When Yiddish Was Written in Latin Letters

In: Journal of Jewish Languages
Oren Cohen Roman University of Haifa Department of Jewish History Haifa Israel

Search for other papers by Oren Cohen Roman in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


Although Yiddish was traditionally written in Hebrew letters, texts in this language were also recorded using Latin characters in various circumstances, times, and places. These texts offer valuable information regarding pronunciation traditions and shed light on the processes of cultural history and sociolinguistics that acted as catalysts to their preparation. Various studies have discussed this phenomenon, yet they usually focus on one specific reason for using the Latin alphabet, such as ideological Romanization or linguistic adequacy. The following article offers for the first time a descriptive survey of the entire corpus, from the Early Modern Era to the present day. Paying close attention to the orthography used and the variety recorded, this article discerns within the studied corpus distinct categories reflecting the religious, linguistic, and ideological backgrounds of the texts’ authors and intended readers as well as technical factors pertaining to print. It also highlights the crucial role of the Hebrew alphabet in Yiddish culture.

1 Introduction: The Centrality of the Hebrew Alphabet to Yiddish

A review of Yiddish written texts, from the earliest extant medieval specimens (Fuks 1957; Timm 1977; Shmeruk 1978:9–12) to works from the Modern Era, demonstrates that by default, they were almost always recorded in Hebrew characters. Indeed, because the education of Ashkenazi Jews primarily focused on reading the Torah and the prayer book (Berner 2018:153–160), their literacy was necessarily based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In this respect, Ashkenazi Jews were similar to other language communities who also used the script of their sacred texts to record the language they spoke (Beider 2015:55). For instance, following their Catholic Christianization in the Middle Ages, the Germanic peoples switched from the use of Runes to the Latin alphabet in recording their vernaculars (Mieses 1919:30–36. See also Green 1994:36). Likewise, nearly all other Jewish languages, whether Semitic, Romance, Iranian, etc., were written using Hebrew characters (Weiser 2004:275; Rubin & Kahn 2016:3).

Arguably, from a linguistic perspective, the choice of alphabet for recording a language is primarily a convention that stands apart from the subsystems that comprise an oral language, such as lexicon, morphology, syntax, and phonology (Beider 2015:55). However, the cultural implications of this choice are highly significant. Since Antiquity the Hebrew letters were accorded a central and even venerated status within Jewish culture, and at times were considered symbols of the very essence of Jewish identity. This approach is widely evident in religious thought (notably Jewish mysticism), pedagogy, folklore, etc. (for example, Lipiner 1967; Hebrew version Lipiner 1989). In the case of Yiddish, the use of the Hebrew alphabet supported the construction of a community while simultaneously signaling to its readership a safe space (Timm 1987:386; Timm 2001:50–51). This positive approach appears, for example, in one of the most popular Yiddish songs, Mark Warshawsky’s (1848–1907) Afn pripetshik (‘On the Hearth’). This song describes a traditional kheyder ‘primary school’ setting, where young children begin to learn to read the alef-beys, the Hebrew alphabet. While encouraging the children to learn diligently, their teacher informs them that the Jewish letters contain much sadness but can also serve as a source of comfort (Leichter 2002:25–28).

Alongside the centrality of the Hebrew alphabet, Ashkenazi Jews perceived the Latin alphabet as inherently Christian and particularly foreign. This approach is expressed in the derogatory term galkhes, which was assigned to this script, emphasizing its use by galokhim ‘priests.’ The use of this term is documented as early as the fourteenth century and continues up to the current day. Consequently, most Ashkenazi Jews had no reading knowledge of the Latin alphabet until the Modern Era (Weinreich 2008:185, A164–166; Beinfeld & Bochner 2013:203).1 An illustration of this is found in a seventeenth-century rhymed Yiddish adaptation of the Book of Esther, authored by Ephraim Gumprecht Halevy. He explains in the introduction to his book that he was inspired to write it, having

seen some young men and maidens run about and buy books in galkhes, and they ask me to transliterate them, so that they may spend their time with such profanity. So I made up my mind that I wish to grant them something. […] Therefore, leave the books in galkhes, and follow such books [as this one].2

Halevy 1649:1b; Shmeruk 1978:33

While this text describes the general prevailing reality, it also implies that even in pre-modern times there were exceptions to that rule, such as the unique figure of Ephraim Gumprecht Halevy (Mieses 1919:320; Timm 1987:386–388).

