Yiddish phonology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

There is significant phonological variation among the various dialects of the Yiddish language. The description that follows is of a modern Standard Yiddish that was devised during the early 20th century and is frequently encountered in pedagogical contexts. Its genesis is described in the article on Yiddish dialects.


Yiddish consonants[1]
Labial Alveolar Dorsal Postalveolar Glottal
soft hard soft hard
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Plosive voiceless p t k (ʔ)
voiced b d g
Affricate voiceless tsʲ ts tʃʲ
voiced dzʲ dz dʒʲ
Fricative voiceless f s χ ʃ h
voiced v z ɣ ʒ
Rhotic r
Approximant central j
lateral l ʎ
  • /m, p, b/ are bilabial, whereas /f, v/ are labiodental.[1]
  • The /l–ʎ/ contrast has collapsed in some speakers.[1]
  • The palatalized coronals /nʲ, tsʲ, dzʲ, tʃʲ, dʒʲ, sʲ, zʲ/ appear only in Slavic loanwords.[1] The phonemic status of these palatalised consonants, as well as any other affricates, is unclear.
  • /k, ɡ, ɣ/ and [ŋ] are velar, whereas /j, ʎ/ are palatal.[1]
    • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ after /k, ɡ/, and it can only be syllabic [ŋ̍].[1]
  • The phonetic realization of /χ/ and /nʲ/ is unclear:
    • In case if /χ/, Kleine (2003) puts it in the "velar" column, but consistently uses a symbol denoting a voiceless uvular fricative χ to transcribe it. It is thus safe to assume that /χ/ is phonetically uvular [χ].
    • In case of /nʲ/, Kleine (2003) puts it in the "palatalized" column. This can mean that it is either palatalized alveolar [nʲ] or alveolo-palatal [ɲ̟]. /ʎ/ may actually also be alveolo-palatal [ʎ̟], rather than just palatal.
  • The rhotic /r/ can be either alveolar or uvular, either a trill [r ~ ʀ] or, more commonly, a flap/tap [ɾ ~ ʀ̆].[1]
  • The glottal stop [ʔ] appears only as an intervocalic separator.[1]

As in the Slavic languages with which Yiddish was long in contact (Russian, Belarusian, Polish, and Ukrainian), but unlike German, voiceless stops have little to no aspiration; unlike many such languages, voiced stops are not devoiced in final position.[1] Moreover, Yiddish has regressive voicing assimilation, so that, for example, זאָגט /zɔɡt/ ('says') is pronounced [zɔkt] and הקדמה /hakˈdɔmɜ/ ('foreword') is pronounced [haɡˈdɔmɜ].


The vowel phonemes of Standard Yiddish are:

Yiddish monophthongs[2]
Front Central Back
unrounded unrounded rounded
Close ɪ ʊ
Open-mid ɛ ɜ ɔ
Open a
  • /ɪ, ʊ/ are near-close [ɪ, ʊ], but /ɪ/ may sometimes be realized as close [i]. These allophones are more or less in free variation, but they could have been separate phonemes in the past.[2]
  • /ɜ/ appears only in unstressed syllables.[2]
Front nucleus Central nucleus Back nucleus
ɛɪ ɔɪ
  • The last two diphthongs may be realized as [aɛ] and [ɔɜ], respectively.[2]

In addition, the sonorant consonants /l/ and /n/ can function as syllable nuclei:

  • אײזל /ˈɛɪzl̩/ 'donkey'
  • אָװנט /ˈɔvn̩t/ 'evening'

[m] and [ŋ] appear as syllable nuclei as well, but only as allophones of /n/, after bilabial consonants and dorsal consonants, respectively.

The syllabic sonorants are always unstressed.

