The American Jewish Accent.

Dan Nosowitz has a wonderful Atlas Obscura post called “Why Linguists are Fascinated by the American Jewish Accent”; here’s a bit of it:

But is really a religious or ethnic thing? Can we call it a “Jewish accent” rather than, say, a “New York accent”?

Scholars say, yes, there is an American Jewish accent, but it’s complicated. “Intonation has kind of been the red-headed stepchild of linguistics, where for a lot of time there was debate about whether or not it’s really part of the linguistic system, or whether it was something else overriding it, essentially,” says Burdin. It’s only been about 15 years since linguists—just a few of them, really—have begun systematically attempting to study the rhythm, timbre, intonations, stresses, and pauses of speech, and the study is still in its infancy. It is particularly murky territory in English, where melody is not as important as it is in other languages. But there are some groups whose speech, long having been described as sing-songy, is suddenly of interest to researchers breaking new ground in the study of prosody. Appalachian English is one of those. And Jewish English is another.

It describes the Mel Brooks-style version, then continues:

The other major American Jewish English accent comes from the more observant communities of Jews, the Orthodox and the Hasidim. This is sometimes known as “Yeshivish,” coming from the word “yeshiva,” generally referring to the schools for the organized study of Jewish holy texts. Yeshivish, like the more secular Jewish English of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, has some ties to New York City, but is much more heavily influenced by Yiddish. Many of its most distinctive elements are actually exceedingly, almost unimaginatively direct translations of Yiddish phrases and intonations.

I love the word “Yeshivish,” and I love the illustrative videos, and the whole thing makes me intensely nostalgic for New York. Go, read, watch, enjoy, you won’t regret it!

Comments

  1. This video of a woman speaking Yeshivish went viral a few years back. She’s talking about her Shvimkleid.

    https://youtu.be/Em-e6w4e1v0

  2. A fun post on a sociolinguistic divide in Jewish America: ‘good shabbos’ vs ‘shabbat shalom’.

  3. This video of a woman speaking Yeshivish went viral a few years back.

    That’s great, and I love the response video.

    A fun post on a sociolinguistic divide in Jewish America: ‘good shabbos’ vs ‘shabbat shalom’.

    Also great, but surely it’s “gut shabbos”?

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    I saw this because someone had linked to it on facebook maybe two days ago and thought “why haven’t I already seen this on languagehat!” But it seemed unnecessary to send our host an email with the link since it seemed overdetermined that it would come to his attention by some other path.

    But here’s a perhaps less-high-profile link about a fascinating-sounding language variety supposedly spoken only in one town in Oman and now under threat due to pressures (for the various usual reasons) for the locals to assimilate to Arabic: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/kumzari-omani-cultural-and-linguistic-heritage-under-threat-oman-language-557883436

  5. A sad story. “From the outset of his reign, Sultan Qaboos instigated major reforms promoting national unity, with a particular emphasis on language” — bah, I hate the very words “national unity.”

  6. Also great, but surely it’s “gut shabbos”?

    I think I’ve more often seen it written as the hybrid “good shabbos” in an English context – though in a proper New York Jewish accent, final devoicing should render the two indistinguishable.

  7. Huh, interesting.

  8. Kumzari is not nearly so bizarre as the article paints it: it is a more or less normal Southwestern Iranian language, not that far from Standard Persian, but more conservative and with fewer Arabic influences. It is unusual only because it is on the “wrong” side of the Strait of Hormuz. It is also spoken on Larak Island in the middle of the strait, which is Iranian territory: I don’t know its status there, but I suspect that many of the 500 or so people on the island speak it.

  9. I, as a reasonable Yiddish speaker, say “Gut shabbos,” (when I say it, which is not that often). However, most other Jews around here (who do not have New York accents) say, “Good shabbos,” which is indeed how it is usually written.

  10. It’s not “gut Shabbos,” it’s “good Shabbos.” Note how in the “Trip to Miami” link (which I’d never seen and enjoyed immensely), the speaker uses standard English with Yiddish and Hebrew inserted for religious concepts as if they were English vocabulary. Whatever language you’re speaking, Shabbos is the word for the Sabbath. But when you’re speaking English, “gut” becomes “good.”