2 Yiddish in Latin Letters

Despite the apparent norm of writing Yiddish in Hebrew letters, over the years I was surprised time and again to come across Yiddish texts written in Latin characters. As this article’s title suggests, the present study will focus on this phenomenon, which is an exception to the rule. Various studies have already addressed this topic, concentrating on distinct aspects of it, such as the emotionally charged discourse on the Romanization of Yiddish (e.g., Acher 1902; Kenig 1926; Gold 1977. See below the third category [2.3]), or the linguistic accuracy and consistency of the Romanized texts (e.g., Birnboim 1929; Kamenshteyn 1930; Weinberg 1995). These aspects are inherent to any study of the current topic and will be also addressed in the following lines, as will aspects of cultural and book history. However, the main goal of the current study is to offer, for the first time, a descriptive bird’s-eye view of the entire corpus at hand, discerning within it distinct categories that shed light on the contexts and settings in which Yiddish was recorded in Latin letters.

The first category consists of texts recorded within a non-Jewish discourse, beginning with Christian Germans in the Early Modern Period. The second category is comprised of texts written since the late eighteenth century by Jews who received their primary education in German and other European languages. The third category are texts produced since the late nineteenth century, resulting from modern campaigns for Romanization. The fourth and fifth categories were borne of practical constraints, mainly during the twentieth century: either a lack of Hebrew typeface for printing or an obligation to write from left to right when a text accompanies musical notations. Finally, the sixth category presents the use of Latin letters as part of artistic experimentation in interwar Europe. Only a few sample texts will be considered for each category, because the extant corpus, as marginal as it may be, is large.

Alongside genuine Yiddish written in Latin characters, there are also imitations of Yiddish in Latin characters. These were written especially by German speakers, often reinforcing antisemitic stereotypes, and are outside the scope of the current study (Klepsch 2008; Schäfer 2017). Likewise, the modern phenomenon of writing standard German (Hochdeutsch) in Hebrew characters which, in a sense, is a mirror image of the focus of this current study (Lowenstein 1979; Wiesemann 2005/2006:275–276), will not be addressed here.

In addition to delineating the circumstances in which Yiddish was written in Latin characters, this study also discusses the advantages that this practice offers. First, these characters record pronunciation in more detail than the Hebrew letters; for instance, the choice between vos or vus for ‮וואָס‬‎ ‘what’ may indicate which Yiddish dialect the writer spoke or considered worthy of recording. Second, the orthographic norm used in preparing Latin-lettered Yiddish texts sheds light on the cultural milieu in which they were prepared. Using the orthography of a circulating language (e.g., German or Polish) may indicate that the text’s author or intended readership received primary education in that language. Likewise, consciously refraining from using a certain orthography, at times forming an entirely new spelling standard, may indicate a dislike of that language (and the culture it accompanies), and/or an effort to distance Yiddish from it. In particular, the use (or disuse) of German orthography touches upon the prejudice that Yiddish is a corrupt version of German (Weiser 2016:xxx).

2.1 A Non-Jewish, German Readership

Proceeding in chronological order, the earliest examples of Yiddish written in Latin letters were the work of Christian Germans prior to the Modern Era.3 Motivated by curiosity, suspicion, a proselytizing agenda, etc., such authors wrote about the Jews’ religion, customs, literature, and often their easily intelligible vernacular. Their writings, which addressed German readers, presented Yiddish texts (ranging from single lexemes to entire works) in Latin characters. For instance, one J.W., perhaps a converted Jew, penned Jüdischer Sprach-meister (Jewish Language Tutor, 1714) (Finkin 2010; Elyada 2012:60). This is an antisemitic manual intended for Germans who “work with Jews,” consisting of invented conversations between two Jewish men. In this book, the Yiddish conversation is written in Latin characters on the verso pages, with a German translation on the opposite recto pages. Despite its hateful tone, due to its linguistic accuracy scholars consider it a valuable source for the study of eighteenth-century western Yiddish (Finkin 2010:1; Fleischer 2018:249–250). If the assumption that J.W. was a converted Jew is correct, he is the mirror image of the above-mentioned Ephraim Gumprecht Halevy, serving as an agent who allowed Christian readers access to Jewish texts through transliteration (or composing Yiddish texts in Latin letters). Needless to say, however, the perspective and dynamics of the two cases—a scribe transliterating entertaining literature for appreciative Jewish readers vs. a converted Jew ostensibly exposing the Jews’ ploys to the Christian majority—are very different.

