Yiddish and Farsi: Kissing Cousins

About two years ago, I decided to take some Farsi lessons.  Having grown up with Persian friends and gone to their plethora of grocery stores and restaurants, I always had a curiosity for the culture.  I also frankly just think the language sounds musical and peaceful.

I found a private tutor but, for a variety of reasons, stopped after a couple months.  The language lay dormant in me (other than talking to lots of cab drivers and some friends).  I kept listening to the infectious music though.

Now that I’m in Israel, I pulled out the textbook I had bought in the States (anticipating I was continuing with the teacher).  I wanted to refresh the language- I have a lot of opportunities to speak it here.  There’s an entire market near my house where store after store is owned by Persians and I like chatting with them.

In my book, I came across something interesting.  The Farsi word for “homework” is “mashgh” spelled مشق.

To me, the root looked Arabic- and I was right.  A high percentage of Farsi words are of Arabic origin, which has helped me learn the language.  Although the language itself is categorized as Indo-European, meaning it is more closely related grammatically to German or English than to Arabic.  As an example, the word “isn’t” in Farsi is “nist”, eerily similar to the German (and Yiddish!) “nisht”.

Back to the word.  So I looked up words from the same root in Arabic and found مشقة.  “Mashaqqah” means “hardship”.  Hmm…this word sounded very familiar to me.

But you’ll be surprised to hear that the word it reminded of was in Yiddish.  “Máshke” משקה is the Yiddish word for drink, but more specifically often used for alcohol.  I know it because I once learned a Yiddish folksong about it!

Lo and behold, this Yiddish word comes from a Hebrew word.  “Mashkéh”, spelled the same way as the Yiddish word, more generally means beverage.  Its plural form even adorns the liquor store near my apartment.

Do all these words come from the same root?  I’m not actually entirely sure, though it seems so.  When words move from one language to the other, pronunciation can change and letters once essential in the original language may disappear.  For example, “Mashaqqah” has two “qafs” (q), whereas in Farsi, mashgh, does not.  I’m not sure why, but that’s how it is with many Arabic words as they migrate into other languages.

And so to from Hebrew to Yiddish (and in some cases back to Hebrew).  The Hebrew word “tachlith” תכלית migrated into Yiddish as “tachlis” (same spelling) and back into Modern Hebrew as “tachles” but spelled how you pronounce it in Yiddish תכל’ס.

So here’s what I find amazing.  First, that my learning of languages helped me explore this fascinating adventure.  Second, that I may have found a word (besides Shalom/Salaam) that in various forms appears in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi.  And third, that we are all are far more connected than you might think.

Because while many know Arabic and Hebrew are closely related (about 60% from the same roots), so too are Yiddish and Farsi.  Meaning there are two Jewish and two predominantly Muslim languages that are related!

How so?  First, both Yiddish and Farsi are unique- they are Indo-European languages with strong Semitic overlays.  For Yiddish, that means tons of words from Hebrew and Aramaic.  And for Farsi, that means Arabic influence.

For instance, the English word “is” is “hast” in Farsi and “iz” in Yiddish- all three of which are related.  None of which are close to the non-existent present tense “to be” in Arabic and Hebrew.

Not only that, but the ways in which Semitic words are incorporated into the languages are often identical.  For instance, when making compound verbs, the noun comes from the Semitic language and the verb comes from the Indo-European root to make a new verb.

For instance, in Yiddish “khasene hobn” חתונה האבן means “to get married”.  Khasene, pronounced in Modern Hebrew “chatunah” means wedding.  And it is paired with the Germanic element “hobn” meaning “to have”.  To have a wedding, there you go.

Now in Farsi, the same thing happens.  The verb “harf zadan” حرف زدن means “to speak”.  The first word, harf, is from the Arabic word for “letter”.  The second word, the verb of the verb, is the Persian word “to slap”.  To slap a letter?  To speak!  There you go.

Similar processes happen with regards to phonetics, to pronunciation.  Words from the Semitic languages often are pronounced differently in Yiddish and Farsi than how they’d be pronounced in Hebrew and Arabic- even when they’re written identically.  Shalom in Yiddish is sholem (or shulem) and salaam in Arabic is salam in Farsi.

Understanding how this process happens in Farsi later made it easier for me to learn Yiddish.  That’s right- Farsi helped me learn Yiddish.  And having the foundation in Hebrew and Arabic made it easier for me to learn both languages.

Bottom line?  While Farsi and Yiddish seem worlds apart, they are perhaps more closely related to each other in some ways than to other languages you might expect.  They share unique characteristics, and do so in style 🙂 .  While the world sees Iran and Israel as enemies and while in Israel, Mizrachim and Ashkenazim never miss an opportunity to demean each other’s cultures- the truth is we’re all related.

Don’t take my word for it- pick up a dictionary, find a teacher, and unlock the secrets that language has to teach you.  Even about yourself.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

2 thoughts on “Yiddish and Farsi: Kissing Cousins”

  1. Wow! If you could learn Kurdish, most of these things would also clearly apply on Kurdish for sure. And you could see that Kurdish sometimes leans towards other families of Indo-European languages than the Germanic ones as well. For example, the “is” of Kurdish is “e”(pronounced like a schwa, which is sort of leans towards the Italian “è” or Protuguese “é”. And there are other Latin related aspects of Indo-European languages in Kurdish, I believe. Great article Matt Adler!! 👍


    1. I believe you mean “when I learn Kurdish” 😛 Thanks for the kind comments as always, nice to know Yiddish and Kurdish are related too :). I’ve actually heard people in Farsi say “e” too informally (more like an “eh” than a schwa, but same idea). Shabbat shalom my friend!


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