Participants and instructors in a refresher course for Yiddish teachers at YIVO, Vilna, 1938. (Front row, left to right) Khayim Shloyme Kazdan, J. Shapiro, Max Weinreich, and Zelig Kalmanovitch. (YIVO)

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Planning and Standardization of Yiddish

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The planning of Yiddish, insofar as both formulation and implementation are concerned, has primarily come from nongovernmental sources (as is also the case with English, German, Italian, and many other languages), except as will be briefly noted in this article with respect to the Soviet Union. Thus, any discussion of language planning for Yiddish is necessarily restricted to corpus planning (i.e., to changes within the language per se, for example, in reviews of older terms, selections among alternatives and synonyms, development of neologisms, and revisions of orthography), rather than extended to status-planning efforts that deal with societal forces (schools, publishers, theaters, government agencies, etc.) outside of language per se.

The study of grammar, which is based primarily on the discovery and delineation of preexisting tightly knit and, therefore, relatively inescapable patterns, has played a more minor role in Yiddish language planning than have various lexicon-based investigations. The latter have been pursued either via the (re-)evaluation of items in existing corpuses or via the coining of neologisms. Yiddish has been the object of recorded corpus-planning attempts on the part of authorities (such as linguists, folklorists, writers, journalists, teachers, printers, publishers, and missionaries) since the early sixteenth century.

“Madame Yiddish and Her Escort.” Cartoon depicting philanthropist Frank Atran escorting “Yiddish” up steps of Columbia University, celebrating the establishment of the Atran Chair in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture, the first Yiddish studies chair in an American university (Morgn-zhurnal, 16 March 1952). (Image courtesy Roberta Newman)

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Yiddish language planning was centered in Eastern Europe, as was Yiddish publication. This simultaneous planning for print and for language usage illustrates succinctly the general phenomenon that language planning pertains particularly to the written (in modern times, the printed) language and that its impact on the spoken language, outside of the latter’s most formal print-proximate realizations, is secondary or even hypercorrect. Standard Yiddish (also referred to as literary Yiddish) is the end product of such planning efforts in accord with a particular set of authorities (for example, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research [New York] and, since 1980, the League for Yiddish [New York]). Their ideologically informed goals and the published reference works that summarize and explain these end products, not only to other specialists but, particularly, to teachers, writers, and to the educated adult reading and writing public at large, constitute standardization.

A sociolinguistic review of more than two centuries of modern Yiddish language planning must focus primarily upon such ideological goals in order to present an overall picture. No matter how technically linguistic the formulation of language planning principles may be, their underlying rationales basically consist of societal goals that guide and constrain language authorities (albeit, at times, unconsciously). Four separate bipolar dimensions seem to be sufficient to cover the majority of instances of Yiddish language planning: purity versus vernacularity, Ausbau versus Einbau, uniqueness versus regionalization, and internationalisms versus classicisms.

Purity versus Vernacularity

The notion of purity looms large in all modern (particularly post-maskilic) Yiddish language planning. This stress reflects a desire to influence the sociolinguistic border between Jewish and non-Jewish society, on the one hand, and to deflect the all-pervasive (and uninformed) dialect charge against Yiddish, on the other. Since dialects lack autonomy they are, by definition, hierarchically lower than, or subcategories of, truly autonomous language varieties—the purity drive in most post-maskilic Yiddish language planning favored lexical, grammatical, and orthographic usage that was maximally distant from any and all neighboring contamination.

Purity may be an unobtainable goal in this day and age for any language (when it is widely agreed that no language that interacts with others can really be pure). Accordingly, the language planning goal of “purism” in Yiddish is not so much opposed to particular Germanisms, Slavicisms, or Anglicisms (or in certain more delimited settings, to particular Francisisms, Hispanicisms or Hebraisms), as it is opposed to any implication of excessive (unnecessary) borrowing from or dependence upon any foreign sources whatsoever in the pursuit of societal modernization.

The polar opposite to purism in Yiddish language planning is the tendency to favor vernacularity, that is, to write in the way that Yiddish is spoken by the unsophisticated “person in the street.” This approach is not necessarily tantamount to “nonplanning,” since it can also be a definite planning approach that favors (as did Abraham Cahan, the legendary editor of the Yiddish Forward) using ordinary, uneducated speech as the guide to planning for the modernization of the written language.

