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    Sten VIKNER
    Department of English
    University of Aarhus
    DK-8000 Århus C

Der yiddisher alef-beys it won't take long now!


Contents of this page:
The characters of the Yiddish alphabet
Phonetic charts
Dialect differences in the vowel system
Selected references
Other pages on Yiddish at this web site:
Three Yiddish phrases
Links to other Yiddish www-pages


Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters. Reading and writing is from right to left. There is no differences between upper and lower case, but there are differences between the printed form and the (hand-)written one.

Five letters are replaced by special forms at the end of a word:
khof becomeslanger khof Written forms: becomes
mem becomesshlos mem becomes
nun becomeslanger nun becomes
fey becomeslanger fey becomes
tsadik becomeslanger tsadik becomes

Six letters are only used in words of Hebrew origin:
veys khes kof sin tof sof

Yiddish name Printed letter Written letter Transliteration Phonetic Transcription
(when different
from transliteration)
shtumer alef (silent)
pasekh alef a
komets alef o
beys b
veys v only in words
of Hebrew origin
giml g
daled d
hey h
vov u
tsvey vovn v
zayen z
khes kh [x] only in words
of Hebrew origin
tes t

Yiddish name Printed letter Written letter Transliteration Phonetic Transcription Remarks
yud i / y [i] / [j]
tsvey yudn ey
tsvey yudn
vov yud oy
kof k only in words
of Hebrew origin
khof kh [x]
langer khof kh [x] only in word-final
lamed l
mem m
shlos mem m only in word-final
nun n
langer nun n only in word-final
samekh s
ayen e

Yiddish name Printed letter Written letter Transliteration Phonetic Transcription Remarks
pey p
fey f
langer fey f only in word-final
tsadik ts
langer tsadik ts only in word-final
kuf k
reysh r
shin sh [$]
sin s only in words
of Hebrew origin


t only in words
of Hebrew origin


s only in words
of Hebrew origin

Phonetic chart   --   CONSONANTS
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosives Voiceless p t k
Voiced b d g
Fricatives Voiceless f
s sh kh
Voiced v z zh
Affricates Voiceless ts
Voiced dzh
Nasals (all voiced) m
(all voiced) r y
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal

Phonetic chart   --   VOWELS
Monophthongs Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a
Diphthongs Front Central Back
Mid ey oy
Low ay

What I have done in these charts is something one should never ever do: I have confused letters with sounds (think of the million ways to pronounce the letters "ough" in English: bough, cough, rough, though, thorough, ...).

Taking letters (of the standard orthography) to represent sounds is less of a crime where Yiddish is concerned, however. In the standard orthography of Yiddish words of non-Hebrew origin, there is almost a strict one-to-one relationship between letters and sounds, e.g. the letter "kuf" represents a voiceless velar plosive, never any other sounds, and the voiceless velar plosive is represented by the letter "kuf", never by any other letters.

This is not as true for the vowels as it is for the consonants. As far as the vowels are concerned, there are some vowel sounds which can be represented by more than one letter, and also some vowel letters which can represent more than one sound. Furthermore, this varies from dialect to dialect, as can be seen in the following table (which is a very simplified version of the information given in Kiefer (1995:18-21), ignoring completely e.g. vowel length):

Dialect differences in the vowel system
and standard
High i [i] [i] [i] vint
u [u] zun
Mid e [ey] [e] lebn
[e] [e] esn
ey [ay] [ey] [ey] geyn
oy [oy] [oy] broyt
[ou] [oy] hoyt
o [u] [u] [o] shof
[o] [o] gold
Low a [a] [a] [a] vald
ay [ay] [ay] tsayt


Selected references:
  • Birnbaum, Salomo: 1988, Grammatik der Jiddischen Sprache, 5th ed., Helmut Buske, Hamburg.
  • Galvin, Herman & Stan Tamarkin: 1986, The Yiddish Dictionary Sourcebook, Ktav Publishing, Hoboken.
  • Katlev, Jan: 1986, "Jiddisch" in Helen Krag & Margit Warburg (eds.), Der var engang ... / Amol iz geven ... -- Jødisk kultur og historie i det gamle Østeuropa, Gyldendal, Copenhagen, pp. 93-110.
  • Katz, Dovid: 1987, Grammar of the Yiddish Language, Duckworth, London.
  • Kiefer, Ulrike: 1995, Gesprochenes Jiddisch: Textzeugen einer europäisch-jüdischen Kultur, Niemeyer, Tübingen.
  • Landmann, Salcia: 1988, Jiddisch: Das Abenteuer einer Sprache, Ullstein, Frankfurt.
  • Lockwood, William B.: 1995, Lehrbuch der modernen jiddischen Sprache, Buske, Hamburg.
  • Lötsch, Ronald: 1992, Jiddisches Wörterbuch, 2nd ed., Dudenverlag, Mannheim.
  • Weinreich, Uriel: 1968, Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, McGraw-Hill, New York (reprinted 1990: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York).
  • Weinreich, Uriel: 1971, College Yiddish, 5th ed., YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.
  • Weissberg, Josef: 1988, Jiddisch, eine Einführung, Peter Lang, Berne.
  • Zaretski, A.: 1926, Praktishe yidishe gramatik far lerers un studentn, Farlag "shul un bukh", Moscow.

    This document is http://www.hum.au.dk/engelsk/engsv/alefbeys.htm
First posted: May 1997 (as http://pinguin.philosophie.uni-stuttgart.de/ifl/Vikner/alefbeys.html)
July 2002 (here, i.e. http://www.hum.au.dk/engelsk/engsv/alefbeys.htm)
Last modified:  July 23, 2002
Comments and suggestions to Sten Vikner