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Many Yiddish given names in Eastern Europe were written in government documents by transliterating spoken Yiddish and recording the result in writing in Cyrillic, Polish, or another local language.  If the names appeared in Jewish community documents (like Rabbi elector lists), then the names were written in Yiddish using Hebrew characters.  These written names were subsequently converted by a retrograde translater using his own scheme, into English characters (Romanized) for use by Jewish genealogists. Both processes are of course very error-prone for both human and technical reasons.

It is very helpful to Jewish genealogists in their research if they know something about YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) Standard Yiddish, which is described here.

In the 1930's, YIVO developed the original standard convention for Romanization (transcription) of Yiddish text written in Hebrew characters. Today's modified version uses English vowels and diphthongs in certain ways to represent the SOUNDS of Yiddish vowels, and it uses certain English consonants and consonant clusters to represent the SOUNDS of Yiddish consonants.  This Romanization standard has been widely adopted by many groups needing to write Yiddish text in English characters, although they sometimes use local variations from the Standard.

The consonants and most of the vowels are pronounced in much the way that some other European languages pronounce them.  There are a few exceptions, arising out of dialectal differences.  For example:  the Yiddish word for "good" is ALWAYS spelled giml-vov-tes, and the table below shows that the Standard pronunciation of the vov (except when it is at the end of a syllable) is like the u in the English "put" (Litvish);  so the Standard pronunciation is /gut/, rhyming with English "put".  But the dialects of many native speakers (Galitsyaners) call for pronouncing this vov as /i/, and these speakers would say and maybe transcribe the word as /git/.

In tables 10 and 11, the first column gives the names of the Yiddish letters and letter-combinations;  the second column gives their approximate sound equivalents, for the most part in English, but some of the English examples will be interpreted differently by native speakers of English from various English-dialect regions.  The third column illustrates the transcription with Yiddish words.  (The letters in square brackets in the first column occur only in words derived from Hebrew or Aramaic, a special case;  their transcription in the third column is preceded by [H].)  If you are not familiar with the Yiddish alphabet, just ignore the first column altogether.

The diphthongs may require some thought at first;  /ey/ Romanizes the sound in "Hey!" or "grey";  /ay/ stands for the sound of the "ay" in "Mayan" or the "y" in "my";  and /oy/ transcribes the "oi" sound in "oil" or "noise" (so an expression of complaint or pain or surprise is Romanized /oy vey/, and the Standard Yiddish for "my mother" is written /mayn mame/.)

The shtumer (silent) alef has no sound equivalent or transcription.  In Yiddish, it is written at the beginning of words before the vowels and diphthongs pronounced /u/, /oy/, /i/, /ey/, and /ay/.

Table 10.  Vowels and Diphthongs

shtumer alef(silent) 
pasekh alefa as in fathera in gas 'street'
komets alefo as in sorto in yorn 'years'
 u as in huto in hot 'has'
vovu as in putu in un 'and'
 oo as in goo 
   (syllable-final)u in du 'you'
yud[Between i as in fiti in tish 'table'
   and ee as in feet] 
  [closer to feet]i in zi 'she'
tsvey yudn (2 yuds)ey as in greyey in eynikl 'grandchild'
pasekh tsvey yudny as in skyay in fayer 'fire'
vov yudoy as in boyoy in moyl 'mouth'
ayene as in ende in entfer 'answer'

Table 11.  Consonants and Consonant Clusters

beys or beyzb as in ballb in brem 'eyebrow'
[veys or veyz]v as in heavy[H] v in mazl-tov 'congratulations'
tsvey vovn (2 vovs)v as in heavyv in vursht 'salami'
gimlg as in giveg in gornisht 'nothing'
daledd as in doned in dorf 'village'
heyh as in hoth in hungerik 'hungry'
zayenz as in zebraz in zumer 'summer'
[khes]ch as in German "achtung"[H] kh in bokher 'young man'
khof     "     kh in khapn 'to catch'
test as in timet in tuml 'noise'
[tof]     "     [H] t in toyre 'Torah'
yud (before a vowel)y as in yety in yagdes 'berries'
[kof]k as in kill[H] k in kosher 'kosher'
kuf     "     k in kamf 'struggle'
lamedl as in lakel in luft 'air'
memm as in markm in mentsh 'person'
nunn as in neckn in nudnik 'bore'
samekhs as in selfs in samet 'velvet'
[sin]     "     [H] s in soyne 'enemy'
[sof]     "     [H] s in toes 'error'
peyp as in packp in ponim 'face'
feyf as in fencef in frish 'fresh'
tsadekts as in fruitsts in nayntsik 'ninety'
reyshr as in French "rue"*r in royt 'red'/td>
shinsh as in showsh in shande 'shame'
zayen shins as in measurezh in zhuk 'beetle'
daled zayen shinj as in jumpdzh in dzhez 'jazz'
tes shinch as in chairtsh in kvetshn 'to squeeze'

* i.e., trilling either the tip of the tongue or the uvula

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Each letter (or letter combination) in the third column has a specific sound.  The YIVO scheme is meant to be efficient, unambiguous and easy to use, and unnecessary letters would just confuse the reader.  So:

1.  No double consonants;  they do not tell anything.  Write:  ale, alemen, bobe, feder, got [God], shabes, yidish (NOT alle, allemen, bobbe, fedder, gott, shabbes, yiddish).

2.  Excise the puste (empty) h's, since they provide no additional information:  No "h" after the stressed vowel in words of German origin. Write:  amol, yor, geyn, shteyn (NOT amohl, yohr, gehn, shtehn).  And no "h"s after the final vowel in words of Hebrew or Slavic origin;  they don't add any information either.  Write:  khale, kale, khevre, metsie, take (NOT khaleh, kaleh, khevreh, metsieh, takeh).

3.  Skip the shtume (silent) e's:  Write:  bisl, fargesn, gutn, lakhn, zisn, shtetl (NOT bisel, fargesen, guten, lakhen, zisen, shtetel).

Here is an example of a Yiddish song which may be familiar to you, written in YIVO Standard Yiddish:

Oyfn pripetshik, brent a fayerl,On the fireplace burns a little fire,
Un in shtub iz heys,And it is hot in the room,
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekhAnd the rebbe teaches little children
Dem alef-beys.The alphabet.

And here are some typical Yiddish names written in YIVO Standard Yiddish:

Men:  Hermaln, Leyb, Entshil, Everman, Zusa, Bendit, Ber, Zusman, Khalvana, Mendl, Zenvil, Shepsil, Shneyur, Zalman, Shraga, Fayvl, Hirsh, Falk, Idl

Women:  Asne, Galya, Basha, Dvosha, Leyke, Maryasha, Necha, Tsipa

Note from the names Mendl, Zenvil, and Shepsil that only the shtume (silent) e's are omitted, not other vowels such as "i".

Since the German language contributed the most to Yiddish, it is only natural that German secular names would be well represented in the lexicon of Yiddish names, and this is indeed the case, as seen above.  Thus, in many books about Jewish given names, one frequently sees the descriptive words "Yiddish/German."

Although standard YIVO practice is to use lower-case Roman characters throughout, the same practice as with Yiddish written in Hebrew characters, it is acceptable to capitalize the first letter in the first word of a sentence, as well as names.  This practice is followed in this work.

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