    For example, at the climax of the Miami story, the speaker says that “some frum men” – pious (ie observant) men – came into the pool area during women’s hours, which “wasn’t tsnius” (modest), so it was a good thing she was wearing her shvimkleid (swimming dress). And then she says that tsnius is a bracha (blessing). The Yiddish words drop into the narrative as if they were English. She might use English equivalents if she were speaking to a non-Jew, but she’d have to think about them and consciously translate them.

    Here’s a headline from an online Jewish newspaper:

    Baltimore: Frum Man Stabbed During Home Invasion

    The first sentence does use the English equivalent – “an Orthodox Jewish resident of Baltimore” – but then the article closes, “Please Daven for Menachem ben Irina.” “Daven” – pray – appears as if it were English.

    http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/428061/baltimore-frum-man-stabbed-during-home-invasion.html

  11. It’s not “gut Shabbos,” it’s “good Shabbos.”

    You say that so confidently, and yet the commenter before you says “Gut shabbos,” and I have seen it so written by others describing Yiddish-speakers communicating in a mix of English and Yiddish. One can, of course, say that someone saying “Gut shabbos” is inserting a Yiddish sentence into an English discourse, but I’m not sure that’s a terribly important distinction.

  12. Indeed, they are English, as English as if they were sung to a slenthem accompaniment. They fit into English sentences and are pronounced in accordance with the local phonology of English. It was arguments like these (put forward by me, toot toot), that persuaded Ethnologue that “Yinglish/Yeshivish” is not a language but a register of English.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re Sultan Qaboos (by most accounts a better-than-average fellow as rulers of his generation in that part of world go), the fuller phrase “reforms promoting national unity” puts me in mind of “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities of the word ‘reform’.” (Variant wordings of this quote exist; it is often attributed to Roscoe Conkling but I think other times to other politicians of his approximate vintage and views.)

  14. language hat – go back up to the link in Will’s comment, which started us down this road: http://www.frumsatire.net/2012/03/25/shabbat-shalom-vs-good-shabbos/

    “Shabbat shalom vs. Good Shabbos”

    …. Although I grew up modern orthodox, we always said Good Shabbos [and not Shabbat Shalom] …

    I don’t doubt that Will, “a reasonable Yiddish speaker,” says Gut Shabbos. But, as he says, you generally hear people say Good Shabbos.

    “One can, of course, say that someone saying “Gut shabbos” is inserting a Yiddish sentence into an English discourse, but I’m not sure that’s a terribly important distinction.”

    But I think it is an important distinction. A Jew (probably a non-Orthodox one) who says “Shabbat Shalom” is consciously using a Hebrew expression. And someone who says “Gut Shabbos” is speaking Yiddish. But — as John Cowan observes — a Jew who says “Good Shabbos” is speaking English.

    Shana Tova, everyone, and a gut yor.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    This video of a woman speaking Yeshivish went viral a few years back. She’s talking about her Shvimkleid.

    This, apart from the sound system, is what Yiddish sounds like if you know German: you understand everything perfectly well, until suddenly a word or two come up that you can’t even parse at all.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    The probable referent being in this case obvious from context, I had no problem parsing Shvimkleid as Schwimm[en] + Kleid. Which isn’t to say that the context would have made it sufficiently obvious to me if I had been stumbling through the narrative a word at a time w/o the benefit of Bloix’ executive summary.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Oops. By “this” I meant the video, not the last sentence I quoted.

  18. Mike Roberts says:

    From the Atlas Obscura post:

    Jews, no matter where they’re from, often sound a little bit New York. It’s not a given—but it’s still a weird, striking thing.

    It seems to me that New York City is to Jewish Americans what the South is to black Americans.

  19. I think my region, New England, might be a rare place where that doesn’t hold true, because most of the Jewish immigrants here (like my father’s parents) came directly to Boston or Providence rather than through the crucible of Ellis Island. In my experience, older native-born Jews – like the former mayor of Worcester and current talk radio host Jordan Levy, or local furniture giants Bernie and Phyl and the Jordan’s brothers – are often some of the best exemplars of the eastern Massachusetts accent.