Ausbau versus Einbau

Ausbau (a German term that means “building away” for the purposes of achieving autonomy-motivated distancing) efforts in Yiddish seek to apply the purity approach specifically and principally to German influences (“New-High Germanisms”). Also, as with purity, Ausbau has its adherents in various other language communities, indeed, wherever closely similar pairs of neighboring languages exist that differ markedly in culture, functional power, and reputation in the world arena. In such circumstances, the weaker of the two tends to be considered (even by some of its own speakers) as a mere dialect of the other, apparently lacking in the autonomy that is popularly ascribed to a “true” language. Under such circumstances, it is common for the weaker, smaller, or less familiar member of the pair to adopt corpus planning practices that have as their goals to distance its written variety as much as possible from that of the other. The purposes served by such an approach are to stress autonomy via increasing lexical, grammatical, and orthographic dissimilarity. Furthermore, if the two varieties can also have visibly different writing systems, this distinction can further bolster the claim that their respective speech communities and language varieties must also be separate and autonomous. All postexilic Jewish languages that have lasted into modern times have experienced or entertained Ausbau language planning with regard to their non-Jewish counterpart written variety, Yiddish being first and foremost among them.

Avek fun daytsh! (Away from German!) has been a rallying cry for most language planners in the Yiddish fold since the early years of the nineteenth century (e.g., Mendl Lefin Sotenever [Menaḥem Mendel Lefin] and his defender Yankev Shmuel Bik [Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bick] and somewhat later in the same century Shie Mordkhe Lifshits). This admonition (strongly reaffirmed in Czernowitz, at the First International Conference for the Yiddish; 1908) applied chiefly to writing system, orthography, lexicon, and grammar, although ortheopy was also involved insofar as formal speech was concerned. Throughout the twentieth century, the war against “unnecessary” New-High Germanisms was primarily a concern of the bourgeois West (Poland, the Baltic States, Palestine [later Israel], France, Romania, Latin America, and Australia), as the socialist glorification of the language of the “common working man” led to far greater tolerance in this connection at the lexical level. However, in the realm of orthography, Soviet usage was even more anti-German in some respects (e.g., writing af/of/uf rather than oyf) than was that of the YIVO (whether in prewar Lithuania/Poland or in its branches in New York and Buenos Aires). The Ausbau campaign led to word-choice guides (Daytshmerish toyg nit! [Germanisms are not good!] as stated by Weinreich in his 1938 guide to correct usage) to normative dictionaries in which words suspected of being unnecessary New-High Germanisms are marked by asterisks and more desirable alternatives are recommended, to hortatory adult-education oriented teaching and learning materials, and to a grueling campaign against firmly established and often still widely used Germanisms as well as German-derived orthographic conventions (e.g., silent ayens and heyen).

By the twenty-first century, and in the well-nigh complete absence of implementation powers, the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Yiddish publications (as well as of a slowly growing number of Orthodox ones) follow the YIVO Unified (that is, “standardized”) spelling, which was promulgated in 1937 (and which was then republished periodically, most recently in a greatly expanded sixth edition in 1999). By the latter date, the various other competing orthographic approaches differed from that of the YIVO only in minor details and were all basically “anti-German” in approach.

Yiddish orthographic usage in the former Soviet Union has now become virtually identical with that of the YIVO. The spelling in that region has discontinued its former unique avoidance of final letters (for f, n, m,n, kh, and ts) and its “naturalization” (phonetization) of Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words. The final letters were restored in the USSR in 1961 with the establishment of the journal Sovetish heymland, although Birobidzhaner shtern continued both of these policies a while longer. However, neither of these two discrepant conventions were primarily Ausbau-oriented (unless that of the “bourgeois” YIVO be considered the stronger and more recognized rival). The remaining major holdouts with respect to degermanization of the lexicon and of the orthography remain in the Orthodox world, where several distinct systems are still in use, sometimes on the very same page, some harking back well over a century.

