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Voices from the Shtetl

The Past and Present of the Yiddish Language in Russia

Contribution to the Congress

Klezmer, Klassik, jiddisches Lied. Jüdische Musik-Kultur in Osteuropa

Potsdam, 20 – 22 October 2002                                   

Tjeerd de Graaf (Frisian Academy and Groningen University, The Netherlands)

Yuri Kleiner and Natalia Svetozarova (St. Petersburg University, Russian Federation)


Yiddish in St. Petersburg: the Last Sounds of a Language

So many are speeches
Whose meaning is hidden,

Like magic they reach us,

Uncanny, unbidden.
The phrases come throbbing
With love and frustration,

Of misery sobbing

Or singing salvation.

Lermontov 1840, Liberman 1983 [i]



During the Congress in Potsdam we illustrated our contribution with a documentary film on the use of Yiddish in St. Petersburg. This film – one of a series of programs entitled De lêste lûden fan in taal (The last sounds of a language) prepared by the Frisian Broadcasting Company "Omrop Fryslân" – was first broadcast in November 2001 on national TV in The Netherlands. It illustrates one of the projects which was jointly elaborated by the Phonetics and Ethnolinguistics research group at Groningen University together with several institutions in St. Petersburg. This article includes contemporary background information pertaining to the material used as a basis for this series of film programs on ethnic minorities in Europe and Siberia and their languages. Several of these languages are endangered and practically extinct, as has been shown in the film Mameloshn for Yiddish in St. Petersburg.


Research on Endangered Languages

Research on minority languages in The Netherlands takes place at Groningen University and at the Frisian Academy. The primary involvement of the Frisian Academy lies in the domain of history, literature and culture related to the West-Frisian language, an autochthonous minority language in the Netherlands with more than 300.000 speakers. Users of its nearest relatives, the East- and North-Frisian languages in Germany are less numerous and these languages are endangered. Several other European minority languages, such as Sorbian, Gaelic, Cornish and Asturian belong to the same category. This also holds for Yiddish, which is practically extinct.

In the Frisian Academy the Mercator-Education project group has been established with the principal goal of acquiring, storing and disseminating information on minority languages in the European region. This group successfully implemented a computerised database containing bibliographic data and information about people and organisations involved with minority language issues. The Mercator regional dossiers provide descriptive information about minority languages in a specific region of the European Union. The information available, such as characteristics of the educational system and recent educational policies can serve several purposes. It is used by policy makers, researchers, teachers, students and journalists to assess developments in European minority languages as a first orientation towards further research or as a source of ideas for enhancing the educational tools in their own region.

At the moment we are preparing an inventory of the languages in the new states of the European Union, where the position of ethnic minorities is often related to language use and can give rise to serious political problems. This also holds true for the countries in the former Soviet Union. Our future Mercator activities include only the Baltic countries, but it is also important to collect information from the Russian Federation. There the historical and linguistic links of various language groups across the Eastern border of the European Union, such as for the Uralic languages like Finnish and Hungarian, play a role in our activities. They show that European culture has many links with Russia and Siberia 

In the Phonetics and Ethnolinguistics research group at Groningen University we are developing a multimedia web site The Languages of Russia with access to information on the more than hundred peoples and their languages spoken in the Russian Federation. The so-called Peoples of the North inhabit the tundra and the taiga in the Northern parts of European Russia, Siberia and the Russian Far East, and many of their languages are severely endangered and doomed to extinction. We pay particular attention to a few of these indigenous minorities, such as the Nenets and the Nivkh.

The results of modern field work in addition to the reconstructed data from archives provide us with important information which can be used for the preparation of language descripti­ons, grammars, dictiona­ries and edited collections of oral and written literature. During fieldwork expeditions to Northern Russia, Yakutia and Sakhalin we have studied the processes of language shift and language loss for some of the aboriginal peoples of the Russian Federation.

Archives contain not only written material, but also other data such as sound recordings. The sound recordings of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg constitute a source for a wide range of materials. Many of these recordings form one of the basic collections used in our joint projects with St. Petersburg. Our first project entitled The Use of Acoustic Data Bases and the Study of Langua­ge Change was carried out with finan­cial suppor­t from the organisati­on INTAS of the European Union [ii]. We reconstructed many of these sound recordings and made them available for further research, which is not only important for historical and cultural reasons, but also for language description and for the study of possible direct evidence of language change. In a second INTAS project, St. Petersburg Sound Archives on the World Wide Web some of the sound recordings were made accessible on the Internet and they can be used for further study.