A further example of Yiddish texts in this category is the Biblia Pentapla (Glüsing 1711), a synoptic edition of five Bible translations into Germanic languages intended for Christian study. Among the translations of the Old Testament that it contains is a transliteration of Joseph Witzenhausen’s Yiddish Bible translation (Witzenhausen 1679), produced, again, with the help of a Jewish agent—printer Joseph Athias (Wexler 1987:8). Unlike Jüdischer Sprach-meister, the Biblia Pentapla spells the Yiddish words as though they were contemporaneous German terms (e.g., und for ‮אונ׳‬‎ ‘and’; Abend for ‮אובינט‬‎ ‘evening’). However, words of Hebrew origin are transliterated and explained in brackets (e.g., Nevuah ‘prophecy’ is Aushauchung ‘breath/God’s spirit’ [Gen. 1:2]). This was apparently intended to assist readers in understanding the text, yet it obliterated many of the unique features of Yiddish.

Furthermore, certain entries in the Grimm brothers’ German Dictionary (Grimm & Grimm 2023) fit into this category: those with a Yiddish etymology, such as kauscher ‘kosher,’ schofel ‘vile,’ or schofer ‘ram’s horn.’ Although these are only single words, the dictionary indicates their pronunciation in the nineteenth century, when Yiddish in Western Europe was in decline (see below). Interestingly, the Yiddish etymology is always recorded in Latin letters, whereas the occasional Hebrew etymology is given in both Hebrew characters and Latin transliteration (Grimm & Grimm 2023).

Like the Biblia Pentapla, most of the extant materials in this category are transliterations of written texts rather than transcriptions of spoken language (e.g., conversations and orally transmitted songs and prayers. Jüdischer Sprach-meister, initially penned in Latin letters, is an exception to this rule). This seems reasonable, bearing in mind that the transliteration of written texts requires much less language proficiency than the transcription of live speech or the composition of entirely new texts. Such transliterations are particularly prevalent in German scientific literature, e.g., Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s Belehrung der Jüdisch-Teutschen Red- und Schreibart (‘Instruction in the Jewish-German Manner of Speaking and Writing’) (Wagenseil 1699), which sought to teach German speakers Yiddish as an effective means of proselytizing Jews.4 In this book, Yiddish texts are presented in the original Hebrew alphabet alongside their transliteration in Latin letters (e.g., Megillat Vintz, pp. 119–145. See Figs. 1–2). This could also assist the readers in learning how to read the Hebrew alphabet or practicing their command of it. Similarly to the Biblia Pentapla, Wagenseil’s transliteration also spells the Yiddish words as if they were contemporaneous German terms but retains the Hebrew elements and translates them in footnotes. Interestingly, Wagenseil transcribes Yiddish in Gothic script (blackletter), which was common for German texts at the time, but uses Roman type for the Hebrew-Aramaic words within that text. Like the Germanized spelling, this choice of font again implies that Yiddish was not seen as a language in its own right.

The practice of writing Yiddish in Latin letters for a German readership unable to decipher the Hebrew script has continued to the present day. Since the nineteenth century, German scholarly discourse has also included various aspects of Yiddish, and a range of publications include transliterations of Yiddish texts. For instance, Herman Lotze and Friedrich Zarncke both published excerpts of the Old Yiddish epic Shmuel-bukh in the late nineteenth century (Lotze 1870; Zarncke 1870; Birnboim 1929).

