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Jewish Russian

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Description by Anna Verschik

The term Jewish Russian (JR) refers to a cluster of varieties rather than one particular variety. JR emerged as a result of language shift from Yiddish to Russian between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries in Russia and the Soviet Union (including Ukraine and Belarus). JR is one of several post-Yiddish Jewish ethnolects (Jacobs 2005). Nowadays JR serves as a linguistic repertoire that Russian-speaking Jews can draw on to make a joke or ironic comment or to express their Jewish identity.

JR is used outside Russia in the countries with substantial communities of Jewish immigrants from Russia and other post-Soviet countries. In those communities the input and output are more complex. For instance, there exists a wide range of Jewish speech among Russian Jews in Israel: those whose speech does not depart from educated Russian speech, speakers who use less or more JR, and speakers for whom Russian is a second or even a third language. Of course, these varieties exist under the impact of Israeli Hebrew (Ivrit). To make the story even more complicated, the first speakers of Ivrit were primary speakers of Yiddish and/or a Slavic language, and for that reason the influence of these languages on Ivrit is substantial (Blanc 1956; Moskovich & Guri 1982; Zuckermann 2003).

The shift to Russian occurred for several reasons. Some Jews embraced Russian language and culture as an effort to participate in modernization and secularization. Why did they shift to Russian and not to other co-territorial languages like Ukrainian and Lithuanian? Recall that Jews in the Russian empire were not allowed to reside outside the Pale of Settlement (25 western guberniyas), unless they had a higher education or were extremely wealthy merchants. Co-territorial majorities (Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians) were themselves oppressed peoples in the process of developing their standard languages and national cultures; therefore, they lacked prestige in the eyes of Jews. Poland, Latvia, and Estonia are notable exceptions to this pattern: Polish language and culture was strong enough to attract Jews, and in Latvia and Estonia – where the local nobility were Germans – Jews saw German as a Kulturschprache and preferred that over Russian or local languages.

Other Jews shifted to Russian for practical reasons. After the revolution of 1917, the anti-Jewish restrictions were abolished and Jews were entitled to settle everywhere. In a certain sense, transition from shtetls to bigger urban centers with a Russian majority may be compared to immigration: suddenly the Jews found themselves in a strange environment amidst Russian speakers. Thus, we have a wide range of linguistic repertoires, ranging from mainstream Russian to varieties that exhibit many Yiddish features (mainly in morphosyntax but also in lexicon, pragmatics, and prosody; see especially Weinreich 1956 on Jewish rise-fall intonation). Nowadays, Jews in Russia speak Russian as their first language, but this is not necessarily their only variety.

The shift occurred from different dialects of Yiddish. This is observable in the lexical items that come from Yiddish: JR mišpóxa 'family, relatives', from N(orth)-E(astern)Y(iddish) mišpóxe, and JR mišpúxa, from S(outhern)Y(iddish) mišpúxe; JR tsóres 'troubles', from NEY tsóres, and JR tsúres from SY tsúres. However, it would be wrong to claim that the difference between mainstream Russian and JR is only in the lexicon. In a situation of language shift, the speakers acquire the vocabulary of the target language but often apply the rules of their native prosody and phonology ("accent"), morphosyntax, and semantics. A JR utterance with no overt Yiddish lexical items may be heavily influenced by Yiddish in word order and meaning. An example is this sentence, given in Jewish Russian, and unmarked Russian, meaning 'what do you wish to tell me?':

JR also exhibits forms where both the stem and derivational suffixes are Russian but the combination thereof is not: JR otkaznik 'refusenik' < otkaz 'refusal' and agentive suffix -nik (clearly the model for (Jewish) English refusenik). In a similar vein, new fixed expressions and idioms are being created, such as sidet'; byt' v otkaze 'to get a negative answer to one's petition for the right to leave the USSR and to suffer the consequences', lit. 'to sit; to be in (the state of) refusal'. Combinations of non-Slavic stems and Slavic derivational suffixes are common: xazer-š-a < pig[Yid/Heb]-feminine suffix-NOM SG[Rus] ('Jewish woman who is married to a non-Jew and has no interest in Jewish matters'); goj-k-a < gentile[Yid/Heb]-suffix-NOM SG[Rus] ('non-Jewish woman'), goj-s-k-ij < gentile[Yid/Heb]-suffix-suffix-NOM SG MASC[Rus] ('belonging to or characteristic of gentiles' - often derogatory), goj-ets < gentile[Heb]-masculine suffix[Rus] ('gentile' - ironic).

Interestingly, some lexical and semantic Ukranianisms and Polonisms find their way through Yiddish into JR. As is widely known, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish have deeply influenced Yiddish. The speakers of JR are not aware of the ultimate source of these features; often they do not know any Slavic language except Russian. The best example is the emphatic particle taki 'still; nevertheless; definitely, yes' (< Yiddish take < Ukrainian taky): on taki prišel 'he has come nevertheless'. The particle has become a marker of Jewish speech, and even some non-Jewish Russians use it when they want to sound funny, casual, and/or ironic.

Some varieties of JR do not exhibit any "deviation" from standard Russian morphosyntax and lexicon but are characterized by Yiddish-influenced pragmatics and discourse (special patterns of arguing, storytelling, etc). So-called psycho-ostensive expressions (Matisoff 2000; see also Harshav 1992 on "Jewish rhetoric") provide a remarkable example. Let us consider the following utterance: moj sosed, čtoby on byl tak zdorov, opjat' priglasil k sebe million rodstvennikov 'my neighbor, may he be so healthy, again invited a million relatives to his place', cf. Yiddish majn šoxn, zol er zajn azoj gezunt, hot vajter farbetn tsu zix a miljon krojvim. The fragment čtoby on byl tak zdorov < zol er zajn azoj gezunt 'may he be so healthy' cannot be taken at a face value (i.e., not as a good wish to the neighbor) but as an expression of irony. Speakers of Russian without any exposure to JR would either interpret this utterance in a non-figurative way or would not understand it.

Some ethnolectal features have gradually lost their ethnic coloring and became a part of casual spoken Russian, for instance, figurative expressions that are word-for-word renditions from Yiddish, such as sprašivajetsja vopros 'a question arises' (literally, 'a question asks itself') < Yiddish fregt zix a frage. The so-called "Odessa language" has become known outside its heartland through the writings of Isaac Babel and other Jewish authors who wrote in Russian. Jews, along with Ukrainians, have constituted a considerable part of the population of Odessa; the "Odessa language" is a result of language shift from Yiddish and Ukrainian to Russian. For many laypeople, "Odessa language" just sounds funny and exciting, and they are not able to detect Yiddish under the surface. This characterization is due in part to the presence of several outstanding Russian comedians who are Jews (Arkadi Raikin, Mikhail Khazanov), some of them from Odessa (Mikhail Zhvanetski).

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)