Can we call it a "Jewish accent" rather than, say, a "New York accent"?
September 29, 2016 5:14 AM   Subscribe

Why Linguists are Fascinated by the American Jewish Accent
Intonation, pitch, phrasing, cadence, conversational style and behavor patterns, use of non-English words and locally-specific references (and so much more) all combine to produce what we call the American Jewish Accent.

"It’s only been about 15 years since linguists... 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."
posted by I_Love_Bananas (79 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I mean, I know what they're getting at. This cadence is particularly associated (in media at least) with Borscht belt comedians, as exemplified by Mel Brooks. But don't a lot of Italian-Americans in New York have pretty close to the same cadence? That rhythm and pronunciation would not have developed without the strong influence of the New York regional accent as its foundation, so I think it's kind of stereotype-y to call it a "Jewish" accent. It kind of reminds of things I've seen written about the "gay" accent, like an observation of a linguistic trend that begs the question by falling back on established cliches that are by no means universal.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:44 AM on September 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


And this, they call news?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:46 AM on September 29, 2016 [98 favorites]


The Jewish accent isn’t like other accents, the same way that Jewish Americans aren't like other ethnic minorities. It's messy and confusing and pulls elements from all over the world. But it’s pretty great for telling jokes.
This reminds me of when Bryan Cranston was Seinfeld's dentist whom Jerry suspected of converting to Judaism "for the jokes."
posted by wabbittwax at 5:47 AM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


That rhythm and pronunciation would not have developed without the strong influence of the New York regional accent as its foundation

I don't think so. The Jewish cadence precedes Jews coming to America. Europeans used to say that Jews seemed to sing everything, and it was especially associated with Yeshivas, where there was (and remains) a particular, sing-songy style of reading and arguing Talmud. If anything, the Italians in New York probably got it from us, in the same way gave the Irish corned beef.
posted by maxsparber at 6:05 AM on September 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


Nu, isn't this just English in Yiddish or Hebrew syntax?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:16 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


like an observation of a linguistic trend that begs the question by falling back on established cliches that are by no means universal.

Extra points for using begs the question properly! Honestly I thought this usage had died. Thank you sir.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:17 AM on September 29, 2016 [26 favorites]


And this, they call news?

As Mel Brooks demonstrated, Yoda is obviously Jewish.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:17 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Of course he is. He's played by Frank Oz.
posted by maxsparber at 6:20 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Accents are never just about where you live, but also how you live.

That's why there's a recognizable Native American accent nowadays, the result of decades of Natives traveling rez-to-rez on the powwow circuit, and having their own radio shows. And why British aristocrats don't have the local accents.
posted by ocschwar at 6:22 AM on September 29, 2016 [9 favorites]


Anyway, Yiddish uses a sentence structure that is heavily influenced by Slavic languages, and yet we don't associate the Jewish cadence with, say, Russian speakers. No, whatever that Jewish sing-song is, it's something else.
posted by maxsparber at 6:23 AM on September 29, 2016


Benor conducted a study that found that even among those Jews who are not from New York and whose parents are not from New York, Jews are more than twice as likely as non-Jews to use the “Flahrida” pronunciation.

Well, yeah. I grew up in a heavily Jewish town in Maryland saying "horrible" in the standard US pronunciation. Now that I'm living in Wisconsin I've retrained myself to say "harrible" because my kids should know where they come from.
posted by escabeche at 6:26 AM on September 29, 2016 [15 favorites]


I am not swayed by the Jewish particularity, though. My wife's family, who emigrated through Texas, not New York, talk like Texans, not like this. And Donald Trump, though it pains me to admit it, sounds a hell of a lot like my grandma.
posted by escabeche at 6:28 AM on September 29, 2016


I think a lot of it has to do with closeness to Yeshiva culture. I'm Midwestern and don't have the sing-song, even though my parents are New Yorkers. However, I went to a Yeshiva in high school, and there was definitely the sing-song there.