Figure 1: Megillat Vintz, Yiddish in Hebrew characters (Wagenseil 1699:120)

Figure 1

Megillat Vintz, Yiddish in Hebrew characters (Wagenseil 1699:120)

Citation: Journal of Jewish Languages 2024; 10.1163/22134638-bja10043

Used with the kind permission of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Abteilung Handschriften und Historische Drucke, Shelf mark: Bibl. Diez qu. 2534
Figure 2: Megillat Vintz, Yiddish transliterated into Latin characters (Wagenseil 1699:121)

Figure 2

Megillat Vintz, Yiddish transliterated into Latin characters (Wagenseil 1699:121)

Citation: Journal of Jewish Languages 2024; 10.1163/22134638-bja10043

Used with the kind permission of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Abteilung Handschriften und Historische Drucke, Shelf mark: Bibl. Diez qu. 2534

The Nazi persecution that culminated in the Holocaust took a heavy toll on Jewish studies conducted in German, including the murder of leading researchers and antisemitic tendencies within the field. Nevertheless, it was unsuccessful in ending such scholarship entirely. Most notably, since the 1960s, the University of Trier (Germany) has become a leading center for the study of Yiddish, and its publications of texts mainly use Latin transliteration. This practice has many advantages for the analysis of the German component of Yiddish, allowing, for instance, a better distinction between vowels than the Hebrew letters facilitate (Dreeßen 1971:2–8. See also Frakes 1989:105–163). Nevertheless, like other texts mentioned in this category, it seems that its raison d’être is to address German speakers (scholars in this case), as implied by the explanation of each Hebrew word within the transliterated texts. An impressive example of such transliteration is Erika Timm’s edition of the novel Paris un Wiene, published parallel to her co-edited Hebrew-character edition of the same work (Timm 1996; Shmeruk & Timm 1996).

2.2 Jews Literate Only (or Primarily) in Latin Letters

The second category of Yiddish transliterations also originated in the German-speaking realm, beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century. The standardization of the German language and the general shift to the new standard, coupled with the maskilic struggle for emancipation and their campaign against Yiddish, served as the frame for the collapse of western Yiddish. Ashkenazi Jews in Western and Central Europe shifted to using German and other European languages, such as Dutch and French (Shmeruk 1978:147–175).5 Trends of linguistic assimilation also occurred in Eastern Europe but were never complete, and prior to the Holocaust Yiddish (written in Hebrew characters) was still the mother tongue and daily vernacular used by millions of Jews there.

As closely related languages, the shift from Yiddish to German was relatively easy, although Jewish literacy in the Hebrew alphabet brought about a range of standard-German publications in Hebrew characters (see section 2, “Yiddish in Latin Letters,” above). However, the new generation of Jews who received their elementary education in German (or French, Dutch, etc.) were necessarily primarily literate in the Latin alphabet. Some of them could nevertheless still understand or even speak Yiddish. Thus, when such an Ashkenazi Jew occasionally wished to write Yiddish—be it a quaint word, a religious term, a proverb, or even longer texts—they used Latin letters. The works of Meier Woog (1833–1896), who wrote plays and humoristic texts in Alsatian Yiddish, are good examples of this category (Shmeruk 1978:171–172). For instance, his parody of the Passover Haggada is entirely in Latin characters, except for the minor use of the letters ‮ח‬‎ and ‮ק‬‎ to refer to the responsorial singing between cantor (‮חזן‬‎) and congregation (‮קהל‬‎) (Woog 1878). This work undoubtedly targeted a Jewish readership; indeed, understanding it required intimate acquaintance with Jewish culture and religious practice, including the active (parodic) responsorial singing of traditional melodies.

Abraham Tendlau’s anthology, Sprichwörter und Redensarten deutsch-jüdischer Vorzeit (Proverbs and Idioms from the Jewish-German Past, Tendlau 1860), is a landmark work in this category. The book is mainly written in German, and it is laden with western Yiddish idiomatic expressions, which are spelled out in Latin letters and according to the rules of German orthography (see Fig. 3). However, it retains the original pronunciation, apparently from central Germany (Fleischer 2018:266–267), e.g., Will aach lebe’! ‘He also wants to live!’ (249); Der Dalfen hot die maaschte (meiste) Kinder! ‘The poor man has the most children!’ (261. See Fig. 3). Likewise, Jewish writers included western Yiddish within (mainly scholarly) Dutch and French books.6 Interestingly, in the latter books, too, the Yiddish words are commonly spelled according to the rules of German orthography, apparently driven by the notion that Yiddish is close to German. These texts nevertheless retain the original pronunciation; for instance, in the Dutch Jerŏsche: E messer is e ssekone in der hand von e choochem un sicher in der hand von e schoute ‘A knife is a danger in the hands of a wise man and safe in the hands of a fool’ (Beem 1959:162); whereas Juifs en Alsace records the Alsatian Yiddish dialect: Baavaunausäinu horabim esch das gscheje ‘This happened due to our great transgressions’ (Raphaël & Weyl 1977:323).

