An announcement from the Jewish Institute of Religion:

Yiddish. Ladino. Judeo-Arabic. Jews throughout history have spoken distinctively Jewish languages. What about American Jews? Two researchers from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion want to find out. Linguist Sarah Bunin Benor and Sociologist Steven M. Cohen are conducting a large-scale survey of Jews and non-Jews in the United States to determine just who uses Hebrew and Yiddish words and other distinctive language.
“This study has been several years in the making,” says Dr. Benor, who has published several papers on the Yiddish-influenced English speech of Orthodox Jews. “Some people say that the only American Jews who speak distinctly are Orthodox, but among non-Orthodox Jews I know who are highly engaged in religious life, I’ve heard sentences that have more Hebrew and Yiddish words than English ones.” An example she gives is:
“At my /shul/, /balabatim/ /daven/ /musaf/ on /Yom Kippur/.” “We want to know how widespread this phenomenon is.”
Benor adds, “Three, four, and even five generations after their Yiddish-speaking ancestors immigrated to the U.S., some Ashkenazic American Jews still use Yiddishisms, like ‘I need that like I need a hole in the head’ and ‘Money, shmoney.’ Do Jews use these more than non-Jews? Do they use them only in certain situations? This survey will help us answer questions like these.” They are also curious to what extent Americans of Sephardi and Mizrahi background have incorporated Yiddishisms into their speech and how they pronounce Hebrew words. They even include a few words common in Judeo-Arabic and Ladino.

Here‘s a direct link to the survey; if you give them an e-mail address, they’ll send you the results when they have them. (Via MetaFilter, where several commenters pointed out they should have asked about childhood acquaintance with Mad magazine.)
While I’m at it, Clint Schmidt of Livemocha.com is “seeking someone with high-caliber academic credentials and passion for linguistics to work with Livemocha on a summer project to improve our learning experience. There are many variables within our language learning experience that we want to assess and improve, and I think there’s value in getting an unbiased expert perspective.” This is a paid consulting position; if you’re interested, write clint -at- livemocha dot com.


  1. I hope someone does help improve LiveMocha. It’s a great concept. I am just a (totally) rank beginner, but I gave up on its Hindi course after finding a great many basic howlers that required me to accept them as correct if I was going to progress through the levels.

  2. Since Yiddish is, among non Orthodox, used almost exclusively by older generations, the younger the speaker the more likely his/her speech patterns are likely to be well withing mainstream patterns of use, and therefore use of Yiddish/Yinglish among Jews would track the influence of Yiddish in general. When younger Jews use a non English language now, it is almost always Hebrew, unless they belong to that segment of the Orthodox community which uses Yiddish as the language of daily life.
    What is growing is Yeshivish
    What the article does not make clear is how Hebrew depending Yeshivish is–the men who use it tend to sprinkle their talk with Hebrew terms–and, what is more, Hebrew terms that are fully comprehensible only to people who have undergone religious education in Talmud and similar subjects (which is why it is almost exclusively a male only phenomenon.) So it is very much an “insider’s” way of talking.
    I can’t find a good example, but here is one, limited to one word in the next to last parapgraph. A secular person might have written “if we are fortunate”; a religious person who confined himself to English might have written “if G-d allows us”, but instead the blogger says “if we are zoche”.

  3. Sounds like quite an endeavour, especially considering the number of phrases that have crept into common usage.
    By the way, thanks for mentioning livemocha.com. I didn’t know about it. I’ll give it a try.

  4. rootlesscosmo says

    There’s an effort under way among some younger (which in historical context means, roughly, born after 1940) non-Orthodox Jews to revive, if not Yiddish as a language of daily life, then at least as the language of a rich literature and culture–as Yiddishkeit.. The Mendele ListServ
    (where I found Lucky’s speech in Yiddish, posted here a few days back) is one forum for this effort, which includes formal instruction, scholarly research and publications, summer camps where you can learn to play klezmer music, and much else.

  5. My Texan, raised-Baptist father, whose mother was ever-so-proud of being DAR – yeah, he used the “hole in my head” expression all the time. I thought (think, actually) that it was normal English – maybe originally from Yiddish, but many words and phrases in Standard English are, aren’t they?

  6. rootlesscosmo says

    The Yiddish version is “vi a lokh in kop.”