In our third INTAS Project on The construction of a database on Balto-Finnic languages and Russian dialects in Northwest-Russia we are preparing an inventory of the Finno-ugric minority languages in the vicinity of St.Petersburg and the southern and middle parts of Karelia. They represent a specific linguistic picture where endangered languages such as Vepsian, Ingrian, Votic, Ingermanland-Finnish and Karelian and various types of Russian archaic dialects are still spoken in close proximity. This topic is also part of the series of programs on De lêste lûden fan in taal(The last sounds of a language) prepared by the Frisian Broadcasting Company "Omrop Fryslân". Here we consider in detail the background of the third film in this series called Mameloshn, which considers the use of Yiddish in St. Petersburgand our related investigation.

As a follow-up of our first INTAS project we initiated the joint project Voices from the Shtetl,which has been financially supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in the framework of the Russian-Dutch research cooperation during the period 1 March 1999 – 1 March 2002. One part of this succeeding project was interrelated to the old recordings in the sound archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg (see the contribution on the Magid collection by Natalia Svetozarova in this volume), and the ensuing other part to the study of the use of Yiddish by informants of Jewish descent.

In St. Petersburg most members of the Jewish population (according to the census data of 1989 more than 100.000 of the 5 million inhabitants, but at present a much smaller number) consider Russian their mother tongue. A few representatives of this group originate from those parts of the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Byelorussia, Latvia, etc.) where their first language was Yiddish, but after living in St.Petersburg for more than 30 years all or most of their daily communication takes place in Russian.  Since 1995 we have found representatives of this group and made sound recordings of interviews with them. Within the framework of the joint project Voices from the Shtetl the use of this language has been investigated by scholars from Groningen and St. Petersburg. Speech material in Yiddish has been analyzed in terms of phonetic interference, phenomena of language contact, code switching, folklore, etc.

During the first stage of this project, we anticipated to be fairly modest, namely, to find and record the speakers of Yiddish in St. Petersburg, who, as we had suspected, were the "last of the Mohicans". Indeed, our informants were not numerous and, due to their dependence on Russian, they cannot be regarded as real speakers of the language. Generally speaking, this is connected with the socio-linguistic situation in St. Petersburg and, in particular, that of the St. Petersburg Jews and their history, dating from the late 18th century, not only in St. Petersburg (founded in 1703), but also throughout Russia. More details on the history of the Jewish population of St. Petersburg are given in the book by Beizer (1989). A short description follows in the next section.


Historical background

Although stories have come down to us about individual Jews or Jewish settlements even in pre-Kievan Rus', [iii]the real history of the Russian Jews started after the three divisions, in 1772, 1793, and 1795, and the integration of Poland into the Russian Empire in 1815, as a result of which Russia acquired about a million Jews. It should be noted that this was not immigration, but the incorporation of the population together with the territories they had occupied. This is the chief distinction between the situation in Russia and European countries, including Poland and the Ukraine, where persecution was the main reason for the Jews to move. These acquired territories, which included part of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Lithuania, plus the provinces where Jews were allowed to settle, made up the Jewish Pale, which was a kind of ghetto, but on an Imperial scale. In time, Jews established themselves as subjects of the Crown, though with limited rights. One of the main restrictionsconcerned living outside the Pale, which naturally applied to St. Petersburg.

From the 18th century on, the attitude to Jewsvaried from acceptance based on ethnic tolerance (or rather indifference) under Peter the Great to hostility and persecution under Peter's less tolerant successors. For example, at the end of the 18th century (under Catherine the Great) Jews were allowed to reside in St. Petersburg only “by special permission”. In 1804, a committee established by Alexander I worked out “Regulations Concerning the Organizationof Jewish Life”. This was followed by setting apart certain categories of Jews, e.g. merchants and entrepreneurs, who were allowed to reside temporarily outside the Pale including St. Petersburg (Yukhnyova 1989: 90). On the other hand, the anti-Jewish actions under Nicholas I included the preparation for the expulsion of Jews from the capital (see Dubnov 1996: 436-437) [iv]. Each of the periods of lesser restrictions was characterized by an influx of a certain number of Jews to the capital, whereas some of them came to St. Petersburg as illegal immigrants. As a result, a small Jewish colony had formed in St. Petersburg by 1860.

