There is significant phonological variation among the various Yiddish dialects. The description that follows is of a modern Standard Yiddish that was devised during the early 20th century and is frequently encountered in pedagogical contexts.
- /m, p, b/ are bilabial, whereas /f, v/ are labiodental.
- The /l – ʎ/ contrast has collapsed in some speakers.
- The palatalized coronals /nʲ, tsʲ, dzʲ, tʃʲ, dʒʲ, sʲ, zʲ/ appear only in Slavic loanwords. The phonemic status of these palatalised consonants, as well as any other affricates, is unclear.
- /k, ɡ, ɣ/ and [ŋ] are velar, whereas /j, ʎ/ are palatal.
- [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ after /k, ɡ/, and it can only be syllabic [ŋ̍].
- The phonetic realization of /χ/ and /nʲ/ is unclear:
- In the case if /χ/, Kleine (2003) puts it in the "velar" column, but consistently uses a symbol denoting a voiceless uvular fricative ⟨χ⟩ to transcribe it. It is thus safe to assume that /χ/ is phonetically uvular [χ].
- In the case of /nʲ/, Kleine (2003) puts it in the "palatalized" column. This can mean that it is either palatalized alveolar [nʲ] or alveolo-palatal [ɲ̟]. /ʎ/ may actually also be alveolo-palatal [ʎ̟], rather than just palatal.
- The rhotic /r/ can be either alveolar or uvular, either a trill [r ~ ʀ] or, more commonly, a flap/tap [ɾ ~ ʀ̆].
- The glottal stop [ʔ] appears only as an intervocalic separator.
As in the Slavic languages with which Yiddish was long in contact (Russian, Belarusian, Polish, and Ukrainian), but unlike German, voiceless stops have little to no aspiration; unlike many such languages, voiced stops are not devoiced in final position. Moreover, Yiddish has regressive voicing assimilation, so that, for example, זאָגט /zɔɡt/ ('says') is pronounced [zɔkt] and הקדמה /hakˈdɔmɜ/ ('foreword') is pronounced [haɡˈdɔmɜ].
The vowel phonemes of Standard Yiddish are:
- /ɪ, ʊ/ are near-close [ɪ, ʊ], but /ɪ/ may sometimes be realized as close [i]. These allophones are more or less in free variation, but they could have been separate phonemes in the past.
- /ɜ/ appears only in unstressed syllables.
|Front nucleus||Central nucleus||Back nucleus|
- The last two diphthongs may be realized as [aɛ] and [ɔɜ], respectively.
- אײזל /ˈɛɪzl̩/ 'donkey'
- אָװנט /ˈɔvn̩t/ 'evening'
[m] and [ŋ] appear as syllable nuclei as well, but only as allophones of /n/, after bilabial consonants and dorsal consonants, respectively.
The syllabic sonorants are always unstressed.
Comparison with German
In vocabulary of Germanic origin, the differences between Standard German and Standard Yiddish pronunciation are mainly in the vowels and diphthongs. Examples are the German long /aː/ as in Vater ('father'), which corresponds to /ɔ/ in Yiddish פֿאָטער /ˈfɔtɛr/, and the German long /eː/ and long /oː/, which correspond to diphthongs in Yiddish (/ɛɪ/ and /ɔɪ/). As in many Germanic languages, Yiddish lacks the German front rounded vowels /œ, øː/ and /ʏ, yː/. They are replaced in Yiddish by /ɛ/ (in the case of the short /œ/), /ɛɪ/ (in the case of the long /øː/) and /ɪ/ (in the case of /ʏ, yː/), respectively.
Diphthongs have also undergone divergent developments in German and Yiddish. Where Standard German has merged the Middle High German diphthong ei and long vowel ī to ei (pronounced /aɪ/), Standard Yiddish has maintained the distinction between them as /ɛɪ/ and /aɪ/, respectively. The German /aʊ/ (as in kaufen, 'buy') corresponds to the Yiddish /ɔɪ/ (in קױפֿן /kɔɪfn/); lastly, the German /ɔʏ/, as in Deutsch 'German') corresponds to /aɪ/ in Yiddish (in דײַטש /daɪtʃ/). Another difference is that the vowel length distinctions of German do not exist in Standard Yiddish.
