Intimate Argot: American Jewish Speech Patterns

Which generation of Jews is more likely to shep nakhes? How likely is a Jew of any generation to name a baby Mary? And is Mary pronounced the same as “merry,” except in New York?

In search of American Jewish speech patterns, Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen, social science researchers at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, sent a questionnaire into cyberspace. It went, in social-networking slang, viral: they got over 40,000 responses. After narrowing the sample to native speakers of English who grew up and currently live in the U. S., Benor and Cohen analyzed about three-quarters of the responses and wrote up their preliminary results in a paper titled “Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity.”

Benor and Cohen caution that their sample was “not at all random.” More women than men responded, and Jews with strong social and/or religious engagement outnumbered the disengaged and disaffected. The non-Jewish respondents – nearly 5,000 – were mostly invited to participate by Jewish friends. Still, interesting patterns emerged, reflecting the way language use spreads in and around the Jewish world, and those patterns may have implications for people outside the sample.

It was no surprise to find that different generations have different levels of exposure to Yiddish and modern Israeli Hebrew. Ninety percent of the Jewish respondents had Yiddish somewhere in their background, but seldom recently. Thus, older Jews use more Yiddish words – heymish (homey), makher (mover and shaker), nakhes (vicarious pride), bashert (destined mate) – as well as the all-purpose interrogative nu?, which may yet make a comeback thanks to the ubiquitous Michael Wex, author of Just Say Nu. Younger Jews, especially those who have spent time in Israel, are more likely to use modern Hebrew words: yofi (nice), balagan (mess), yallah (let’s go).

However, younger Jews who are religiously involved, even when they don’t shep nakhes or find their bashert like their grandparents, do daven (pray) and go to shul (synagogue). Interestingly, younger Jews even from Sephardic and other non-Yiddish-speaking backgrounds are using some Yiddish terms to conduct their religious lives. The intensely social aspect of religious practice naturally gives rise to catchy in-group usages. In addition to Yiddish terms for ritual practice – to say the grace after meals is to bentsh, to chant from the Torah is to leyn – religiously engaged Jews are more likely to use nonreligious Hebrew/Yiddish terms as well: tachlis for “practicalities,” davka for “specifically.”

Then there are the phrases that really separate the sheep from the goats: khas v’shalom (which means roughly “God forbid”), kal vakhomer (a Talmudic formula meaning “how much more so”), and the ultimate verbal wink-wink-nudge-nudge, hameyvin yavin: “the cognoscenti will understand,” a phrase used by only 24 percent of observant Jews and a vanishing two percent of other Jews.

Yiddish grammar also sneaks into English. Orthodox Jews retain a distinct set of Yiddish constructions: “She’s coming to us/staying by us,” “She has what to say,” “What do we learn out from this?” These phrases are actually more commonly used by younger Orthodox Jews than by their parents and grandparents: they create a cultural bond from what was originally a literal translation, by people who didn’t speak English well, of the Yiddish tsu undz, bay undz, vos tsu zogn, oyslernen. Honor thy father and thy mother, including their grammatical quirks: this is the intimate argot of community life.

Benor and Cohen were also curious about kinship terms. They found a number of variations: the terms Mother and Father, Mama and Papa, are more often used by non-Jews; Mom and Mommy are more Jewish, and Ima and Abba are more Orthodox (and/or more associated with time spent in Israel). Interestingly, Mame and Tate, the Yiddish terms, didn’t make the list. They are still used in Hasidic communities, and by especially resolute secular Yiddishists.

Baby-naming is an intense and highly complex identity marker: nothing exposes our aspirations and loyalties like the names we give the next generation. Benor and Cohen developed eight “clusters” of names for respondents to rate (see chart). The biblical Joshua and Jacob clusters are widely popular across the Jewish population, and to a lesser extent among non-Jews. Observant families with strong ties to Israel tend to prefer the Ezra and Matan clusters, whereas the more secular and assimilated prefer the Alex cluster. Modern Orthodox parents often translate the Yiddish names of earlier generations into Hebrew: Goldie becomes Zahava, Gitl becomes Tova. Hasidic communities are more likely to preserve Yiddish forms like those in the Moyshe cluster. Trendy non-Jewish names like those in the Tyler cluster are somewhat less trendy among Jews. Probably needless to say, the Christopher cluster, fairly popular with non-Jewish respondents, is at the bottom of the list for Jewish respondents.

So are you pushy, or ever accused of it? Forty-seven percent of Jews and 36 percent of non-Jews reported having been told their style of speech was too aggressive. These percentages may be interpreted in various ways, and it’s unclear whether they represent stable numbers or a rising or falling trend. Is the “more aggressive discourse style” associated with New York Jews gradually toning itself down – becoming acculturated, in response to what John Murray Cuddihy called (sympathetically) “the ordeal of civility”? Or are New York non-Jews picking up the aggressive style? Do ethnic and regional differences among non-Jews create further distinctions within the aggressive 36 percent and the polite 64 percent? Are Jews from New York more aggressive than those from, say, Minnesota or Seattle? Inquiring minds want to know.

Among non-Jewish respondents to the survey, the strongest predictors for the use of Jewish expressions and turns of phrase were having Jewish friends or colleagues, having worked in a Jewish organization, or having been in a long-term relationship with a Jew. Some Yiddish words and phrases retain Jewish associations: “mazel tov,” “mentsh,” “I don’t know from that.” Others have simply crossed over to American English. These include “enough already” (a direct translation of genug shoyn); the mocking construction “money, shmoney,” “fancy-shmancy”; “klutz” for a clumsy person; and the slightly cynical “shpiel” for a speech or pitch. “Shmooze” is also generally used in English with a cynical edge, to mean “chat up” or “network,” whereas in Yiddish it simply means “converse” (a meaning retained among older and/or more Jewishly connected Jews). In fact it might – Benor and Cohen don’t attempt this, but it might – be possible to construct a working theory that Yiddish words in English combine communal intimacy with alienation in a particularly captivating way.

The alienation might account for a curious finding: non-Jews who identified as gay/lesbian or bisexual were more likely than heterosexual non-Jews to use Yiddish words. Even when the data were adjusted for those who had lived in New York or had Jewish friends, the pattern held true. What’s with this? Benor and Cohen’s best guess is camp: the “element of theatricality or stylization” in gay male culture, which derives some of its kick from the influence of Joan Rivers and other Jewish celebrities. No doubt camp is a factor – and one would give something to know whether the word shmatte (“dress,” literally “rag”) was in the questionnaire – but the detached irreverence of one outsider group can attract another just because it’s irreverent; you don’t have to watch Joan Rivers to see the appeal.

One question Benor and Cohen seem to have missed is, “Are you now or have you ever been a MAD magazine reader?” Generations of non-Jewish kids learned the words shlep, shmendrik, and fershlugginer (not to mention a Polish word, potrzebie) from the same pages as “What, me worry?” Alfred E. Neuman may have secured more understanding between Jews and non-Jews than any amount of interfaith dialogue. This is material for future iterations of the questionnaire, if Benor and Cohen have more in mind.

As is another minor but burning question: is “marry” pronounced the same as “Mary” and “merry”?

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