From the very beginning, St. Petersburg was set apart from the rest of Russia not only as the capital, but also as a cosmopolitan city. Although Russians constituted approximately 92 to 94 per cent of the population in the eighteenth century and 82.9 per cent in 1890 (Yukhnyova 1989: 81, 83), the non-Russian minority included politically and economically important people and Jews were no exception. At the time of Peter the Great, some of them were among the tsar's closest associates, for example, the first Police-Master General, Anton Deviere. In later periods Jews also occupied important positions as financiers, merchants, craftsmen, etc.; a considerable portion consisted of university graduates [v]. In some cases, occupying a certain position required conversion to Christianity. Some of the converts were retired soldiers, who had been baptized when in the army and came to St. Petersburg to seek employment, which often meant working in a mixed milieu. Sometimes, the authorities closed their eyes on the fact that a position was occupied by a non-converted Jew. [vi]But baptism did not automatically mean breaking with the Jewry. According to Yukhnyova (1989: 92), the number of practicing Jews in St. Petersburg, who regarded Russian as their first language increased from 1,965 in 1881 to 4,360 in 1890, while the number of Jewish Christians with Yiddish as their first language decreased during the same period from 134 to 19. These people became a link between Jews and the non-Jewish population of St. Petersburg on the one hand, and the St. Petersburg and the Pale Jewry on the other.

Gravitation of Jews towards certain parts of the city (markets and trade centers, synagogues) reflected religious, cultural and linguistic preferences, especially those of the newcomers whose command of Russian was not sufficient for practical purposes. But this did not lead to the formation of any kind of ghetto or a Jewish quarter in St. Petersburg. On the contrary, the majority of St. Petersburg Jews were connected with the most prestigious parts of the town and those who lived there, such as merchants, artisans, doctors, bankers, etc.

In other words, living in St. Petersburg did not necessarily imply a complete break with the “Shtetl Culture”, but it did mean cultural and linguistic re-orientation. By the last quarter of the 19th century, St. Petersburg had become a third centre of Jewish culture in Russia, although of a very specific nature. Unlike Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) with its old Rabbinical (that is, Hebrew) traditions, or the newer, enlightenment Yiddish traditions of Odessa, the St. Petersburg Jewry had from the very beginning been connected with the Russian establishment, Russian culture, and language. It is no coincidence therefore that between 1860 and 1910, 21 of the 39 Jewish Russian periodicals were published in St. Petersburg. It is probably no coincidence either that the publication of Der Fraynd, the first Russian daily in Yiddish was transferred in 1909 from St. Petersburg to Warsaw. By 1910 the number of Jews who regarded Russian as their first language had reached 42 per cent. As a result, Jewish culture became bi-lingual (or even tri-lingual), with the prevalence of one of the elements, depending on the locality (Vilna - Odessa - St. Petersburg), and with a gradual shift of the focus towards Russian.

This tendency increased at the beginning of the 20th century in connection with the revolutionary movements and the influx of Jews into the capital, and especially after the 1917 revolution when many Jewish families moved from the Pale to big cities, attracted by the job opportunities offered by industrialization. The immigrants represented two generations of Jews: (a) those who had lived the greater part of their lives in the Pale and had had Yiddish as their first, sometimes only language, and (b) those who were born in the city or had come there at an early age with their parents and had been educated in Russian, with Yiddish as a family language. In addition, there were younger people who came to the city to break deliberately with the Shtetl and, through education, became part of the secular culture, which before World War II was associated primarily with Marxism and technology. Hence a high percentage of Jews had degrees in Marxist philosophy, economics, engineering, as well as medicine. Linguistically, they belonged to the generation of children, rather than parents, but many had been educated in Yiddish (and Hebrew) as well [vii].


The role of the Yiddish language        

At the family level, Yiddish played a certain role in preserving the traditions which, in other ethnicities, were associated with religion alone (e.g. Russian Orthodoxy) and thus depended primarily upon churches closed in the pre-War Soviet Union. Similar to religion or tradition, the language served as a link between generations performing a function that was primarily cultural.

