Glossary of Yiddish Words and Phrases
Spelling and Pronunciation
Spelling: The Yiddish language is written using a variant of the Hebrew alphabet, thus the words are transliterated from their Hebrew spelling and many spelling versions exist for the same word. Also, different spelling versions exist because Yiddish pronunciation varied according to the region of the speaker: the main “dialects” were Litvak (Lithuanian) and Galitsianer (Galacian); some differences in pronunciation (and thus rendering into the Roman alphabet) were so great as to make speakers sometimes unintelligible to each other. In this Glossary an attempt has been made to use the most common spelling variant. If you can’t find the word listed where you expected it, try looking for it using a related vowel or consonant, e.g., “tzores” (trouble) can be found under “tsores.” Some of these alternate spellings are cross-listed.
- “ch” can also be rendered as “kh”
- the initial “f” and “v” are almost interchangeable; check both letters if you can’t find your word
- “sch” = “sh”
- “tz” = “ts”
Nouns are indicated by the use of the definite article, “the,” following the word. Since Yiddish, like German, has three genders, it’s important to know the noun’s gender. The nominative definite articles are: Der, masculine; dos, neuter; and di, feminine (or plural). Thus dos punim means “the face” (neuter) and der birger is “the citizen” (masculine). Not every noun is listed with its definite article: this page is a work in progress and is occasionally updated.
Pronunciation: Some letter sounds found in Yiddish are unknown in English, so letter combinations must be used to represent these sounds. The most common of these is the “ch” or “kh” sound found in German and Hebrew. Pronounce this like “Bach” (the composer) or “loch” (a lake in Scotland), not like child. Another letter is the “ts” (pronounced like “boots“) and sometimes written as “tz.”
- “ai” is pronounced as a long “a” as in “date”
- the final “e” is almost always pronounced “eh” as in “met”
- the letter combination “ei” is pronounced “i” (“mile”) if the word came from German, Polish, or Russian, but as “ay” (“day“) if it came from Hebrew
- the letter combination “ie” is pronounced “ee” as in “meet”
- the “g” is always hard as in “gift”
- “sh” (and “sch”) is pronounced as in “shell”
- “w” is rare, and is pronounced like “v” (“victor”)
- “zh” is pronounced like the second “g” in “garage” (not as “garadge”)
Note on Hebrew etymology: Words indicated by the word “Hebrew” have been adopted into Yiddish; however, most have had their spelling and pronunciation changed considerably.
- Wikiled Online Dictionary — Yiddish to English. It’s in Beta, but it seems to work.
- Harkavy’s Yiddish-English (6th edition), English-Yiddish (11th edition) Dictionary (1910). Directed toward Yiddish speakers, but useful.
- Yiddish Dictionary on Line. Interactive dictionary.
- Wikibooks Conversational Yiddish The Yiddish Learning Guide.
- Fred Kogos, From Shmear To Eternity: The Only Book of Yiddish You’ll Ever Need, Citadel, 2006.
- Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe, Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction? Yiddish Trivia, Malka Publications, 2004.
- Lita B. Epstein, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Say It In Yiddish, Citadel, 2006.
- Yetta Emmes, Drek!: The Real Yiddish Your Bubbe Never Taught You, Plume, 1998.
- Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, Pocket, 1991.
- Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish, Galahad Books, 1998.
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