    For the rest of the country the analogy seems valid, though I think ethnolectal features probably have less draw for young (secular) non-Northeastern Jews than for young African Americans owing to their lower levels of social segregation.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    Social segregation of course is the key here. But there must be other American ethno-religious groups that have spread more recently from a geographical homeland and are segregated in diaspora, whether it’s by choice or not, at least on the level of American Jews. What about Mormons outside Mormondy?

    Lazar answered another question before I asked, namely if even New England Jewish English has New York features. But I was also going to ask about the midwest. Wasn’t Chicago an immigration hub of its own in the early 20th century?

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Mormondy

    I sit in awe.

    I’d be rather surprised if Idaho could be distinguished from Utah by linguistic features, though.

    Wasn’t Chicago an immigration hub of its own in the early 20th century?

    Of course it was. Biggest city of the Burgenland

  22. Mike Roberts says:

    Herr Ingen:

    What about Mormons outside Mormondy?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed what I think is a Mormon accent in the past. I think some of the Mormons who I’ve heard it from were from outside of the Mormon Corridor. The accent was very subtle though and I’d have a hard time describing the features of it. One of the things I’ve noticed is the lengthening of certain stressed vowels at the end of words. For example: “me” [mɪjə] and “see” [sɪjə].

  23. If I remember correctly, the Mormon accent is influenced by British converts who moved directlly to Salt Lake City.

  24. My in-laws are Jewish Chicagoans and they have no traces of New York in their accents that I can discern. I really can’t think of any Jews of my acquaintance in Chicago that have any New York at all, and I’m running through a lot of voices right now. Maybe to put it on for a moment as a joke, but nothing in their normal speaking voice.

    Quite the contrary, I run into few remaining practitioners of the old Chicago accent, German/Irish with it’s strong Rs, flat As. But I expect to run into several at a big Rosh Hashanah dinner tomorrow. Older folks, of course. I doubt I’ll get any D/Th substitutions. Rs and As aren’t class markers the way dese, dose and over dere would be.

    Lazar said this well – ‘best exemplars of the xxxxx accent.’ I think it holds for the post-war Chicago accent as well.

    I also don’t really think of my Jewish friends from my childhood in Springfield as having had any different accent than the rest of us.

  25. Mike Roberts says:

    @ John Cowan:

    I don’t doubt that a lot of Mormons have British ancestors, but the Mormon accent I have in mind doesn’t sound at all British. It’s very similar to a western or central midwestern American accent. It involves a slow, careful delivery and the drawling of certain vowels as I mentioned in my last comment.

    @ ryan:

    I grew up in your neck of the woods and I also don’t remember the few Jews we had in my small hometown sounding different from anyone else. But, then again, when I was a kid I didn’t have the ear for accents that I have now. If I were to go back and talk to those people now, I might notice an accent. I also didn’t (and still don’t) know a whole lot about Jews. So I didn’t even know that they were supposed to sound different from the rest of us.

  26. It’s a subtle influence, things like realizing coda /t/ as a glottal stop even before a syllabic nasal, so that mountain comes out [mãʊ̃ʔən] instead of [maʊntn̩]. Of course Gentile Utahns have the accent too.

  27. Trond: on the English spoken by Mormons outside Mormondy, this M.A. thesis may be of some interest to you:

    http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2476&context=etd

    To the best of my knowledge this is the most recent scholarly work on diaspora Mormon English: what little other work there is on the topic can be found in the bibliography (I also know of an unpublished doctoral thesis not in the bibliography).

    As for the New York accent and Jewish speakers of English: this goes beyond L1 speakers. I once met a Canadian Jew who was born in Lithuania and had immigrated to Israel for a few years before in turn immigrating to Canada, who had mostly learned English in Israel, and whose accent to my ears was VERY New York-like. I suspect many English teachers in Israel have lived or studied in New York at some point of their lives…

  28. David Marjanović says:

    realizing coda /t/ as a glottal stop even before a syllabic nasal

    Isn’t that the environment where this is most widespread in the US?