Figure 3: Yiddish Proverbs (Tendlau 1860: 261)

Figure 3

Yiddish Proverbs (Tendlau 1860: 261)

Citation: Journal of Jewish Languages 2024; 10.1163/22134638-bja10043

Used with the kind permission of the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem 63B3472

As in the previous category, at times the authors of the works were themselves able to use the Hebrew alphabet without difficulty. Their decision to write in Latin characters thus implies that most of their Jewish readers, by contrast, preferred or were only versed in reading texts in Latin characters. The recurring documentation of popular literary genres, in particular proverbs and humor, seems to reflect the constantly declining role of Yiddish in those communities, limiting its existence to orally transmitted short texts, as well as ultimately assigning it the role of a “funny” language.

Texts belonging to this category were also produced in Eastern Europe, mainly in the twentieth century, often relating to Yiddish theater. Depending on where they were printed, such texts follow the rules of orthography common to Polish, Romanian, etc.7

Yiddish texts printed in Cyrillic letters also exist, although they constitute quite a rare occurrence.8 However, unlike in Western Europe, where most of the Yiddish texts produced since the nineteenth century were in Latin letters, in Eastern Europe such texts are the exception to the rule, and the lion’s share of Yiddish texts up to the Holocaust continued to be written in Hebrew script (Timm 2001:51).

Indeed, even in the present day some people can understand and speak Yiddish yet cannot read it in Hebrew characters (or do so with difficulty), finding the use of Latin characters much easier. This situation is often reflected in emails, instant messaging platforms, social media, etc. It is usually connected to informal, private correspondence, but it may be used in literary contexts as well. The people who write such texts often did not learn any standardized form of Yiddish and their writing reflects the spoken variety they know, occasionally influenced by the orthography of the hegemonic language amid which they live.9

2.2.1 The Grey Area between the First Two Categories

Writing in Latin characters makes the Yiddish text accessible to non-Jewish readers and as such it may address them, as in the first category. Indeed, Immanuel Olsvanger, in his Rosinkess mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds: Olsvanger 1931)—a book about Eastern European Jewish folklore written in Yiddish in Latin letters10—admits his desire to appeal to a non-Jewish readership:

Fregen wet ir misstom fregen, far woss schrajb ich epess a jidesch buch mit gojische êjssjess? […] Rejschiss kol dowor, wil ich, as dem buch solen lejenen nit nor iden. […] dem erschten druk hoben aussgekêjft sejer fil nit idesche leser.

You will probably ask, why do I write a Yiddish book with non-Jewish letters? First of all, I want not only Jews to read this book. The first edition sold out, mainly bought by non-Jewish readers.

Olsvanger 1931:v

Thus, we must ask what distinguishes the two categories. The primary distinction concerns time. The first category existed decades if not centuries before the second. Moreover, the second category is clearly emic, defined by its authors, who were Jewish and native speakers of Yiddish, or at least descendants of native speakers. The first category, by contrast, is defined by its primary addressees: non-Jewish readers, mostly German speakers, who were literate only in the Latin alphabet. The first category is largely etic.

However, a significant number of texts fail to accord with either of these two categories or seem to fit into both. These are mainly texts in eastern Yiddish, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which were produced by Jews for non-Jewish readers or a mixed readership. Examples include folk tales and proverbs that were published by Jews in general German-language ethnographic platforms such as Der Urquell: Eine Monatsschrift für Volkskunde (e.g., Benczer 1897; Ehrlich 1897; Schaffer 1897). To a certain extent Tendlau’s above-mentioned book also falls between the cracks. Indeed, when the writer is a scholar, is his Jewish lineage of significance? These questions become more complicated when a work is authored by two people, one of them Jewish, and the other Christian (e.g., Staerk & Leitzmann 1923).