Language isn't just a product of location or experience. It can be an active choice, a way of marking something. I hear the sing-song especially among Orthodox and very especially among Hasidim, and I think they keep it as a way of demonstrating Jewishness that Reform little Midwestern me never felt necessary.
posted by maxsparber at 6:38 AM on September 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


I grew up in New Jersey, and my siblings and I all have the Jewish cadence (we are Jewish). My fiancé, who grew up in a Jewish part of Long Island, can do the Jewish cadence, but he speaks much more like a broadcaster, since his father was involved in early television. His older sister, who lived in Minnesota for 9 years growing up, has a more Midwestern tilt, and his brother, who was born on Long Island, has the really thick Queens/Long Island accent.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:38 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the actual "New York Accent" is the one where "I love you." sounds like "Fuck you, you fucking fuck."
posted by Thorzdad at 6:39 AM on September 29, 2016 [24 favorites]


Born in NYC, grew up in Chicago and have lived in the midwest all but the first 3 years of my life but people still ask me if I'm from NY and I'm in my 50s. Of course as a kid my father worked hard to make sure we pronounced things like New Yorkers and yes we're Jewish so...
posted by leslies at 7:01 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the actual "New York Accent" is the one where "I love you." sounds like "Fuck you, you fucking fuck."

That's right. In the "Jewish Accent," "I love you" sounds more like "Your father and I are very disappointed."
posted by PlusDistance at 7:03 AM on September 29, 2016 [53 favorites]


If anything, the Italians in New York probably got it from us,

Hey, you taught the Italians to sing about the same way you taught them to make pizza...
posted by Segundus at 7:08 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


i.e. outsource it to the Lebanese?
posted by delfin at 7:15 AM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


And this, they call news?

I get that this is a joke, but I'm a linguist who studies prosody, and it seems like a good jumping off point to explain why this is interesting:

Melody absolutely is important in English and in every other language. When the author said that it's not as important in English, they were probably thinking of tone languages like Mandarin, where pitch is lexically contrastive--that is, it can be the sole difference in sound between two different words.

In languages like English, melody (what we call intonation) is used to convey meaning and structure at the phrase level*. So, we still use it, just in a different way. It's part of our grammar too. But we know very little about it, compared to other kinds of grammar, because it's notoriously hard to study.

Most early work on intonation was actually done on English. And even now as the field is growing, there is still a huge bias toward the standard varieties of large languages. That means we have very little idea of how intonation varies. There is almost no work on regional or non-standard varieties of English, for example--despite English being the best studied language in the world.

So linguists are branching out.

And it's not just the grammar itself that is interesting. There are all sorts of questions about the relationship between language use and social factors like identity, that can be viewed through the lens of intonation--or have to be viewed through the lens of intonation when it is a particularly salient point of variation. (This is particularly true of the "gay accent" too. As a side note, I get why people object to the term "gay accent," but it's by no means a claim that all gay people speak a certain way.)

* Lexical tone languages have intonation too, but arguably, have less of it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:17 AM on September 29, 2016 [33 favorites]


also intonation is totally part of an "accent" what are you talking about, author
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:23 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Um, featuring MeFi's own damayanti. I was wondering if this would show up here!

In re: the first comment, and some related ones there are a couple things I tried to press to the reporter (and knowing my colleague, she did too), but which didn't quite come through (but he did a nice job overall outlining the basics, I think).

-First is that untangling New Yorkness and Jewishness is hard, and I can't say for sure how much what I found in my research is "New York" vs. "Jewish". The first because we haven't had good studies of non-Jewish New York intonation to compare my stuff to and second we have evidence for really strong ideological links between New Yorkness and Jewishness (see, Jews outside of New York having New York-like vowels) which makes untangling what's signaling "New York" and what's signaling "Jewish" hard.

-Second is that this is only one way of "sounding Jewish". There are lots of different ways to "sound Jewish", and different Jews make use of different linguistic features at different points in their lives to show their Jewishness or different types of Jewishness (e.g., do you say "Shabbat Shalom" or "Gut shabbos"?, or maxsbarer's comment about *not* using this type of intonation).