Both before and during the Second World War, many Jews in St. Petersburg were assimilated culturally and linguistically, whereas before the War in other places Yiddish was taught as the first language in some schools, mostly in the Ukraine and Byelorussia.After the War, and up until Stalin's death in 1953, anti-Semitism precluded the Jews from learning Yiddish. Even speaking it was literally dangerous. Consequently, many children, born shortly before, during or shortly after the War had practically no command of the language.

The situation became somewhat different in the comparatively relaxed atmosphere of the period known as The Thaw (from Stalin's death to the early 1960s), when even in big cities Yiddish could be heard in public places among older people (mostly the first generation). But the Thaw period was too short to see the language revived. A growing climate of hysteria in connection with the anti-Israel policy of the Brezhnev government gave rise to a new wave of anti-Semitism which this time resulted in the emigration that occurred from the late 1960s well into the 1980s. The latter was not conducive to the maintenance or acquisition of Yiddish, first and foremost because many of the older Jews, who once had Yiddish as their mother-tongue (the last of the first and the second generation), left the country with their children and grandchildren (third and fourth generation respectively) whose primary interests were related to Hebrew and English.

Nowadays those who have not left the country represent three generations of Jews (second to fourth), only the oldest having some command of the language, which means that the Yiddish-speaking milieu in St. Petersburg has been almost completely destroyed.


The informants in St. Petersburg

Our research is based on several recent interviews and recordings made in St. Petersburg. The first recordings took place in October 1995, in the St. Petersburg Yiddish Club, established in 1993. The Club has about forty members; fourteen of them were interviewed; six were recorded. Judging by previous contacts with the members, these six informants were typical representatives not only of the Club, but more generally, of the St. Petersburg Yiddish speakers.

The second series of recording was made two years later (February 1997), in the Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg, with three participants, active members of the congregation, who were especially useful in supplying information concerning the community life.

All our respondents belong to the second generation, that is, those who came to St. Petersburg with their parents between 1920 and 1940. Now they are between 60 and 80 years old. Some had Yiddish as their first language as children, but they all have been bilingual since early childhood. Their parents spoke Yiddish as their first and sometimes their only language.

The interviews with these informants consisted of three parts:

  1. The respondents were asked to speak about themselves. Besides biographical facts, this was a spontaneous story, with a structure more or less common to all of them (date and place of birth; social status of their parents; terms of relationship; professional terminology, etc.).  For example, phrases like “I was born”, 'I worked' were repeated by all the informants. In addition, their narrative gave us information on their background as Yiddish speakers and/or learners (family, Yiddish school, cheider, etc.).
  2. They were given a list of 56 words to translate from Russian into Yiddish, in order to check their memories, so to speak, and to reveal dialect features. Part of the words was related to the Germanic component of Yiddish, part to the Hebrew component.
  3. They were asked to recite a poem, sing a song, or tell a story. Besides the knowledge of traditional material, our approach made it possible to reveal the linguistic competence of the speaker since this often remains hidden in non-spontaneous speech. 

Words forgotten in one type of assignment may emerge in another. Remarks like “Oh, how could I forget this?”, especially after having been prompted by other respondents were typical. This applies to words of a very familiar kind, e.g. ays 'ice' (informant no. 8). Some of the lacunae resulted from the strain of the interview situation, others are more difficult to interpret. For example, shvester-/bruderzun was given as a correspondence of 'a nephew' in a direct translation, although in spontaneous speech it was invariably plimenik (from Russian ‘plemyannik’).

All the respondents indicated a strong, although varying degree of influence from Russian on their Yiddish, which manifests itself mainly in the phonology (e.g. palatalization of consonants before the front vowels, intonation) and the lexicon (mixed vocabulary). This is similar to other cases of bilingualism as well. But the linguistic situation in St. Petersburg as a whole (that of a big city), has a specificity that makes it different from both other bilingual situations and those of Yiddish spoken in places of concentrated habitation of speakers (Shtetl Yiddish).


Interpretation of the linguistic data

Bilingualism generally presupposes orientation towards two codes which are different linguistically and may or may not be identical with respect to their culture-dependent features. This in turn implies acts of identity, that is, the adaptation of the speaker's linguistic behaviour to the behaviour of the group, with which the speaker identifies him or herself, as well as dissimilarity to the behaviour of the group from which the speaker stands apart (cf. Le Page, Tabouret-Keller 1985). To use the term of Roger T. Bell (1976:; 5.2.1), this variety of bilingualism is co-ordinated, at least ideally, which means that the two systems exist as two distinct entities. As early as 1930, L.V. Shcherba defined this kind of bilingualism (which he called “pure bilingualism”) as characteristic of two groups or two situations, which are non-overlapping either socially or linguistically (Shcherba 1974: 314).