Yiddish has some coincidental resemblances to Dutch in vowel phonology, which extend even to orthography, such as Dutch ij versus Yiddish tsvey judn, both pronounced /ɛɪ/; and Dutch ui (pronounced /œy/) versus Yiddish vov yud (/ɔj/). For example, the Yiddish "to be" is זיין, which orthographically matches Dutch zijn more than German sein, or Yiddish הויז, "house", versus Dutch huis. Along with the pronunciation of Dutch g as /ɣ/, Yiddish is said to sound closer to Dutch than to German because of this, even though its structure is closer to High German.
There are consonantal differences between German and Yiddish. Yiddish deaffricates the Middle High German voiceless labiodental affricate /pf/ to /f/ initially (as in פֿונט funt, but this pronunciation is also quasi-standard throughout northern and central Germany); /pf/ surfaces as an unshifted /p/ medially or finally (as in עפּל /ɛpl/ and קאָפּ /kɔp/). Additionally, final voiced stops appear in Standard Yiddish but not Northern Standard German.
|German||Standard and |
|short a /a/||/a/||machen, glatt /ˈmaxən, ɡlat/||מאַכן, גלאַט /maχn, ɡlat/|
|long a /aː/||/ɔ/||Vater, sagen /ˈfaːtɐ, zaːɡən/||פֿאָטער, זאָגן /ˈfɔtɜr, zɔɡn/|
|short ä /ɛ/||/ɛ/||Bäcker /ˈbɛkɐ/||בעקער /ˈbɛkɜr/|
|long ä /ɛː/||ähnlich /ˈɛːnlɪç/||ענלעך /ˈɛnlɜχ/|
|short e /ɛ/||Mensch /mɛnʃ/||מענטש /mɛntʃ/|
|long e /eː/||/ɛɪ/||Esel /ʔeːzl̩/||אייזל /ɛɪzl/|
|short i /ɪ/||/ɪ/||Nicht /nɪçt/||ניכט /nɪχt/|
|long i /iː/||Liebe /ˈliːbə/||ליבע /lɪbɜ/|
|short o /ɔ/||/ɔ/||Kopf, sollen /kɔpf, ˈzɔlən/||קאָפּ, זאָלן /kɔp, zɔln/|
|long o /oː/||/ɔɪ/||hoch, schon /hoːx, ʃoːn/||הויך, שוין /hɔɪχ, ʃɔɪn/|
|short ö /œ/||/ɛ/||können, Köpfe /ˈkœnən, ˈkœpfə/||קענען, קעפּ /ˈkɛnɜn, kɛp/|
|long ö /øː/||/ɛɪ/||schön /ʃø(ː)n/||שײן /ʃɛɪn/|
|short u /ʊ/||/ʊ/||Mutter /ˈmʊtɐ/||מוטער /mʊtɜr/|
|long u /uː/||Buch /buːχ/||בוך /bʊχ/|
|short ü /ʏ/||/ɪ/||Brücke, fünf /ˈbʁʏkə, fʏnf/||בריק, פֿינף /brɪk, fɪnf/|
|long ü /yː/||grün /ɡʁyːn/||גרין /ɡrɪn/|
|ei /aɪ/||/ɛɪ/ (MHG ei )||Fleisch /flaɪ̯ʃ/||פֿלײש /flɛɪʃ/|
|/aɪ/ (MHG ī )||mein /maɪ̯n/||מײַן /maɪn/|
|au /aʊ/||/ɔɪ/||auch, Haus /aʊ̯x, haʊ̯s/||אויך, הויז /ɔɪχ, hɔɪz/|
|äu /ɔʏ/||/aɪ/||Häuser /ˈhɔʏ̯zɐ/||הײַזער /haɪzɜr/|
|eu /ɔʏ/||Deutsch /dɔʏ̯t͡ʃ/||דײַטש /daɪtʃ/|