The collection of Jewish folk songs by S.M. Ginzburg and P.S. Marek, printed in St. Petersburg in 1901 (Ginzburg & Marek 1991), represents an example of this liminality. The title page and introduction are in Russian, but the songs themselves appear in two parallel columns on one page, the left(!) in Hebrew characters, and the right in Latin transliteration. The orthographic rules are based on standard German (with some exceptions, e.g., ei stands for ej not aj). The standard of pronunciation is the Lithuanian dialect (Ginzburg & Marek 1991:29), including the pronunciation of the diphthong ‮וי‬‎ as ej vs oj (e.g. greisser ‘big,’ varkeiff ‘sell,’ 321*), apparently stemming from the authors’ own dialect and the fact that the work was printed close to the territory in which that dialect was spoken.

Another central work in which modern East European Yiddish was transliterated by a Jewish author for a wide readership is Ignaz Bernstein’s 1908 collection of Yiddish Proverbs (Bernstein 1908). On the right-hand page (left-to-right books’ recto), it provides the proverbs in Hebrew characters with occasional explanations in Yiddish. On the opposite page, the proverbs appear in Latin transliteration, with occasional explanations in German. Each page clearly addresses a different readership, Yiddish- or German-reading, respectively (Bernstein 1908:xii). In the introduction, Bernstein refers to his orthographic and orthoepic standards (Bernstein 1908:xii–xiv): his Hebrew-letter orthography follows the common and contemporaneous standard of Yiddish journalism, and the Latin transliteration imitates it (thus, for instance, ale ‘all’ is spelled with only one lamed/L, unlike the German alle). His pronunciation standard admittedly adheres to the “Podolian-Wollynian” (Ukrainian) dialect, justifying this based on the fact that it was one of the most commonly spoken Yiddish dialects. However, at times Bernstein ‘Germanizes’ his Yiddish pronunciation. For instance, the standard Yiddish ‮יי‬‎ can be transliterated as ej (schtejn ‘stone,’ No. 2650) but also ei (kleine ‘small,’ No. 2645); the standard Yiddish ‮וי‬‎ is at times oj (lojft ‘runs,’ No. 2648) and at times au (sauermilch ‘sour milk,’ No. 2639). By contrast, the standard Yiddish ‮אָ‬‎ is almost always u (wus ‘what,’ No. 2658; chusid ‘Hasid,’ No. 2644), and for the standard Yiddish ‮ו‬‎ he systematically uses ü (kümt ‘comes,’ No. 2643). Interestingly, Bernstein (1908:xiii) states that Yiddish words from the Hebrew component are transliterated according to how they are read from the Torah, and not as they are commonly pronounced in Yiddish, i.e., what Max Weinreich calls ‘whole Hebrew’ and ‘merged Hebrew,’ respectively (Weinreich 2008 (vol. 2):351–353; see also Sadan 2012; Niborsky 2012). Thus he wrote, for instance, ojlom, not oylem ‘public, audience’ (189), and schaboss, not shabes ‘Saturday’ (263).

2.3 Ideological Romanization

During the nineteenth century, the notion that the Latin alphabet represents a western identity, associated with progress and enlightenment, gained traction in various countries. This in turn generated efforts towards script reforms that would entail a full shift to Latin letters.11 It should be noted that Romanization was also motivated by a cosmopolitan socialist agenda, seeking one script for all humanity (Kamenshteyn 1930:124–125). In the Jewish realm, Ladino underwent Romanization (and Cyrillization in Bulgaria), driven by both ideology and practical factors (because many of its speakers were educated in French and Italian schools—i.e., a phenomenon typical of the second category mentioned above [2.2]) (Bunis 1999:19). Some voices even called for the Romanization of Hebrew, and although they bore some fruit, they were ultimately unsuccessful (Nedava 1985; Raizen 1987).