The opposite of Ausbau is Einbau, (i.e., “building [of one variety] toward” the other, in order to achieve greater similarity or even identity between the two), which includes all planning efforts to fuse together two language varieties to the point that they become indistinguishable. Einbau is no longer a policy option in the field of Yiddish; however, it was still a viable approach a little more than a century ago. When the first Yiddish weeklies began to appear in Russia, both the tsarist government and various maskilic leaders hoped that Yiddish could still be returned to the German fold and, thereby, could help in Westernizing the mass of East European Jews. Even some of the commonest names for Yiddish in print clearly revealed this motivation (yidish-daytsh [Jewish-German], daytsh-yidishe-brik [German-Jewish bridge]) and a deprecatory attitude toward the language, calling it zhargon (jargon). On occasion, tsarist authorities encouraged such Einbau pretenses of Jewish publishers and producers by sanctioning those Yiddish publications and theatrical performances claiming to be in German. In addition, much printed matter continued to be heavily influenced by German lexical, grammatical, and orthographic conventions, even without any conscious Einbau intent, merely on the assumption that these influences represented a higher level of sophistication.

Finally, reprinted texts initially typeset in Western Europe (both Holland and Germany had been centers of Jewish printing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) continued to follow their “traditional” heavily Germanized styles. This was so even intrapunitively, that is, even though those archaic styles severely complicated reading and understanding, due to the centuries of ongoing change in spoken Eastern European Yiddish, since those texts had originally been set in type in Western Europe. With the rise of modern Jewish political parties in both the Austro-Hungarian and tsarist empires toward the very end of the nineteenth century, any slim possibility of Einbau preferences that may still have existed until then (e.g., in the “Kongres-deutsch” of the Zionist Congresses) quickly crumbled. However, Germanization, by force of habit, still continues both in Yiddish speech and in print, particularly among Orthodox Jews, most of whom know no German and therefore cannot guard against it even were they inclined to do so.

Uniqueness versus Regionalization

Uniqueness refers to an approach that finds both purity and Ausbau too mild and too focused—too mild because they can both end up with only slight differences between German and Yiddish (for example, firleygn instead of forleygn) and too focused because they both emphasize distancing from other languages such as German, English, Russian, and modern Hebrew, rather than on fixing upon truly original or unusual alternatives. The uniqueness approach, also known as specifistic, seeks to maximize the “distance-motivated autonomy” of Yiddish by plumbing earlier periods of various modern Yiddish dialects for constructions that had not as yet significantly entered the modern written standard (constructions with ge . . . eray to indicate long, ongoing actions: gebileray, geshreyeray, gelakheray [ongoing barking, shouting, laughing]). Another semi-archaic source of specificisms is Yiddish folklore. The use of antkegn-gelt for “matching-funds” is derived from the traditional Jewish wedding custom at which gifts for the bride and groom are announced by khosns-tsad (the invitees of the groom) and the bride’s invitees attempt to outdo the value of the gifts announced by “the other side.” Antkegn-gelt is thus a uniquely Jewish folk custom that derives its validity from such specificist local customs rather than from purity or distancing neologisms aimed against one rival language/variety or another.

No concrete procedure for creating specifistic neologisms in Yiddish has been proposed other than searches in texts that are centuries old. A few major Yiddish language planners, such as Max Weinreich (1894–1969) and, particularly, the Southeastern Yiddish-oriented Mordkhe Schaechter (1927–2007) have demonstrated a fondness for specificity along with other approaches to language planning.

Regionalization represents a tempering of purity and, particularly, of specificity by substantially extending the perimeter of theoretical acceptability. Such attempts favor other members of the same language family. In the modernization of Hebrew, for example, neologisms based upon and utilizing all older forms of the language were favored; should this procedure fail to provide sufficient suitable choices in order to fill particular lacunae, the Hebrew Language Academy then favored looking outside of Hebrew per se and examining other languages of the Semitic family, first of all Aramaic and, secondly, even Arabic (Fellman, 1973). European languages as a whole, and Yiddish in particular, were considered the least preferred sources of enrichment at that late nineteenth-century date. No similar regional progression of preferences has been formulated for coining Yiddish neologisms although the Soviet preference for Russianisms/Sovietisms and Schaechter’s for “Southeasternisms” should be noted. Sovietisms (variously reported also as proletarianisms and slavicisms) were greatly preferred in the USSR, even more so than specificisms in general. In the West, regionalism frequently smacked of Germanisms or Americanisms and were, therefore, largely downgraded.

