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Jewish English

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Description by Sarah Bunin Benor

In his survey of the sociology of Jewish languages, Joshua Fishman wrote: "English or some Jewish variant thereof is probably the most widespread Jewish Language of our time" (Fishman 1985:15). Today, in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, hundreds of thousands of Jews speak Jewish varieties of English, with influences from Yiddish, textual Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew. There is a great deal of variation according to region, generation, religiosity, and gender, but all varieties of English spoken by Jews can be discussed together under the umbrella of "Jewish English" (Gold 1985, Steinmetz 1987).

The difference between general English and Jewish English can be as small as the addition of just a few Hebrew or Yiddish words (e.g., Hannukah, matzah ball, shlep), or it can be as large as multiple influences from Yiddish in syntax, lexicon, and phonology. The former is common among Jews with little or no religious practice, and the latter is used today mainly by Orthodox Jews (and in the past by Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their children, referred to as "Yinglish"). Orthodox Jewish English includes hundreds of loan words from Hebrew and Yiddish, including baruch hashem 'blessed is God', blech 'metal stove covering that facilitates cooking on the Sabbath', bentsh 'bless, say Grace After Meals', dafka 'specifically, really, to make a point of', and kippah 'skullcap'. Some loan words are semantically specialized: leyn ('read Torah' < Yid. 'read'), as are some English words: "learn" ('learn Jewish texts'). Other features of Orthodox Jewish English include quasi-chanting intonation contours, loan uses from Yiddish ("I'm eating by her"; "He doesn't know from that"), frequent word-final /t/-release ("night" rather than "nigh'"), and Yiddish-influenced periphrastic constructions ("I'm not mekabel that" ('I don't accept that'); "We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chatan v'kala" ('We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.')); "Before I knew that he had said it in shiur, I was mechaven to the Rosh Yeshiva's pshat in the Gemara" ('Before I knew that he had said it in class, I found myself agreeing with the head-of-the-school's interpretation in the Talmud') (Weiser 1995:59)). For more on American Jewish English lexicon, see Gold 1985, Steinmetz 1987, and Weiser 1995. For other features, see Benor 2000, 2001. For discussion of Australian Jewish English, see Clyne et al. 2001.

As an incipient Jewish language, Jewish English provides an excellent laboratory for our understanding of Jewish language genesis. It has the components laid out by Weinreich (1980): a co-territorial base language (English), a previous Jewish language (Yiddish), and a Hebrew-Aramaic stratum (which overlaps greatly with the previous Jewish language (Benor 2000)). In addition, Jewish English has a Modern Hebrew component, which is likely to be present in all Jewish languages developing in contemporary times. Jewish English seems to be following the progression explained by Fishman (1985), in which a group of Jews moves to a new land, picks up the local language, and speaks progressively more distinctly over time. This may be due in part to the ba'al teshuva movement, in which many Jews who grew up with little or no observance are joining Orthodox communities and acquiring Orthodox speech styles. In the early 21st century, speakers of Jewish English tend to be fluent in the local non-Jewish variety and shift styles according to audience, setting, and topic. The fact that Jewish English is not written in Jewish characters is related to this bi-dialectalism, as well as to the landscape of widespread English literacy in which this language is developing. Orthodox (and many non-Orthodox) Jews are aware of the existence of Orthodox speech styles, especially the registers associated with the predominantly male learning institution, the Yeshiva. Many community members talk about "Yeshivish," as we can see in the title of a popular book (Weiser 1995) and in this song by the Orthodox band Journeys:

In the hallowed halls of yeshivos ('Yeshivas') far and wide,
Our young men have discovered a new way to verbalize.
With Yiddish, English, Hebrew – it's a mixture of all three,
And a dash of Aramaic – a linguistic potpourri!
That's called: yeshivishe reyd ('Yeshiva speech'), yeshivishe shprax ('Yeshiva language'):
Take ('really'), epis ('something'), grade ('in reality'), a gevaldike zax ('remarkable thing').
It's called: yeshivishe reyd, yeshivishe shprax:
It's the tawk of the town, mamish ('really') tog un naxt ('day and night').

Joshua Fishman asks: "Is it possible that a Jewish Language is being born before our very eyes but that few are aware of it?" (Fishman 1985:15). Yes, it is. And in order to understand more about the development of Jewish languages, now is the time to research Jewish English.

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