristics of Old High German dialects.

By 1500 at the latest, Yiddish can be considered a language different from German. Yiddish served as the spoken language in the traditional Jewish society of the Ashkenazim, the “German” Jews, as they called themselves. In addition, every Jewish boy learned Hebrew in early childhood in order to practice his religion through prayer, singing, knowledge and commentary of the holy scriptures. Hebrew was further the language of adjudication and learned correspondence. For girls and women, prayers and edifying or even entertaining literature were written in Yiddish.

The secret language of itinerants as vehicle

In spite of discrimination, persecution, expulsion and often enough pogroms, a Jewish minority lived throughout the centuries in the German-speaking area, and even if contact with their Christian neighbours may have been sporadic, it did exist. Jews, who in most major and minor states and of the Holy Roman Empire were denied the right to own land or to be members of craftsmen’s guilds, traditionally earned their livelihood through money-lending and in trade, and in these connections came into linguistic contact with the Christian majority. “Rotwelsche” (thieves’ Latin), the argot of itinerants, has often been described as the vehicle through which Jewish words entered German.

It is true that one of those homeless and countryless groups of outsiders, which had roamed across Europe since the waning of the Middle Ages in search of (not always legal) means of survival, were the Jews. And in fact “Rotwelsche” used, among other expressions, some of Hebrew origin. The importance that has been attached to borrowed Yiddish or Hebraic words in “Rotwelsche”, however, is probably greatly overrated. It is much more likely that the presence of Yiddish words in German comes from everyday contacts with Jewish salesmen and butchers, the predominate professions among rural Jews. These professional groups, moreover, developed a jargon which consisted mainly of loans from the Hebraic components of Yiddish. After the abolition of the Jewish ghettos, there was also contact in the cities between Christians and Yiddish-speakers. If in Western Europe Yiddish increasingly lost ground after the Enlightenment, there arose in big cities like Berlin at the end of the 19th century groups of Eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the language of Jewish emigrants from the German-speaking area had developed into an extremely vital cultural language in Eastern Europe.

Use of Yiddish words in German

How were and are words of Yiddish provenance, mainly from the Hebraic components of Yiddish, used in German? In the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, German writers sometimes characterised Jewish figures, often with anti-Semitic intentions, through their linguistic peculiarities, that is, through lexical or grammatical characteristics of Yiddish. One consequence was that Yiddish words became known. During the Nazi period, Yiddish words were exploited for purposes of anti-Semitic propaganda or prohibited, with the result that many were unknown to the post-war generation or that connotations known before the war scarcely still existed. Since the 1980’s, a handful of Yiddish words are again enjoying an increasing popularity and have become a regular component especially of journalism.

One example, quoted in Peter Althaus’s book Zocker, Zoff und Zores (i.e., Cardsharpers, Quarrels and Worries) published in 2002 by the Beck Verlag: “Kneipenzoff endete in blutigem Zweikampf in der Saarstraße” (“Quarrel [Zoff] in pub ended in bloody duel in the Saarstraße”). Remarkable are the quite different histories of individual Yiddish words and their meanings in German which may be found in Althaus’s work. Go ahead and read how it came about that someone spoke “Tacheles” (straight-talk) to you, that you came home “angeschickert” (tipsy) or that a “Ganove” (a swindler) meant to take you in.

  • Hans Peter Althaus: Zocker, Zoff und Zores, C. H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2002.
  • Hans Peter Althaus: Kleines Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft, C. H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2003.
  • Hans Peter Althaus: Chuzpe, Schmus und Tacheles, C. H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2004.

Dr. Gertrud Reershemius,
Professor of German Linguistics at the Aston University in Birmingham (UK).

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2006

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