This variety of bilingualism has been demonstrated by two of our respondents. The first one (no. 7, aged 64; born in St. Petersburg in a Jewish Orthodox family) had no mixture of Russian and Yiddish when telling his biography.  In the subsequent conversation concerning the fate of Yiddish in the contemporary world, he switched completely to Russian. It is possible that the choice of language (code) in this code switching depended, among other things, on the topic of conversation. The older respondent (no. 2; aged 74; born in Riga) did not use Russian when speaking about more complicated subjects; he regards Yiddish as his first language (mayn idisher loshn is mayn eygener loshn 'my Yiddish language is my own language'), although he had Russian as a second language in his childhood. In both cases, however, the predominant tendency is towards dependence on Yiddish grammar and vocabulary, but to a lesser extent on culture-dependent features.

In other speakers, the orientation is towards two overlapping codes, not so much culturally as linguistically. According to L.V. Shcherba, this kind of bilingualism (“mixed” bilingualism) implies, ideally, the speakers' equal command of both languages. This results in a specific language variety, in which each concept has two forms of expression, so that one single language finally emerges, but this language too has two forms of expression (Shcherba 1974: 315). In contemporary linguistics this is known as code-mixing, which is a fairly vague notion usually defined as lexical borrowing “heavier than normal” (cf. Hock 1986: 480-481). This would be true of an island language (in our case, Shtetl Yiddish) [viii]. But in the case of St. Petersburg Yiddish, the situation itself seems to be more complicated, both from the point of view of the mechanism and the result of language interaction.

In more familiar types of bilingual situations, both code-switching and code-mixing imply reliance on a certain standard, be it a literary standard or a dialect. But the Yiddish of St. Petersburg has no standard to rely on. Although our respondents could easily discern the Ukrainian from the Lithuanian/Byelorussian variety of Yiddish, no appraisal of a dialect in terms of “good and bad” has been observed. They are descendants of the speakers of different dialects of Yiddish, mainly Byelorussian and Ukrainian. After they had moved to St. Petersburg, their Yiddish-speaking milieu became limited to the family circle, including closer relatives. Therefore their language remains as it was when they were learning it as children. As our material shows, they basically adhere to the norms of these dialects. This does not hold true for all respondents, since some of them show a mixture of forms. Thus two of our speakers (nos. 5, 9), had Ukrainian  tug 'a day' and kimentog and kumen), yet retaining, at the same time, the Byelorussian breyt 'bread' and greys 'great' (cf. Ukrainian and standard broyt and groys)[ix]. This may have resulted from contacts with speakers of other dialects, in a situation when the speaker's language was not protected by a norm (hence, no proper code-switching procedure).  'to come' (rather than Byelorussian

It is only natural that in St. Petersburg the influence of Russian increased. But the degree of influence is different depending on the topic: it is greater when he or she speaks about present-day or recent events. For example, we recorded words denoting educational institutions (tekhnikum 'college of engineering', korablestroitel’nyj institut 'shipbuilding institute', vechernij rabfak 'evening classes'), professions (inzhener po tekhnike bezopasnosti 'safety engineer'), army service (pogranvojska 'borderguards'), industrial goods (shchetchiki 'electric meters').

It is less conspicuous when the same person speaks about his childhood or tells a story or a joke heard from his parents. Here everything changes: grammar, vocabulary and even phonetics and intonation.

Unlike systems with a certain boundary determined by the norms of a standard, the system of Yiddish in a situation such as that of St. Petersburg is open. It is also open from the other end, so to speak, for a Russian word can be used instead of any unknown Yiddish word. This applies, first of all, to words like zavod 'a plant' or shchetchik 'an electric meter' that may not have existed in the speaker's dialect, most probably rural. Likewise, a Russian borrowing may be used in the case of discrepancy. For example, words like plimenik, that corresponds to both bruder- and shvesterzun, is more convenient to describe the system of relations and, in the case of Russian Jews, is closer to Slavic than Germanic.