Sometimes Jews don't make use of this stuff at all; sometimes non-Jews use it (see Bryan Cranston's character on Seinfeld). The "accent" discussed here is just the most publicized (and stereotyped) one.
posted by damayanti at 7:25 AM on September 29, 2016 [32 favorites]


Being a military brat and not growing up in any one place I have no specific accent but I would, in my adolescent experimentation, imitate the accents of the kids I briefly went to school with from region to region. I remember working at a scout camp in the catskills when I was 16. All the staff were from long island or the city..they got a big kick out of my impressions of them, many we're jewish and seem to take no offense..I always thought I was mimicking a NY accent since I knew very little about what 'jewish' was or meant.
posted by judson at 7:28 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Your father and I are very disappointed

"Faddah," surely?
posted by entropicamericana at 7:32 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


I say gut shabbos, by the way, and it's both a residue of my yeshiva years and a deliberate choice because of a longstanding interest in Yiddish. Nobody else in my family says it.
posted by maxsparber at 7:39 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the actual "New York Accent" is the one where "I love you." sounds like "Fuck you, you fucking fuck."

Contrast this with the British accent, in which “fuck you” sounds like “sorry”.
posted by acb at 7:40 AM on September 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


But don't a lot of Italian-Americans in New York have pretty close to the same cadence?

Not in my experience. Or, at least, having been exposed to a variety of New York-metro accents in my life, they don't sound the same to me. I wouldn't say the cadence / accent is exclusive to Jews, but it's certainly strongly-associated with people who grew up in heavily-Jewish neighborhoods. As with many regional accents, this is less true of people under 30 or so.

I have a pretty neutral accent, but I do a lot of code switching, so these are things I think about sometimes.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:41 AM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


> Second is that this is only one way of "sounding Jewish". There are lots of different ways to "sound Jewish"

Right, this is an important point. The same holds for "Jewish cooking" and language itself: lots of (European-culture-based) people think of Yiddish as the "Jewish language" (and of course "Yiddish" itself means "Jewish"), but Jews in Persia spoke Persian, Jews in Arabic-speaking lands spoke (local dialects of) Arabic (sometimes, as in Baghdad, amounting to an actual "Jewish dialect"), etc. Judaism is a land of contrasts!
posted by languagehat at 7:49 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


do you say "Shabbat Shalom" or "Gut shabbos”

Oh my god let’s talk about people who ostentatiously drop Ashkenazi tafs in shul to show everybody they didn’t learn to daven on Birthright, they learned to daven as a kid, where by “people” I mean “me”
posted by escabeche at 7:52 AM on September 29, 2016 [20 favorites]


Anyway, Yiddish uses a sentence structure that is heavily influenced by Slavic languages

There's an interesting argument about this on Reddit. To sum up: one linguist claims that Yiddish syntax has a Slavic origin, and the rest of the linguistic community thinks it's bunkum; Yiddish syntax is Germanic.

As far as I understand, Yiddish is primarily a Germanic language—with heavy Slavic and other influences, but more in the vocabulary.
posted by the_blizz at 7:58 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


This business with the predicate - it is the one thing that I find rings out like a bell with my Jewish friends and family members - but more specifically, the way they emphasize a period of time.

In my midwestern English speaking and writing, if I want to emphasize a certain volume of time, I will build up to it and put it at the end of the sentence, like a bomb going off.

"I have been patiently waiting for my brother to visit for TWO YEARS."

but with the Jewish accent, the time period always comes first.

"TWO YEARS I have been waiting for my brother to visit!" Often while looking down at ones open hands, maybe giving them a little shake.

This all reminds me of my grandpa Maury.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:10 AM on September 29, 2016 [14 favorites]


Toity doity boids...
posted by Splunge at 8:22 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


and the rest of the linguistic community thinks it's bunkum

excuse me but the word you're looking for is mishegoss
posted by poffin boffin at 8:37 AM on September 29, 2016 [12 favorites]


We have part of a set of letter magnets on the fridge. I don't know where the rest are, but the letter choices are pretty poor. I rearrange them every so often while I'm standing there waiting for water to boil.