  7. Self-selected online surveys are worth junk at best, and self-reporting of things like speech rates is (to put it mildly) prone to error. Ergo, this survey is a colossal waste of effort for all involved.

  8. maybe originally from Yiddish, but many words and phrases in Standard English are, aren’t they?
    Sure, and that’s part of what they’re trying to track.
    this survey is a colossal waste of effort for all involved
    Fortunately, no one is forcing you to take part.

  9. no one is forcing you to take part.
    As I’m not American, I’m not even eligible to do so (though I completed it anyway without submitting it out of interest). But I didn’t mean to come over as po-faced as I evidently did – and I’m sorry that my comment seemed rude. It’s just that it’s a shame that someone has developed an interesting, testable hypothesis and then opted for what amounts to a highly unscientific straw poll to verify it.

  10. What would be the alternative sampling frame, then? Is there another method which would substantially reduce selection bias?

  11. It occurred to me that including a made-up word in the list might flag people who think they know more than they do.

  12. I think the Ladino word that was included might serve as an internal control, since (I imagine) it would be less familiar to most.

  13. Charles Perry says

    I just can’t resist passing this on. When I was a restaurant reviewer, I once sat near a white couple who had adopted a very young black girl, of whom they were deliriously fond. Overhearing their conversation, I concluded that they were pretty certainly not Jewish, because they had named her Shonda — which sounds exactly the same as the Yiddish shande, “scandal.”

  14. That’s a great story!

  15. (Hopefully by now everyone has taken the survey that will, so there aren’t any spoilers.)
    What word is Ladino? I thought, without much confidence, that the unfamiliar ones to me were Modern Israeli Hebrew (including a couple I thought I remembered from old Balashon posts).

  16. Urban Garlic says

    I’d be curious how much yiddish was spread because of the influence of New York literary culture at various levels. For a low-brow example, I’m pretty WASPy and grew up in western Canada, but I know many Yiddish words and phrases because of “Mad” magazine, which frequently used Yiddish in place of English expletives. At a slightly higher level, devotees of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks might know a lot of Yiddish, even though American Jewish culture is otherwise alien to them.

  17. MMcM: I’m not sure about Ladino, but I remember they had “yalla,” which is Arabic and presumably there to find the Jews from Arab countries.
    Urban Garlic (great moniker!): I think that’s one of the things they’re trying to find out. Clearly New York Yiddishkeit has had a tremendous influence via Mad, Woody, Mel, et al.

  18. Based on someone’s glossary, yalla was in Adam Sandler’s recent You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, somewhat a continuation of that tradition.
    Assuming ahalan is from أهلاً و سهلاً, that would be another one. I guess some other questions are meant to tell whether the respondent is a Jew from an Arab country or spent time in Israel.

  19. Meldado was one of the words asked about. I don’t know what it means, and from the looks of it I assume it’s Ladino.

  20. It’s Ladino for “annual religious ceremony for the peace of the soul of the dead; it is an occasion for a family gathering, usually concluded by a dinner or banquet.” (From meldar ‘to read.’)

  21. That’s weird; meldado wasn’t in the survey when I looked at it. (Or I completely missed it.)
    Apparently, meldado is/was also a study-group outside the synagogue, somewhat like limudin in Hebrew / Yiddish. I’m too far out of my element to appreciate clearly whether this and the nahala / Yahrzeit sense are distributed in time and/or space.
    Evidently, meldar ‘read [the Torah [aloud]]’ < μελετάω. Like LXX μελετᾶν τὰ λόγιά σου translating לשיח באמרתך in the Psalm, where it is Englished as ‘meditate’.

  22. Err, limudim. לימודים.

  23. I’d like to draw your attention to an article by an Orthodox Rabbi addressing a common problem in the Jewish community. The success of missionaries like Jews for Jesus in misleading Jews from the beauty of Judaism could be avoided if Orthodox communities would reach out to their brothers and sisters, even though they may differ in their beliefs. Might be an interesting read. http://shalomrav.blogware.com/.

  24. “Err, limudim. לימודים.”
    Does this mean “study group outside the synagogue” in a specialized sense? I’ve never heard that.

  25. I am very much relieved that GBS gets hits for meldado[s] + limud[im], so that I don’t have to pretend to really know about all this.

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