Advocates of an ideological and conscious Romanization of Yiddish are attested from the late nineteenth century onwards. At first confined to heated debates among Yiddishists who both supported it (e.g., Acher 1902:463–464; Dr. X 1909; Joffe 1909; Tirski 1923; Kenig 1926) and objected to it (e.g., Ben Adir 1912; Frumin 1909; Valt 1909; Miezes 1910; Pinski 1912; Weinreich 1930; Gold 1977:307–369), this idea translated into practical results at various times and in a range of places. Yet eventually it met with resistance wherever it was implemented and ended in failure.

The category of Romanization differs from the second category described above in that it was a conscious and voluntary choice, favoring the Latin script over the Hebrew one, by people who were literate in both alphabets. Moreover, in the second category Yiddish was seen as a ‘heritage language’—a nostalgic matter for Jews literate in and primarily using non-Jewish majority languages such as German and French. By contrast, the advocates of Romanization saw Yiddish as a language of culture that should play a central role in the Jewish experience in years to come, seeking also a more dignified place for Yiddish belles-lettres within the international literary arena (Weinreich 1930:32). Likewise, in his opening speech at the Czernowitz Conference, the author I.L. Peretz called for a Latin transliteration of “our finest cultural goods” in order to raise the general appreciation of Yiddish literature (Di ershte yidishe shprakh-konferents 1931:76–77).

Advocates of the Romanization of Yiddish commonly voiced the same arguments, often criticizing their opponents’ desire to cling to the Hebrew script as “sentimental” (e.g., Kenig 1926:765). The most important argument in favor of Romanization, as stated above, derived from a worldview that classified cultures as either ‘civilized’ or ‘uncivilized.’ This included a call for the modernization of Yiddish (and, consequently, of the Jews themselves). As stated above, a further aspect of this same argument was the assumption that through Romanization, Yiddish literature would become accessible to non-Jewish readers (apparently German speakers), thus achieving greater acclaim.

A second argument promoting the voluntary and conscious Romanization of Yiddish was linguistic in nature. Some claimed that the Hebrew alphabet cannot fully convey the sounds of Yiddish, since Yiddish is a Germanic language also containing Slavic lexemes, and it thus ought to be written using the Latin alphabet, which is better suited to it.

According to a third argument raised in this context, in the contemporaneous reality, many (Jewish) speakers of Yiddish were not literate in the Hebrew script, and Romanization would prevent them from further assimilation. This argument is practical rather than ideological, and therefore belongs to the second category above.

An early example of the first argument can be found in Nathan Birnbaum’s 1902 essay, written in German:

our “Hebrew” alphabet is not Hebrew but Assyrian. Therefore, writing is no longer a national cultural asset […] but a piece of civilization that one freely invents. […] the so-called Latin script […] became the symbol of the civilized community of the European nations. It is no coincidence that in Europe only the backward peoples stubbornly cling to non-Latin alphabets. […] the Jewish people will be civilized in European terms or not at all. Hebrew and Yiddish written in European letters are also able to present the concept of an independent Jewish cultured nation to the non-Jewish peoples more forcefully and emphatically than hundreds of Zionist magazines can. It also binds the Jewish masses and their spiritual advisers with unembellished but iron-strong chains to their national identity as well as to the great European community of civilization.

Acher 1902:464

The second, linguistic argument can be found, for instance, in Yuda Joffe’s words (emphases in the original):

Our alphabet possesses signs for the sounds of the language to which it belongs—the Holy Tongue [Hebrew]. However, Yiddish currently not only possesses the sounds of Middle High German, to which it [the Hebrew alphabet] was brutally adjusted. It [Yiddish] possesses also sounds from Polish and Russian, contained within the words it borrowed after the Jews had left Germany. Needless to say, an alphabet from 2,500 years ago, of a language with a totally different character, is in no way suited to all these new sounds.12

Joffe 1909:30

The third argument can be noticed in Unzer shrift: Zshurnal far Literatur un Kunst (‘Our Script: Journal for Literature and Art’), a journal advocating the conscious and ideological Romanization of Yiddish (Unzer shrift 1912:11). Edited by Berl Botwinik and Mikhl Kaplan, its first (and only) issue appeared in New York in 1912 and contained varied literary content printed in Latin characters (see Fig. 4). It also had a Hebrew-character section, which included letters of support from leading Yiddishists, among them Alexander Harkavy, Avrom Reyzen, and Haim Zhitlowski, as well as an editorial explaining the journal’s ideology.13