    (The complete dissolution of the first [n] into the vowels, and the [ən] instead of [n̩], are certainly not widespread, however. I’ll be in SLC in a few weeks and will try to pay attention to these things.)

    …Oh, speaking of coda /t/: Bernie Sanders consistently releases it, and allegedly that’s part of a Jewish accent?

  29. Yes for button, but not for mountain.

  30. I was once informed (possible in a newspaper article) that Utah English has creaky voicing of stressed vowels in male prestige speech, i.e. in Mormon elders — presumable a trait introduced by Danish immigrants. Since I have never heard a Utan speaking and know nothing about immigrant demographics in Utah, Mormon or non-, I shall just leave that factoid for your consideration.

    I can confirm however that gender-coupled phonation is a feature of Danish, to the extent that the (very noticeable) main feature of stereotype gay talk is to not use creak.

  31. I believe it’s “Utahn.”

  32. From my observation, Jews native to the Deep South really don’t have any New York features in their speech either.

  33. Back to the Shabbos topic. I do not know how American Jews pronounce it but strictly speaking, “shabos” is Whole Ashkenazic Hebrew unlike the Immerged Ashkenazic Hebrew (=Yiddish) “shabes”. Therefore “gut shabes”.

  34. It’s said with a schwa. The spelling of Yiddish words and phrases in American English is quite inconsistent (e.g. with YIVO -e often being replaced with -a), so I don’t think much can be inferred from that. It might be that this spelling was already in use pre-YIVO, or that they simply don’t want anyone to misread it as /ʃeɪbz/.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    So, what actual evidence is there for the sounding-a-little-bit-New-York claim, when it comes to actual phonology rather than the odd bit of distinctive lexicon or syntax, and you are talking about people’s baseline voices as opposed to their ability to do a Mel Brooks imitation when they find it amusing to do so? Obviously you have to back out Ashkenazic-Americans who’ve been living for the last several decades in LA or Boca Raton or what have you who spent the accent-formative part of their earlier life in the NYC area, but it’s certainly not my anecdotal impression running through Ashkenazic-Americans of my own acquaintance who grew up in various parts of the US that they have any notable difference in phonology than non-Hispanic white gentiles who grew up in the same areas they did in households of comparable socioeconomic status. Is it possible that if some people hear the odd Yiddishism spoken by someone who grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis or San Antonio or wherever that they may be prone to imagine via some pre-existing mental association an accompanying Mel-Brooksian phonology that isn’t actually there?

    Obviously, there are features of speech other than phonology that vary between varieties of AmEng (e.g. what tone of voice is or isn’t distinctively angry/aggressive/pushy versus just sorta normal-Tuesday-afternoon), and it is not implausible that those could vary by cultural-affiliation (including an ethnocultural affiliation such as being Ashkenazic) within and across regions even if vowels didn’t.

  36. I also was surprised to see John Cowan’s description of “Jewish” mountain. There’s nothing Jewish about me, but I think I say something like [mãʊ̃ʔn̩], and that seems more standard American to me than something with [t] (I grew up in Virginia and live in DC).

  37. Also, don’t some dialects have [git] instead of [gut]?

  38. Keith Ivey: No, that was Mormon/Utahn mountain, not Jewish.

  39. John Cowan, oh, sorry. Still, the pronunciation seems pretty standard to me, except maybe the use of [ən] instead of [n̩], and I’ve never been to Utah.

  40. >Also, don’t some dialects have [git] instead of [gut]

    Yes. In Poland and Ukraine. My family, coming from just outside Kiev, would eat keegl (not kugel) and celebrate Peerim (not Purim)

  41. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @e-k: my great-grandmother (from the Yavoriv raion) had [git] and [ki.gl̩], but [pu.ʁim]

  42. @e-k: Yeah, my grandfather came from the Zhitomir region, and his immigration papers spelled the family name with i in place of the “standard Yiddish” or Germanizing u that they adopted in America.

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