Internationalisms versus Classicisms

Internationalisms—neologisms patterned after widely used recent coinages that have been adopted in several of the more prominent Western languages—are often widely approved of and easily accepted in the planning of Yiddish. Often, such terms are not even considered to be neologisms or borrowings at all, but rather a species of common- or joint-holding that is viewed as equally owned by all languages of the modern Western world. It is exactly in this sense that internationalisms stand at the other extreme from classicisms, the former aiming at making Yiddish more like other highly interactive languages of modernity, and the latter aiming at making Yiddish more authentic, more related to the illustrious Jewish classical tradition, and “true to itself” via scholarly associations.

Two of the domains in which internationalisms are particularly prevalent are the natural and social sciences. Modern econo-technology above the level of popular science is also very hospitable to internationalisms. Furthermore, international acceptance of Yiddish and its easier acceptance into the prestigeful family of European languages were the most commonly stated appeals in the immediately pre– and post–World War I advocacies for transferring Yiddish to a Latin-based and left-to-right writing system. Although a few major writers were attracted to the “Europeanization” of Yiddish script (for example, Nathan Birnbaum [1864–1937] and Khayim Zhitlovski [1865–1942]), the implication of breaking ranks with the major shared visual indicator for the great majority of Jewish languages throughout history ultimately made Latinization unacceptable. It left behind a meager print record with respect to book publication, as well as a number of fleeting post–World War II refugee periodical publications understandably eager to appear immediately after the cessation of hostilities, notwithstanding the temporary unavailability of Hebrew type.

Just as internationalisms stress the au-courant nature of modern secular Jewish life, so does the religious world stress its focus on scholarly Hebraisms/Aramaisms and on orthographic and stylistic links to the sanctified past. The “Orthodox spelling,” elaborated and publicized by Shloyme (S. A.) Birnbaum (1891–1989), may well have been (as Birnbaum himself claimed) the most widely read and taught Yiddish orthographic system during the 1930s in Poland. Masoretic conventions of pointing, punctuation, indentation, and other stylistic conventions were within its conscious design, including attention to marking the completion of sentences and paragraphs. In a sense, therefore, this approach not only retained the traditional spelling of all Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words, but also “classicism” in the entire appearance of a page in print. However, “Orthodox spelling” has virtually dropped out of use since the Holocaust, with modern Orthodox usage (to the minor extent that Yiddish is utilized at all by publications with that affiliation) now varying from the Germanisms of the past to being very close to or even indistinguishable from the YIVO Unified spelling.

The normally unremarked inclusion of hundreds of Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words in everyday Yiddish (and of a fairly unlimited number of additional Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words in the Yiddish of the traditional scholar) poses a particular problem for Yiddish orthography. If traditional Hebrew spelling is to be maintained unaltered, an extra burden is added to the acquisition of reading and writing on the part of all those who lack education steeped in the traditional classical sources (particularly children, the poor, the secular and, until the mid-twentieth century, almost all females regardless of religiosity). Nevertheless, this is the approach that has normally been adopted or retained outside the Soviet Union.

Since the incorporation of a larger number of Hebraisms/Aramaisms is often a feature of more learned and more intellectual reading and writing, the acquisition of advanced Yiddish literacy in the modern West has generally required an array of special spellers, dictionaries, and phrasebooks for the secular public throughout the entire twentieth century. This pedagogic approach adopted usually required slowly transitioning from “naturalized” (that is, phoneticized in accord with Yiddish spelling more generally) of Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words, on the basis of a partial word list appropriate to each year of study, finally arriving in early adulthood at a stage where no further accommodation was necessary. It should also be noted, however, that very few secular Yiddish speakers were able to benefit from an education that provided the long and intensive exposure to graded Yiddish in print, such as the above sketch presupposed.