Figure 4: Title page of Unzer shrift

Figure 4

Title page of Unzer shrift

Citation: Journal of Jewish Languages 2024; 10.1163/22134638-bja10043

Used with the kind permission of the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem PA43535

The orthography used in Unzer shrift tried to break free of German, for example by using x for ‮ח‬‎ (not ch), sh for ‮ש‬‎ (not sch), and oi for the diphthong ‮וי‬‎, represented in German with eu. However, it retained some typical German traits, for instance, the silent h in words such as berihmte ‘famous’ and ihm ‘him’ (Unzer shrift 1912:2–3). The pronunciation standard (orthoepy) was similar to the YIVO standard set years later (e.g., wos ‘what’ and woinen ‘to dwell’—in YIVO’s transliteration, vos and voynen) (Schaechter 1999).

Another attempt to publish a journal in ideologically Romanized Yiddish materialized with the single issue of Unhoib (‘Beginning’) in Vienna in 1923. Its editorial as well as its first essay were dedicated to the topic of Yiddish in Latin letters, repeating similar arguments to those stated above. Here too, the orthography tried to break away from German norms, notably setting single letters for the consonants that German represents with two or three letters. This was accomplished by applying Czech norms (where the ‘hook’ diacritic often replaces digraphs), e.g., c for ‮צ‬‎ (IPA t͡s), š for ‮ש‬‎ (IPA ʃ), and ž for ‮זש‬‎ (IPA ʒ) (Estraykh 1999:129).14 This effort was not consistent, with ch used for ‮ח‬‎. The dialect that Unhoib recorded is mostly Polish, perhaps due to Vienna’s geographical proximity to the territory where that dialect was spoken. Here is a sample:

Mir gloiben, az nor durch šraiben jidiš in lat. šrift wet men kenen einmul far alemul zich rainigen fyn dem forwurf, az jidiš, in welcher šprach es dichtet Jehoioš—iz a “žargon.” Oich bai di fremde felker ken dadurch antstehen a derech-erec yn bakenen zich mit jidiš, welches hot dercu b’li-sufek, pinkt aza barechtigung wi dus holendiše, uchdoimeh.

We believe that only through writing Yiddish in Latin letters can we, once and for all, clear ourselves from the allegation that Yiddish, the language in which Yehoash writes poetry, is a ‘jargon.’ This can also arouse respect and acknowledgement among foreign nations towards Yiddish, which is undoubtedly entitled to this as much as Dutch and other languages are.

Tirski 1923:4

From the 1920s, the Romanization of Yiddish was also considered in the Soviet Union (Kamenshteyn 1930; Zaretski 1930; Estraikh 1999), at a time when dozens of other languages there had shifted to Latin script.15 Supported notably by Ayzik Zaretski (1891–1956), the campaign to Romanize Yiddish gained some momentum in the early 1930s but was ultimately condemned by the Soviet authorities in 1934. This brief period yielded a few publications, for instance, Moisei Beregovski’s Jidišer muzik-folklor (Beregovski 1934), in which not only the text under the notations (see category 5 below [2.5]) but also the song titles and the book’s introduction are written in Latin characters.16 The publishers clearly addressed this matter:

Derdoziker bux deršajnt in cvej špraxn—in jidiš un rusiš. In jidiš drukn mir im mit der latajnišer transkripcie, vajl in gegebenem fal is[!] dos texniš bakvemer. Axuc dem hobn mir inzinen gehat dem bašlus fun der Centraler jidišer ortografišer komisie vegn dem, az visnšaftlexe ojsgabes darfn behadroge aribergefirt vern afn najem, latajnišn alefbejz.

This book is published in two languages—in Yiddish and in Russian. In Yiddish we print it in Latin transcription, because in this case it is technically more convenient. Moreover, we are aware of the decision made by the Central Yiddish Orthographic Committee that scientific publications should gradually shift to the new Latin alphabet.

Beregovski 1934:4

Also here, the orthography used was not German