Other words are “unnecessary borrowings”, that is, they are substituted for the words unknown to the speaker. Some of them then become widespread, e.g. konchenkonch- 'to finish' plus the respective ending. Such words have Yiddish inflexions, e.g. plimenikes, so these are real borrowings, which are part of the Yiddish language. Other words are ad hoc formations typical of an idiolect [x]. that consists of the Slavic root

For example, speaking about his childhood informant no.6 cannot recall a Yiddish word for 'an orphanage'; after a pause, he says (in fact, persuades himself),  'I think, the word is the same', ...di mame iz geven aleyn ... avekgegeben ... PRIYUT ...YA NE ZNAYU, KAK ETO PEREVESTI ... PO MOYEMU NE PEREVODITSYA '... my mother  left alone... (she) gave (me) to an ORPHANAGE ... I DON'T KNOW HOW TO TRANSLATE  IT ... I THINK IT CAN'T BE TRANSLATED'.

There are other cases, when an entire Russian sentence or even a longer piece of utterance is used to express an idea, (informant no. 8) ... tsvey yor ... in armiye ... BELORUSSKO-POLSKOJ GRANITSE, POD MINSKOM ... MESTECHKO TAKOYE ZASLAVL - VOT - KSTATI ... tsvey yor tsurik bin ikh geven af dem kurort... '... two years the army ... ON THE BYELORUSSIAN-POLISH BORDER, NEAR MINSK... A SMALL TOWN CALLED SAZLAVL'- SO - BY THE WAY.. Two years ago, I was at the spa'.

According to some linguists, the use of an entire syntactic construction is code-switching (cf. Hock 1986: 480). But in our case, the two codes are too unequal, especially in terms of their lexical features. This again may be in favour of code-mixing, with the number of borrowings which, in a truly bilingual situation, might lead to a mixed language (content words of foreign origin and native phonology, morphology, and basic vocabulary; Hock 1986: 481-482), as in border linguistic communities or island languages.

The language of some of the St. Petersburg speakers of Yiddish also has a mixed vocabulary, but Yiddish grammar. This is especially obvious when a grammatically correct Yiddish sentence contains a Russian word or a stem, as is used by informant no. 5: ale PREDMETen zeynen geven af idish 'all the SUBJECTS were taught in Yiddish'. Here, the Russian word predmet 'a subject acquires the Yiddish plural ending. In the sentence ikh hob gelernt zekh in KORABLESTROITE'NYJ INSTITUT (informant no.8) 'I studied in THE SHIPBUILDING INSTITUTE', the latter is used in the nominative, that is without any coordination with the preposition. The general frame remains Yiddish.

To attain the status of a language, this use should become institutionalized (Hock 1986: 482). This definitely has not happened to St. Petersburg Yiddish. The same applies, to a certain extent, to a mixed dialect. Besides more or less distinct boundaries and, hence, a continuum, of which it is itself a part, a dialect, too, implies a certain degree of institutionalization. This is impossible in open systems like that of St. Petersburg Yiddish. 

The influence of Russian may even go as far as the grammar level, for example, informant no.3, ... hob geendigt in TRIDTSAT' SED'MOM GODU  'finished in the year THIRTY SEVEN' (the numeral is in Russian and in the dative); cf. shul VTOROJ STUPENI 'in the school of THE SECOND DEGREE' ('the second degree' is in Russian and in the locative).

Interestingly, the two types of interference (grammatically uncoordinated and grammatically coordinated) can be used beside one another in the speech of one and the same informant, for example, in no. 8, tsvey yor gedint POGRANVOJSKA (nom.) 'for two years (I) served in BORDERGUARDS' vs. ich hob gedint POGRANOKHRANE (loc.) 'I served in BORDERGUARDS'.

Very characteristic of the speaker's identification seem to be words like NU 'well', ZNACHIT 'that is', VOT 'so', that is, connective or pause filling particles. For example, one of our informants (no.5) finishes the interview by saying, NU, ZNACHIT' VOT is mayne BIOGRAFIJA. 'SO, this is my BIOGRAPHY'. Psycholinguistically, these particles, more than meaningful words, are suggestive of the importance of the language, to which they belong [xi]. This is a typically pre-language death situation. But does this necessarily lead to the death of the language?