Comparison with German[edit]

In vocabulary of Germanic origin, the differences between Standard German and Standard Yiddish pronunciation are mainly in the vowels and diphthongs. Examples are the German long /aː/ as in Vater ('father'), which corresponds to /ɔ/ in Yiddish פֿאָטער /ˈfɔtɛr/, and the German long /eː/ and long /oː/, which correspond to diphthongs in Yiddish (/ɛɪ/ and /ɔɪ/). As in many Germanic languages, Yiddish lacks the German front rounded umlaut vowels /œ, øː/ and /ʏ, yː/. They are replaced in Yiddish by /ɛ/ (in case of the short /œ/), /ɛɪ/ (in case of the long /øː/) and /ɪ/ (in case of /ʏ, yː/) respectively. Diphthongs have also undergone divergent developments in German and Yiddish. Where Standard German has merged the Middle High German diphthong ei and long vowel ī to ei (pronounced /aɪ/), Standard Yiddish has maintained the distinction between them as /ɛɪ/ and /aɪ/, respectively. The German /aʊ/ (as in kaufen, 'buy') corresponds to the Yiddish /ɔɪ/ (in קױפֿן /kɔɪfn/); lastly, the German /ɔʏ/, as in Deutsch 'German') corresponds to /aɪ/ in Yiddish (in דײַטש /daɪtʃ/). Another difference is that the vowel length distinctions of German do not exist in Standard Yiddish. Consonantal differences between German and Yiddish include the deaffrication of the German affricate /pf/ to /f/ initially (as in פֿונט funt; also found in non-standard Western German) and /p/ medially or finally (as in עפּל /ɛpl/ and קאָפּ /kɔp/) in Yiddish, and the presence of final voiced obstruents in Standard Yiddish (but not Northern Standard German).

German Standard Yiddish
(and Central Yiddish)
(German = Yiddish)
short a /a/ /a/ machen, glatt = מאַכן, גלאַט /maχn, glat/
long a // /ɔ/ Vater, sagen = פֿאָטער, זאָגן /ˈfɔtɛr, zɔgn/
short ä /ɛ/ /ɛ/ Bäcker = בעקער /ˈbɛkɛr/
long ä /ɛː/ /ɛ/ ähnlich = ענלעך /ˈɛnlɜχ/
short e /ɛ/ /ɛ/ Mensch = מענטש /mɛntʃ/
long e // /ɛɪ/ Esel = אייזל /ɛɪzl/
short o /ɔ/ /ɔ/ Kopf, sollen = קאָפּ, זאָלן /kɔp, zɔln/
long o // /ɔɪ/ hoch, schon = הויך, שוין /hɔɪχ, ʃɔɪn/
short ö /œ/ /ɛ/ können, Köpfe = קענען, קעפּ /ˈkɛnɜn, kɛp/
long ö /øː/ /ɛɪ/ schön = שיין /ʃɛɪn/
short ü /ʏ/ /ɪ/ Brücke, fünf = בריק, פֿינף /brɪk, fɪnf/
long ü // /ɪ/ grün = גרין /grɪn/
ei /aɪ/ /ɛɪ/ (MHG ei ) Fleisch = פֿלייש /flɛɪʃ/
/aɪ/ (MHG ī ) mein = מײַן /maɪn/
au /aʊ/ /ɔɪ/ auch, Haus = אויך, הויז /ɔɪχ, hɔɪz/
eu /ɔʏ/ /aɪ/ Deutsch = דײַטש /daɪtʃ/


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kleine (2003), p. 262.
  2. ^ a b c d e Kleine (2003), p. 263.


  • Birnbaum, Solomon A., Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1979, ISBN 0-8020-5382-3.
  • Herzog, Marvin, et al. ed., YIVO, The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, 3 vols., Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1992–2000, ISBN 3-484-73013-7.
  • Jacobs, Neil G. (2005). Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77215-X. 
  • Kleine, Ane (2003). "Standard Yiddish". Journal of the International Phonetic Association 33 (2): 261–265. doi:10.1017/S0025100303001385. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Jacobs, Neil G. (2005). Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77215-X. 

External links[edit]