The “naturalization” approach to Hebrew/Aramaic spelling (that is, spelling such words phonetically, as if they were ordinary Yiddish words) was adopted almost exclusively by Soviet (or Soviet-sympathetic) Yiddish language planning authorities in the mid-1920s, under the guise of struggling against religion and the traditional hegemony of rabbis and rabbinic scholars by returning control of the language to the “common folk” to whom “it really belonged.” There were two problems associated with this more accommodating approach: certain letters used only in Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words (veys, khes, sof, tof) were totally dropped from the alphabet as superfluous and those who were educated totally in accord with this system were cut off thereby from easily understanding earlier (pre-Soviet) Yiddish texts or texts hailing from outside the Soviet and allied orbit. Both the dropping of final letters and the naturalization of Hebrew-/Aramaic-origin words—part of the Soviet antireligious posture—were also defended on the grounds of making Yiddish more European and modern.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the naturalized system of spelling Hebrew/Aramaic-origin words and the discarded final letters have been almost universally discontinued. Thus, in the world of Yiddish, there has been a complete triumph for “classicism,” on the one hand (in connection with the spelling and the preferences for Hebrew/Aramic-origin words), and on the other hand, for “internationalism” (in connection with modern econo-technical vocabulary). This is an example of how opposite directions can be pursued simultaneously, rather than only seriatum, in language planning.

Although the profile of Yiddish language planning is multidirectional when viewed as a whole, just as are the profiles almost all other language-planning efforts the world over, the Yiddish undertaking is preponderantly oriented toward modernization and participation in the world community (via ample use of both purity and internationalism), rather than being self-isolating and rejective of such participation (via classicism and Ausbau). Although it reveals the input of the right and of the left, of the Soviet orbit and of the capitalist West, of religious traditionalism and of secular modernization, Yiddish language planning has weathered the Holocaust and has continued to be a voluntary presence and to provide a voluntary standard to this very day. The community that is voluntarily bound by this standard can point to its being accepted by virtually every tertiary (college and university level) school, Yiddish publishing house, and Yiddish periodical the world over. The major holdouts today are in ultra-Orthodox circles and even there, beginnings of acceptance have been made (see, for example, the textbooks prepared for use in the first few years of the twenty-first century in the Jerusalem Beys Yankev schools and teachers seminary) and will doubtlessly continue to increase in number in the future.

Suggested Reading

Shloyme Asher Birnbaum, Alef-beys fun ortodoksishn oysleyg (Łódź, 1930); Michael Clyne, ed. Undoing and Redoing Corpus Planning (Berlin and New York, 1997); Jack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue: Eliezer ben Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language (The Hague, 1973); Joshua A. Fishman, “Ethnicity and Supra-Ethnicity in Corpus Planning,” Nations and Nationalism 10.1–2 (2004): 79–94; Joshua A. Fishman, “Do Not Leave Your Language Alone: The Hidden Status Dimension in Corpus Planning,” Wawah (2005); Dovid Katz, Klal-takones fun yidishn oysleyg (Oxford, 1992); Heinz Kloss, “Ausbau Languages and Abstand Languages,” Anthropological Linguistics 9.7 (1967): 29–41; Y. M. Lifshits, Rusish-yidisher verterbukh (Zhitomir, 1869); Mordkhe Schaechter, “Four Schools of Thought in Yiddish Language Planning,” Michigan Germanic Studies 3.2 (1977): 34–66; Mordkhe Schaechter, “Fun folksprakh tsu kultursprakh: An iberblik,” in Der eynheytlikher yidisher oysleyg (New York, 1999); Mendl Lefin Sotenever, “Mishli” (1813 ms.; reproduced, Vilnius, 1930); Max Weinreich, “Vos volt yidish geven on hebreyish?” Di tsukunft 36.3 (1931): 194–205; Max Weinreich, “Daytshmerish toyg nit,” Yidishe shprakh (1975): 23–33.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 1,2, YIVO (Vilna): Ethnographic Committee, Records, 1911-1940; RG 1,3, YIVO (Vilna): Aspirantur, Records, 1935-1940; RG 82, YIVO—Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Vilna, Tcherikower Archive), Records, 1921-1943.