All our respondents (and more generally, all the speakers of Yiddish in St. Petersburg) are speakers of Russian. The Yiddish they use is limited to some special situations (ritual, ceremonial, etc.). This includes the use of Yiddish as a secret language, for instance when parents speak it in order not to be understood by their children. Here Yiddish plays the role of a sacral language, but at a family level. In many instances, this is just a game, because the Yiddish of the parents is not good enough, especially with the children who have learnt German. Even meetings at the Yiddish Club or in the Synagogue are a similar game, more social than linguistic. In such situations, however, the speakers orient themselves to a certain norm, that is, a (hypothetical) variety of Yiddish, which is standardized with respect to phonology, grammar and lexicon. This variety is supposed to have a communicative function and a literary heritage; in other words, it possesses all the features that, in combination with the actual spoken language, create a situation reminiscent of diglossia, that is, an opposition of the High and the Low variety of a language (cf. Ferguson 1959). But this diglossia is of a very peculiar kind, for the standard is present here as an idea, which is largely abstract, rather than a reality. For this reason, prestige, which is a characteristic of the High variety, is associated with fluency (a better grammar and a richer vocabulary) and literacy [xii].

Strictly speaking, Yiddish in its St. Petersburg variety has no communicative value. The primary value of the language is semiotic, its primary function being to serve as a mark of belonging to a certain group (ethnicity, culture, religion, etc.). In this context, the most important features are culture-dependent. But the significance of these features should not be underestimated.


Concluding remarks

During our presentation at the 14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in San Francisco (Svetozarova et al. 1999), we stated the following: In the specific historical and sociolinguistic context of St. Petersburg, the variety of Yiddish spoken in that area can be expected to show various language contact phenomena (mainly interference from Russian), as well as dialect levelling, Our pilot study with a limited number of informants showed that our initial assumptions on these interference phenomena  are largely correct, but a more detailed analysis of a larger corpus is needed in order to give a thorough description of the variety of Yiddish used in St. Petersburg. This description will include purely linguistic material as well as tentative explanations for the differences between this specific variety and other forms of Yiddish still spoken on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

The last question in our questionnaire used during the interviews was about the prospects of Yiddish in St. Petersburg and, more generally, in Russia. Although the respondents were aware that the number of Yiddish speakers is decreasing and today is close to zero, most of them pointed out that interest in the language is growing. Some of them even believed that the language will be revived. This optimism is based on the conviction that Yiddish is spoken in Jewish communities all over the world [xiii].

Whether this conviction is grounded or not, Yiddish is a very important component of the Jewish ethnic identity. Probably, this holds true even to a greater degree than for Hebrew, which is just another foreign language, spoken in one country. Those who prefer to stay in Russia, but remain Jewish, for example members of the Yiddish Club in St. Petersburg, choose Yiddish. There are signs of increasing interest in the language among younger people. It is no coincidence that the children of our respondents sometimes only understand (or think they understand) Yiddish, while their grandchildren actually learn the language. The Synagogue in St. Petersburg runs courses in Yiddish, whereas Yiddish is taught at the St. Petersburg Hebrew University. At  the St. Petersburg University a group of scholars and students has started a Yiddishe Krais, a study group for reading Yiddish texts. This group exchanges information on Yiddish literature with a similar Yiddishe Krais at Groningen University, which is another useful activity within the framework of our joint Russian-Dutch project Voices from the Shtetl.

Groningen - St. Petersburg, March 2003



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            Dialektologie. Handbuch zur deutschen und allgemeinen Dialektforschung.  pp. 1018-1041.

Lermontov, M.1983.

            Major Poetical Works. Translation,

            Introduction and Commentary by Anatoly Liberman.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nieuweboer, R. and De Graaf, T. 1994.

            The Language of the West Siberian Mennonites.

            RASK Internationalt tidsskrift for sprog og kommunikation.

            Odense: Odense University Press.

Le Page, Robert, AndréTabouret-Keller. 1985.

             Acts of Identity. Cambridge: University Press.

Shcherba L.V. 1974.

             ‘K voprosu o dvuyazychii’.

             In: L.V. Shcherba. Yazykovaya sistema i rechevaya deyatel'nost'.

             Leningrad: Nauka: pp. 313-318.

Svetozarova, N.,Kleiner, Yu., De Graaf, T., and Nieuweboer, R. 1999.

