Jewish English

Description by Sarah Bunin Benor

Comedic representation of Orthodox Jewish English

Video lecture: Jewish English is a Jewish language

Today, in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, and Israel, millions of Jews speak Jewish varieties of English, with influences from Textual Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages. There is a great deal of variation according to region, ancestry, generation, religiosity, and gender, but all varieties of English spoken by Jews can be discussed together under the umbrella of "Jewish English."

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, phonology, discourse, and prosody. 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 immigrants and their children, sometimes referred to as "Yinglish").

Among Jews outside of New York, New York linguistic features are common, such as pronouncing "orange" like "ahrange" and a high-engagement conversational style (including cooperative overlapping). Descendants of Ladino speakers often maintain some Ladino words, and descendants of Judeo-Arabic speakers often maintain some Judeo-Arabic words. The Jewish English Lexicon offers a crowdsourced database of many Hebrew, Yiddish, and other words used by Jews within English:

Quick facts


Names of language:

Jewish English, Judeo-English, Judaeo-English, Yeshivish, Frumspeak, Yinglish, Hebrish, Hebraized English, אנגלית יהודית
 

Territories where it was/is spoken: United States of America, Canada,
United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Israel

 

Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 1 million
- 2019: 3 million

 

Vitality:

Vibrant
 

Writing systems:

English writing system, occasionally Hebrew words inserted in Hebrew letters, English words have only rarely been written in Hebrew letters


Literature:

Periodicals, liturgical translation, drama, poetry, prose, film

 

Language family/branch:

West Germanic

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 have specialized meanings or uses: leyn ('read Torah' < Yid. 'read'), as do some English words: "learn" ('learn Jewish texts').

Other features of Orthodox Jewish English include quasi-chanting intonation contours and other distinctive intonation, loan uses from Yiddish ("I'm eating by her"; "He doesn't know from that"; "I want that you should see this"), 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).

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, Frumspeak, and in the song Yeshivishe Reid by the Orthodox band Journeys.

Jewish English provides an excellent laboratory for understanding how Jewish languages develop. It has the components laid out by Weinreich (1980): a co-territorial base language (English), a previous Jewish language (Yiddish and other immigrant languages), and a Hebrew-Aramaic stratum, which overlaps greatly with the previous Jewish language (see this video lecture on how Jewish English compares to other Jewish languages). 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. 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.

 

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.

Shiur.PNG

Jewish English lecture from Torah Ohr Yeshiva, at KolHaLashon.com

Jewish English lecture from Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)​

  • * Benor, S. B. 2009. Do American Jews Speak a 'Jewish Language'? A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness. Jewish Quarterly Review 99/2: 230-269.

  • Benor, S. B. 2012. Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

  • * Benor, S. B. 2012-present. "Jewish English Lexicon." Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project.

  • * Benor, S. B. 2018. Jewish English in the United States. In Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, ed. Benjamin Hary and Sarah Bunin Benor, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. 414-430.

  • Benor, S. B. & Cohen, S. M. 2009. Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity. Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.

  • Benor, S. B., J. Krasner, and S. Avni. 2020. Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

  • Burdin, R. 2017. New Notes on the Rise-Fall Contour. Journal of Jewish Languages 5: 145-173.

  • Clyne, M., Eisikovits, E. & Tollfree, L. 2002. Ethnolects as In-group Varieties. In A. Duszak (ed.), Us and Others: Social Identities Across Languages, Discourses, and Cultures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 133-157.

  • Fader, A. 2009. Mitzvah Girls: Bringing up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • Fishman, J. A. 1985. The Sociology of Jewish Languages from a General Sociolinguistic Point of View. In J. A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill. 3-21.

  • * Glinert, L. 1992. The Joys of Hebrew. Oxford University Press.

  • * Gold, D. 1985. Jewish English. In J. A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill. 280-298.

  • Heilman, S. 1983. People of the Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Jochnowitz, G. 1968. Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children. American Speech 43/3: 188-200. Reprinted in 1981 in J. A. Fishman (ed.), Never Say Die: A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters. The Hague: Mouton. 721-737.

  • Prince, E. F. 1988. On Pragmatic Change: The Borrowing of Discourse Functions. Journal of Pragmatics 12: 505-18.

  • Prince, E. F. 1999. How Not to Mark Topics: 'Topicalization' in English and Yiddish. In Texas Linguistics Forum. Austin: University of Texas. Chapter 8.

  • * Steinmetz, S. 1987. Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

  • Tannen, D. 1981. New York Jewish Conversational Style. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30: 133-149.

  • Weinreich, M. 1980. History of the Yiddish Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • * Weiser, C. 1995. Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

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Last update: 2021-4-12

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