Right now it says FEH MISHEGAS.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:42 AM on September 29, 2016


one linguist claims that Yiddish syntax has a Slavic origin, and the rest of the linguistic community thinks it's bunkum; Yiddish syntax is Germanic.

Almost. I think that pretty much everybody agrees that Yiddish is a Germanic language with a lot of Slavic thrown in, and that Yiddish absorbed a lot of Slavic sentence constructions. There is one linguist, Paul Wexler, who insists Yiddish was originally a Slavic language that somehow replaced 90 percent of its vocabulary with Germanic loan words. His theory rests on a guess that Yiddish developed out of Sorbian, a language from far eastern Central Germany, and in order to believe Wexler's theory, we have to follow his guess that the Sorbians switched to speaking German when the area was settled by Germans, which is why Yiddish would have Slavic structure but Germanic words.

I am not a linguist, but get the sense that his argument is generally not considered credible. (A good article puts it this way: "These detractors include all serious Yiddish linguists except for Wexler himself.") But as far as I call tell everybody agrees that there is a strong Slavic influence on Yiddish syntax and morphology. I know Languagehat has studied some Yiddish -- if I have gotten anything wrong, perhaps he can correct or clarify.
posted by maxsparber at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


And now all my thoughts sound like excited Billy Crystal.
posted by resurrexit at 9:12 AM on September 29, 2016


I'm pretty sure the actual "New York Accent" is the one where "I love you." sounds like "Fuck you, you fucking fuck."

Contrast this with the British accent, in which “fuck you” sounds like “sorry”.


There is definitely an American accent in which "fuck off and die" sounds like "have a nice day"...
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:16 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh, bless your heart.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:19 AM on September 29, 2016 [9 favorites]


Have a pretty good day!
posted by maxsparber at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Four guys are sitting in a restaurant. For a long time, nobody says anything. Then, one man groans, "Oy."
"Oy vey," says the second man.
"Veyzmir," says the third.
At this, the fourth guy gets up from his chair and says, "If you guys don't stop talking politics, I'm leaving!"

My favorite Yiddish words that I grew up with have to be a toss-up between ferkakte and ongepatchket. I keep hoping if I use them enough they'll gain traction in the real world, but my breath, I'm not holding.
posted by Mchelly at 9:31 AM on September 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


everyone in my real world knows them which is basically why i can never leave new york.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:32 AM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


until the exodus to boca obvsly
posted by poffin boffin at 9:32 AM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


My favorite word is khnyok, which is a religious prig, and is useful when arguing online.
posted by maxsparber at 9:33 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Gut shabbos

Regarding this... in modern American culture, Jews = Eastern Europeans of Ashkenazi descent. It's worth noting that all Jews who live here (in American and specifically in the New York area) are not Ashkenazis, and many are not from countries where Yiddish was spoken. There are several beautiful Sephardic synagogues in Manhattan with large congregations, including Shearith Israel.

My own family has a large mix of people, some of whom follow either Ashkenazi or Sephardic traditions, or a blend of the two. My mother has always been very proud of the fact that her family never spoke Yiddish (which she looks down on) but rather Hebrew, English, German, etc. My dad's family thought that made them feinshmeckers (snobs) -- yet even though some of them spoke Yiddish, they were mostly adamant that when reading Hebrew it should not be Yiddishized with 's' sounds replacing 't' sounds at the end of words. So for them, Shabbat never became Shabbos. And they'd never use "Gut."