            Russian-Yiddish: Phonetic Aspects of Languages Interference.

            In: Proceedings of the 14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences.

            San Francisco: pp. 1397-1401.

Yukhnyova N.V. 1989.

             ‘Yevrei Peterburga v period reform 1860-kh godov: sotsial'no- demograficheskaya kharakteristika’.

             In:   Peterburg i guberniya. Istoriko-etnograficheskie issledovaniya. Leningrad: Nauka.






[i]Anatoly Liberman is a well-know linguist who emigrated from St. Petersburg to the United States, where he is professor at the University of Minnesota. He also translates Russian poetry into English, such as the major poetic works by Lermontov. According to Roman Jakobson his translations are an impressive example of an attempt to render not only the imagery, but also the sound shape of the poet, with his meters, strophes, and rhymes (Lermontov 1983). The quotation can be found on page 195 of this book.



[ii]  INTAS is an independent International Association formed by the European Union, acting to preserve and promote the valuable scientific potential of the countries of the former Soviet Union through East-West scientific co-operation.



[iii]According to S.M. Dubnov (1996: 294-296), the earliest Jewish settlements in the territories that, at a later time, were to become part of Russia could be found in the Black Sea Greek colonies in the Crimea in the 1st c. A.D. Later stories connected with Jews in Kievan Rus' (10th-12th c.) are of a more or less legendary nature. Before the seventeenth century, only individual Jews are known who came from Lithuania and were mentioned in connection with heresies (Dubnov 1996: 369). After the unification with the Ukraine in 1654, Russia acquired a small Jewish population, those who preferred to stay in the country and become subjects of the tsar, rather than emigrate to Poland. The proportion of the Jewish population was very small, and the government took all measures possible to diminish it.



[iv]A list of St. Petersburg Jews made in 1826 in view of the expulsion gives the number of Jews known to be residing in St. Petersburg in 1826 as 370 (Yukhnyova 1989: 91).



[v]According to Yukhnyova (1989: 103), in 1869 financiers (bankers, money lenders, etc.), professionals (doctors, teachers, engineers, etc.) and students made up 8.5, 10.6 and 10.5 per cent of St. Petersburg Jewry respectively. Among the rest, 46 per cent were self-employed tradesmen and craftsmen, i.e. a socially active part of the population.



[vi]A.A. Ignatyev (1986: 61-62) describes the funeral of a Jewish employee in the Cavalier-Guard regiment where Jews were not normally admitted, as follows: "In the late 1870s, an expert stove setter named Oshansky came to the regiment to fix the stoves. Contrary to the rules and regulations, he was allowed to stay in the regiment and was regularly promoted and decorated for service. <...> His sons also were in the army, one as a trumpeter, another as a clerk, and the third as a tailor. <...> . For several hours, luxury coaches and sleighs were coming to the place where the body was lying, bringing ladies in furs and gentlemen in top hats. It turned out that, for many years, Oshansky had been at the head of the Jewish Congregation of St. Petersburg. On the next day, in the Cavalier-Guard manège, the military aristocracy mixed with representatives of the trade and the financial world and the guardsmen with Jewish craftsmen of St. Petersburg. After the Rabbi's funeral oration, six former regiment commanders lifted the coffin, while on the street, a platoon led by a sergeant-major and the regiment trumpeters were giving the last honors to the deceased."


[vii]A considerable percentage of intermarriages takes place in the pre-War period.



[viii]A similar situation (long isolation and close contacts with Russian) in the language of the West Siberian Mennonites has led to similar results (see Nieuweboer and de Graaf 1994)


[ix]The interpretation of the dialect data relies on Katz 1983.


[x]In the examples the Yiddish used by the informants is given in italic, the Russian in capital italic and the Yiddish suffixes in non-Yiddish words in bold italic letters.



[xi]Interestingly, in a short specimen of Plautdiitsch  given by Rogier Nieuweboer and Tjeerd de Graaf (1994), the proportion of such ‘connective particles’ (vot, vidimo, naprimer) is also relatively high.



[xii]Every meeting of the Yiddish Club includes reading a short story or an article. No wonder that one of the few persons who can read Yiddish is the president of the Club.


[xiii]To quote one of our respondents: “Wherever I travel, to Israel, to America, everywhere, I feel safe with Yiddish”.