An Overview of Three Yiddish Dictionaries

The Yiddish language is one of the world's major languages with over 1.7 million speakers across many countries from the United States to Germany to Australia and, of course, Israel. It is a living language in the sense that it lends and borrows from other languages, thus, necessitating a Yiddish dictionary suited to the times. In the years since the first Yiddish dictionary was written in 1542 by Elia Levita, many more comprehensive monolingual and bilingual Yiddish dictionaries have been published.

It must be noted that the Yiddish language also has its own set of register - slang or colloquial, literary or scientific - as well as dialect depending on the place of origin and use. Thus, Yiddish dictionaries can be found in languages like English, Belorussian, French, Russian, German, Polish, Dutch, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Spanish, Japanese, and Ukrainian as well as other Yiddish reference works. The following three Yiddish dictionaries, however, are the most well-known because of the breadth and depth of the work, which makes them suitable for both native Yiddish speakers and students of any level.

Harkavy's Dictionary

As published by Alexander Harkavy in 1891, Harkavy's dictionary was the first comprehensive dictionary of its kind where translations from Yiddish to English were concerned, thus, its title of Jewish-English Dictionary. A book and several editions will soon follow until the landmark bidirectional 1910 dictionary was published.

Harkavy's dictionary is a very valuable resource for anyone wishing to learn Yiddish words and their meanings for many reasons. For one thing, it is still the most inclusive Yiddish to English dictionary available even in the online age. It records many loanwords in languages like Hungarian and Slavic, which are in wide use in many parts of the world but may not be acceptable to others in the community. Plus, these words are provided with definitions just as these were defined by the native speakers themselves without passing judgment.

For another thing, the dictionary also uses modern spellings of words, which eliminates the difficulty of looking up words just as these are written in modern Yiddish texts. It also makes for easy referencing of words to the previous editions of Harkavy's dictionary.

Despite these merits, however, Harkavy's dictionary has its limitations as well. For example, an English speaker learning Yiddish or a Yiddish speaker learning English cannot rely on the dictionary simply because it is aimed at the latter, not the former. Thus, when you are an English speaker, the Yiddish word will come with an oft-lengthy explanation instead of the equivalent word or phrase. Conversely, Yiddish words are typically glossed over with just one English word, which only muddles the mind of the uninitiated.

Still, you must have a Harkavy's dictionary on hand for its excellent reference purposes. Just be sure to supplement it with other Yiddish dictionaries to offset its minor demerits.

Weinreich's Dictionary

Published in 1968, Weinreich's dictionary is the closest reference work toward a standard bilingual dictionary for English speakers. In fact, it is the first Yiddish dictionary that English speakers seeking to learn the equivalent of an English word in Yiddish will consult, thanks to its breadth, depth and quality.

Said breadth is evident in the thousands of expressions, slang phrases and idioms contained in the dictionary, which cannot be said of the Harkavy's dictionary. Looking for said expressions is also easy as arrangement is through the key English phrase, a fact that no other Yiddish dictionary can equal as yet.

Just like the Harkavy Yiddish dictionary, Weinreich's dictionary also utilizes modernized spelling. But it has up the ante over Harkavy's dictionary because the spelling rules are consistent, not to mention that it provides common Yiddish words for its equivalent English terms. The fact that it is also available online adds to the Weinreich's popularity.

However, Weinreich's dictionary has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, most of the German loanwords were excluded from the dictionary because Weinreich employed the prescriptive method. Thus, his perception of what constituted "real" Yiddish words had great impact on which of these words appeared in the dictionary.

To add confusion, Weinreich also added his own invented words to his Yiddish dictionary. Most of these were neologisms that he developed after World War II and that had no standard Yiddish equivalent. Indeed, users of this Yiddish dictionary who are still in their initial stages of learning the language often must cross-reference the words just to be on the safe and sure side.

Niborski's Dictionary

Published in 1997, the Yiddish dictionary authored by Yitskhok Niborski is an indispensable guide to Yiddish words with Hebrew and Aramaic origins. In contrast, the Weinreich dictionary is very weak on this aspect, which reinforces the need to possess not just one Yiddish dictionary but two in order to fully understand and appreciate the language in its entirety.

One of the latest dictionaries to come out was the Yiddish-French unidirectional dictionary. It is generally considered one of the best, if not the best, Yiddish dictionaries because of its melding of the best qualities between Weinreich's and Harkavy's dictionaries. Thus, readers have the advantage of a wide range of Yiddish words with an equally impressive register. And since it was developed in 2002, the most of the latest Yiddish words are also included in the dictionary.

Again, it cannot be overemphasized that no two Yiddish dictionaries is ultimately better than the other simply because each one has its pros and cons. The best thing we can do as students of the Yiddish language is to get as many Yiddish dictionaries as possible preferably the three abovementioned and then use all of them for cross-referencing.

No matter what the Yiddish dictionary, however, you will find that many of its words are in the English dictionary with the same or different meaning, pronunciation and often spelling as well. Just to name a few examples, you have "chutzpah" (in Yiddish, it is not a compliment as it means brazen arrogance but in English it means great confidence) and klutz (in Yiddish a block of wood but in English an extremely clumsy person).