Judaism is large. It contains multitudes.
posted by zarq at 10:20 AM on September 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


Israelis pretty much use Shabbat shalom as well -- both Ashkenazi (non-Chassidic) and Sephardi. My husband likes to play the game of sizing people up and saying the one he thinks the other will use, and it's not so easy. There are some tells (wig almost always = gut shabbos , colorful modern tallis bag almost always = Shabbat Shalom), but it's a really wide spectrum even in our neighborhood. People generally seem to answer back with what they usually say, rather than echoing back the greeting, which I think is interesting (at least to me, maybe because I'm an echo-er).
posted by Mchelly at 10:28 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


t's worth noting that all Jews who live here (in American and specifically in the New York area) are not Ashkenazis

It certainly is worth noting that. The earliest Jewish settlers in America were Sephardim, and the next wave of Jews were assimilated German Jews, called (sometimes derogatorily) Yekkes, who did not speak Yiddish. The Jews I have known from central Europe don't seem to have the sing-song, but it's a pretty small sample I draw from, but I wouldn't be surprised if the accent being discussed is primarily one brought from Eastern Europe.

Now, this does cover the vast majority of American Jews (about 90 percent of American Jews are Ashkenazi), but there are sizable communities of Jews from elsewhere, and they shouldn't be rendered invisible. I used to work for Persian Jews in Los Angeles, which seems to be where all the Persian Jews wound up, and I know they wouldn't appreciate being left out when we discuss American Judaism, since their ancestors, you know, wrote the Babylonian Talmud and all.
posted by maxsparber at 10:37 AM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Definitely a bunch of fun jumping-off points in the article, but a lot of the claims made felt pretty guessy and anecdotal to me; googling around and seeing that the author seems to be a writer rather than (also) a linguist doesn't really dispel my doubts there.
posted by zokni at 10:54 AM on September 29, 2016


... ferkakte and ongepatchket. I keep hoping if I use them enough they'll gain traction in the real world

I'll stick with furshlugginer and veeblefetzer, thanks.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:11 AM on September 29, 2016


I double majored in Ferschluggenomics and Applied Veeblefetzing at Potrezebie University.

GO P.U.!
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:22 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hoohah!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:33 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Now I want to write a song with the standard melody used for "hoyven glaven."
posted by rhizome at 11:42 AM on September 29, 2016


Also we grew up saying gezundheit when people sneezed, and there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that saying "bless you" was a Christian thing. By the time I got to college and a wider Jewish world I learned that wasn't true, and was really surprised by it.
posted by Mchelly at 12:35 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


> I am not a linguist, but get the sense that his argument is generally not considered credible. (A good article puts it this way: "These detractors include all serious Yiddish linguists except for Wexler himself.") But as far as I call tell everybody agrees that there is a strong Slavic influence on Yiddish syntax and morphology. I know Languagehat has studied some Yiddish -- if I have gotten anything wrong, perhaps he can correct or clarify.

No, I agree with everything you have written about that topic.

> Judaism is large. It contains multitudes.

Excuse me, mister! What am I, chopped liver?
posted by languagehat at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've never been on a Birthright trip, but my reform synagogue taught Hebrew with both tavs as "t".

My cousin told me that her mother refused to acknowledge knowing yiddish, but was willing to use it when her grandson spoke to her in German.
posted by brujita at 1:25 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Contrast this with the British accent, in which “fuck you” sounds like “sorry”.

Isn't that the standard Canadian accent?
posted by dialMforMara at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2016


I think Canadians are only allowed to say "fuck you" if they're holding a hockey stick.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:29 PM on September 29, 2016


What? No, I don't mean an insult when I say sorry. That usually means I'm about to inconvenience you, or just did.
posted by Canageek at 1:31 PM on September 29, 2016


I use the askenazi accent, because I'm obnoxious, but also because it was my family's accent and I don't like the fact that it has been all-but erased by modern Hebrew. I also just like the accent. Toira just sounds more homey than Torah.

Weirdly, the tav and the sav almost never show up in Yiddish, except in Hebrew loan words. Yiddish tends to make a lot of use of the taf and the sof instead. And just to make sure you don't get confused between a bet and a beys, bets are almost always the letter b, and Yiddish uses a double vav for a v sound.

