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The creation of the Yiddish language began about ten centuries ago when Jews from northern Italy and France migrated to towns in the Rhine valley, near present-day Lorraine.  They adopted various medieval Germanic dialects, mixing in earlier Romance and Hebraic/Aramaic elements.  They wrote their new language in Hebrew characters, from right to left.

Beginning about 1100, the Crusades, Black Plague, and persecution drove them eastward and northward toward Central and Eastern Europe, where they imported Slavic words into their budding Yiddish, and their new language was adopted by already-resident Central and Eastern European Jews.  By 1500, when the printing press was invented, Yiddish was standardized in the same sense that English is standardized today -- printed in an almost uniform manner throughout Europe (pan-European), but with different dialects of pronunciation in different regions.  This Yiddish writing standard persisted until the early twentieth century, when YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) created the new standard that is used today.

There are four main Yiddish dialects:  WESTERN (Germany, BeNeLux, Alsace-Lorraine, Switzerland);  LITHUANIAN (Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia/Estonia, North-Eastern Ukraine, Suwalki gubernia); POLISH/GALICIAN (Poland, Central and Western Galicia);  and UKRAINIAN (Most of Ukraine, parts of Eastern Galicia, Romania, and Southeastern Poland).  There is also a transitional Yiddish (between the Western dialect and the other three) included in Bohemia, Moravia, west Slovakia, and west Hungary, as well as Hungarian lowlands, Transylvania, and Carpathorussia;  all of these are frequently lumped with the three Eastern Yiddish countries.

During the Age of Enlightenment (1700-1900), Western and West-Central Jews (particularly German) eagerly sought absorption into their country's culture.  The result was that Western Yiddish gradually lost favor and by 1800 was considered "bastardized" German rather than a true language.  Thus, the use of Yiddish in Germany was mainly by religious Jews and was abandoned by the main stream -- cultural, secular, and converted Jews.  This is the reason that the given names we see in nineteenth-century German records are by and large German, Christian, and European rather than Yiddish names.

However, in most East-Central (Poland) and East European (Lithuania) countries, Yiddish became Mame Loshen (mother language), and Yiddish given name development proceeded at a rapid pace.  The names we see in archival documents reflect this.  Those prepared by the Jewish community (Rabbi electors' lists, community records) all contain Yiddish given names written in the then-existing Yiddish standard.  However, archival documents resulting from government actions were obtained by interviewing Jews and transliterating (in real time) the verbal names into Polish, Cyrillic, or another European language.  The results are different -- the Jewish records give the standard Yiddish spellings, while the governmental records give then-current pronunciations (in various languages) as interpreted by the interviewer.  Whether or not the latter are accurate is questionable. (Still, in some countries (like Poland and Hungary) a large number of German secular names were also used.)

So, for example, we have Icik from a government record, while we have Itsik (transcribed to Latin from Yiddish characters, using the YIVO standard) from Hebrew/Yiddish documents.

One can also see variations in these patterns within one country. For example, in Lithuania, in the Siauliai district, one hardly sees any non-Hebrew given names other than Yiddish names -- no Lithuanian, no pan-European names.  Yet, as one goes south and west not far from the boundary with Poland (say, near Mariampole), one begins to see numerous European given names in addition to the Yiddish names.  And in Poland itself, there is a generous distribution of both Polish and pan-European given names in addition to the Yiddish names.  It goes without saying that there are local preferences from shtetl to shtetl for one or another given name within East European countries.

Our ancestors had specific pronunciations that varied geographically. Yiddish given names were pronounced locally according to the local Yiddish dialect, although each one was written the same way in different countries. These dialects differ mostly in the vowels and consonants.  Therefore, one could make a case (not completely supportable, but adequate) that the vowels mostly determine the differences between the dialects, while the consonants remain more or less the same.  This hypothesis is good for most Yiddish given names.

YIDDISH names may include other-language forms and spellings:  Native Yiddish (Moyshe);  East Slavic based (Russian, Ukrainian:  Moysej);  West Slavic based (Polish, Slavic:  Chlavno, Moyzhesh, Moyesz);  Germanic based (high and low German:  Ber, Mozes, Moses);  Greek based (Grunem);  Italic based (Italian, French, Spanish:  Bunim);  Other (diminutive, pet, endearment:  Moyshele).

These seven Yiddish-name types are not listed separately in the GNDB. Thus, the Lithuania GNDB Yiddish names fields include one mixed type: native Lithuanian Yiddish names and Yiddishized versions of the other absorbed names.  The GNDBs will use YIVO Standard transcription to convert all local Yiddish names from their recorded language to the Yiddish dialect spoken in that country (not into YIVO Standard Yiddish);  names in an external dialect will retain that dialect.  The home page of the GNDB web site includes instructions on pronouncing the Yiddish names, each in its true dialect.

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