Until you learn how Yiddish uses Hebrew letters (especially using letters as vowels), Yiddish looks like Hebrew written by a crazy person.
posted by maxsparber at 1:31 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mchelly: "Four guys are sitting in a restaurant. For a long time, nobody says anything. Then, one man groans, "Oy."
"Oy vey," says the second man.
"Veyzmir," says the third.
At this, the fourth guy gets up from his chair and says, "If you guys don't stop talking politics, I'm leaving!"

My favorite Yiddish words that I grew up with have to be a toss-up between ferkakte and ongepatchket. I keep hoping if I use them enough they'll gain traction in the real world, but my breath, I'm not holding.
"

I rather like ALTER COCKER which I am not, yet and MEESKAIT which I am.
posted by Splunge at 2:26 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


A joke that my dear, departed friend Ruth told me.

A family of Schmohawk Indians was sitting around the shtetl one night: The papa, Geronowitz, the mama, Pocayenta, and the beautiful young daughter, Minihorwitz.

"So, nu," says the daughter, "You'll never."

"What?" says the mama.

"Today, at high noon, I was proposed to in marriage."

"Yes?" says the mama. "So what did you say?"

"I said, Yes."

"You said, Yes?"

"I said, Yes."

"Mazel tov!" says the mama. "She said Yes! Did you hear that Geronowitz? Minihorwitz is getting married!"

"I heard," says the papa, "I'm kvelling. So who's the lucky brave?"

"Sittin' Bagel."

"Sittin' Bagel?" says the mama, "of the SoSiouxMe tribe?"

"That's the one," says Minihorowitz.

"Oy, Geronowitz! The SoSiouxMe's! There are so many of them! How can we feed them? How can we get them all in our teepee for the wedding?"

"We'll think of something," replies Geronowitz.

"Geronowitz! Get me a buffalo!" commands the mama.

"What, at this hour?"

"No, Geronowitz, for the wedding! I can make buffalo tzimmes from the meat and we can make an extra teepee from the hide. Go on, get me a buffalo!"

So Geronowitz goes out to hunt a buffalo. A day goes by and a night and Geronowitz has not come back. Another day and another night and still no sign of him. Another day and half the night and Geronowitz finally comes home: exhausted, staggering and empty-handed.

"Geronowitz! I've been worried sick. Where have you been? And where's my buffalo?!"

"It's like this," he says. "On my first day out, I hunted high and I hunted low. I finally found a buffalo but this buffalo, he made Mickey Rooney look strong! It was a tiny, scrawny little buffalo with no meat on his bones for buffalo tzimmes and barely enough hide for a rain hat. So I settled in for the night to try again the next day.

The second day, I looked high and I looked low from this way and that way and I finally found a buffalo. He was a big buffalo with lots of meat and lots of hide, but, I tell you, Pocayenta, this was the ugliest buffalo I ever saw in my life. This, I thought to myself, is not the buffalo for MY daughter's wedding. So again, I settled in for the night to try again the next day.

The third day I got up early and I looked high and I looked low, from this way and that way, going up hills and down hills and, suddenly, there it was: A magnificent buffalo! It was a big buffalo. It was, as buffalos go, a beautiful buffalo. It was, if I say so myself, the perfect buffalo. This, I say to myself, is the buffalo Pocayenta wants for Minihorowitz's wedding.

So I reach into my backpack quietly for my tomahawk and, as I tiptoe over to the buffalo, I raise my tomahawk slowly over the buffalo's neck, when suddenly, like a bolt of lightning from the sky, I see it!"

"See what?" asks Pocayenta.

"I've brought the milchedik tomahawk!"

First she would tell it in Yiddish. And I'd laugh. Then she'd tell it this way. And I'd laugh more. She was just that funny.
posted by Splunge at 2:32 PM on September 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


I am over here giggling my tail off at "feinshmeckers" FYI
posted by Andrhia at 5:39 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


My family moved to Southern California from NY when I was three and my sister, one. Our parents were both native Brooklyn Jews. For our entire lives, people have asked us (or assumed) we are New Yorkers, which I early on learned was a code for Jewish.

We were children in Orange County 40-50 years ago, when there was a small Jewish community there. This question/assumption has remained my entire life. The only time I never heard it was where I lived in NYC. No one ever thought I was a New Yorker.

I guess we inherited our "Jewish accents."
posted by Sassenach at 6:11 PM on September 29, 2016


As far as I can tell, sometime around the 70s - 80s there must have been a conscious decision in the Conservative movement to go from "gut shabbes" to "shabbat shalom"... my family moved from a smaller city to a larger one in the mid-1980s, and the latter was universal at our new synagogue, but only later propagated back to where we used to live (I've rarely been wished gut shabbes anywhere else since then).

I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina (as did my mother and siblings), but none of us ended up with much of either a Southern or Jewish accent. My mother says when she was a child Southerners said she sounded like she was from New York and New Yorkers said she sounded like a Southerner, but I've never noticed any tendencies in either direction. . .
posted by janewman at 7:07 PM on September 29, 2016


BOBBY: Basketball I can take or leave.
PEGGY: Honey, don't you mean "I can take or leave basketball?"
BOBBY: No, Mom, Garry taught me this. It's the cool new way people from Arizona talk. You want I should teach you?

(From the King Of The Hill episode "The Unbearable Blindness of Laying")
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:26 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


The Jewish cadence precedes Jews coming to America. Europeans used to say that Jews seemed to sing everything, and it was especially associated with Yeshivas, where there was (and remains) a particular, sing-songy style of reading and arguing Talmud.

Very true, but I would also add the effect of public Torah leading ("leining"). The melody used by Torah readers is a rendition of the cantillation marks, which are a sophisticated form of punctuation which reflects the Masoretic tradition of which phrases to join together, which ones to emphasise, which ones to elide. Modern Mishnayot and Talmuds aren't published with cantillation marks, unlike some older manuscripts, but the "sing-songy style" serves the same purpose: it lets the speaker indicate parenthetical remarks, emphasise changes of speaker, and mark hypotheticals, rebuttals and so forth. So within the Jewish community there's been a constant prestigious source of speech in which melody is used for demonstrative effect.

For an example of what I'm talking about, look at this frequently-republished bit of humour that simply has to be read with a Yeshiva-like cadence:
WHY WORRY
There are only two things to worry about:
– either you are well or you are sick.
If you are well …
– then there is nothing to worry about.

But if you are sick, there are two things to worry about:
– either you will get well, or you will die.
If you get well …
– then there is nothing to worry about.

But if you die, there are only two things to worry about:
either you will go to Heaven or Hell.
If you go to Heaven …
– then there is nothing to worry about.

But if you go to Hell …
You’ll be so damn busy shaking hands with friends you won’t have time to worry!
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:01 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


You're right, Joe. I'm sure a lot of it comes from cantillation, and am a little pissed at myself for not thinking of that.
posted by maxsparber at 8:54 PM on September 29, 2016


A few years back I listened to a documentary on Yiddish and was surprised to find out that I understood so much. It's so close to German that I'm not sure whether it's a dialect, "regional" accent or its own language - it's not as far removed as Dutch but it's a bit like Luxembourgish (which has a very strange cadence - not sing-song-y but is more monotone with seemingly random highs, then often ending on a high-to-flat-low sequence).

Feinschmecker just means "fine-taster" or gourmet in regular German. And verkackt just means botched.
posted by guy72277 at 2:59 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's its own language. A lot of languages have a large number of cognates and are somewhat mutually comprehensible, but that doesn't make them dialects of each other.
posted by maxsparber at 5:22 AM on September 30, 2016


It's strange, because it seems more similar to standard spoken German than even Swiss or Sud-Tiroler Deutsch, both of which incorporate either their own different words, or words from other languages (Rhaeto-Romance and Italian) and they're both considered dialects. I guess the distinction between dialect and language is a grey one which has more to do with national (a peoples') pride, than any objective rule. Luxembourgish, otoh is more or less considered its own language rather than a German dialect that incorporates (increasing amounts of) French words.

I wonder how much the fact that Yiddish is written in another script adds weight to its classification as a language. Luxembourgish used to be only a spoken language but recent efforts to create a standardised way of writing it have given it a boost in terms of its claim to being a language of its own.

I'll be checking out Wikipedia's entry on languages and dialects shortly...
posted by guy72277 at 5:44 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I guess the distinction between dialect and language is a grey one

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot.
"A language is a dialect with an army and a navy"

Often attributed to Max Weinreich, noted Yiddishist .
posted by damayanti at 6:21 AM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


Let me note that there is a long and occasionally antisemitic legacy of denying that the Jewish language is a language at all, with it being disregarded as a jargon or dialect, which is a pretty shitty thing to do to a language that predates modern German.

The Weinreich quote above was his attempt to explain why Yiddish has been so disregarded, not an argument against Yiddish being a language.

Can I ask that people who are neither linguists nor students of Yiddish participate, even innocently, in this?
posted by maxsparber at 6:28 AM on September 30, 2016


I've heard that "two things to worry about" joke plenty of times, but it's only seeing it there written out that I'm realizing the similarity it has to If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.

I've been reading that book to my kid all wrong.
posted by Mchelly at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2016


A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot.

Interesting quote, thanks. Language being such a strong part of culture I understand that it's sometimes a touchy subject.
posted by guy72277 at 7:33 AM on September 30, 2016


It's not just touchy. The lack of institutional support for Yiddish is a large reason for its decline. As far as I can tell, a large part of why languages are defined as languages rather than dialects is rooted in nationalism, and since Yiddish was a language without a nation, it tended to be disregarded as a degraded German, even by Yiddish speakers.

But declaring Yiddish to be a German dialect is just as odd as declaring Portuguese to be a Spanish dialect. Despite having a common ancestor and a degree of mutual comprehensibility, nobody who really studies Yiddish would ever mistake it for German. I mean, aside from the fact that it actually works very differently from German, there is also the fact that while Yiddish may have number of cognates with German, the Jewish use of the language is quite idiosyncratic, in part because of a dramatically different worldview, in part because of such a strong eastern European influence. So not only does Yiddish have a different word for, oh, let's say werewolf (Werwolf in German, volkulak in Yiddish), but the very idea of a werewolf is quite different.

I mean, the only Jewish story I know about a werewolf has the Ba'al Shem Tov fighting one, and, I kid you not, the reason for this is because the werewolf is interrupting children's studies. I just can't imagine there being a similar German story.
posted by maxsparber at 8:21 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


…but is there a story of the werewolf's bar mitzvah?!
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:16 AM on September 30, 2016


Sure. It's called Boys to Men, Men to Wolves.
posted by maxsparber at 9:33 AM on September 30, 2016


> Can I ask that people who are neither linguists nor students of Yiddish participate, even innocently, in this?

Excuse me, mister, you missed your negation!

That said, you are of course correct about Yiddish. A dialect it's not.
posted by languagehat at 12:38 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I always miss my negations. I try to write them, but, you know, time gets away from you, and I realize I haven't even called a negation on the phone for months, just to say hi.
posted by maxsparber at 1:29 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


Re "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy"--

There is another fundamental issue with the terms "dialect" and "language," which is that calling Yiddish a dialect of German subordinates it to German.

That is, dialects are popularly imagined--and referred to--as though they are offshoots as a language: Yiddish is what happened to German when it was changed by Jewish speakers who brought influences from other languages; Kansai-ben is what happened to Japanese when it changed in Kansai due to the isolation of communities in the pre-modern era; African-American English is what happened to English due to the social and political separation of American Blacks. And so on.

But linguistically speaking, there is no subordinate relationship. German and Yiddish are closely related, but they're siblings rather than parent and child. The only reason why we're discussing whether Yiddish is a dialect of German, and not whether German is a dialect of Yiddish, is because German has more social and political power (symbolized by the army and navy in that famous quote).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:00 AM on October 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


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