Judeo-English, Part II

By Philologos

Published June 26, 2007, issue of June 29, 2007.
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Last week’s column, which started with an e-mail from Irving Treitel that despaired of the possibility of a distinct American Jewish language, ended with the question of whether, considered lexically, phonetically and grammatically, there actually is already such a thing as “Judeo-English” in the sense that there were once dialects of “Judeo-Italian,” “Judeo-Arabic,” etc. With the proviso that such an answer would apply to no more than 10% or 15% of American Jewry — that is, almost entirely to its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors — I would answer: Yes, Judeo-English does already exist; if not in a full-fledged form, at least as a work in progress.

True, the great majority of native-born American Jews speak, even when among themselves, an English that is no different from that of their non-Jewish socio-economic peers. Perhaps, here or there, there will be a Yiddish-derived word in it that non-Jews are unfamiliar with — if a Jew tells another Jew that she is making “latkes” for supper, a gentile overhearing the conversation probably would not know what food she was referring to — but such words are few, and some of them (think of “chutzpah,” “maven,” “shmooze,” etc.) eventually will make it into general American English.

But among a minority of American Jews, the situation is different. Not only do they use many more words that are incomprehensible to non-Jews, but sometimes they also string them together in whole incomprehensible utterances. It is perfectly possible in such circles to hear sentences of which no gentile could make heads or tails, such as “During kriyas-hatorah in shul on shabbes, he told me such a mayseh about that mamzer that I thought I would plotz.” (“During the Torah reading in synagogue on Saturday, he told me such a story about that bastard that I thought I would die.”)

True, the same Jew who might say such a thing might also have a conversation with his best friend about other subjects in which neither used a single nonstandard English word. And yet, chances are that even if they were discussing the stock market or the New York Mets, at least some such words would creep into their conversation, such as “the market was shvakh [weak] yesterday,” or “the Mets were schmeared by the Giants,” let alone such stock phrases as “mirtse Hashem” (God willing) or “khas v’sholem” (God forbid), with which highly observant Jews tend to pepper everything they say.

Lexically, therefore, there definitely is such a thing as Judeo-English. Is there one phonetically, too? Not in the sense that there are native-born American Jews who articulate English words differently from the way non-Jews do, although there are certainly native-born Jews — and again, largely in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors — who speak with a distinctive Jewish intonation. But think of this: There is at least one phoneme, the guttural “kh” sound, that exists among Jews but not among other Americans, and creates differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish pronunciations of a small number of words that American English has borrowed from Jews. (Thus, for example, Americans speak of “hallah” bread, whereas many or most Jews say “khallah.”) This may not seem like much, but it’s more than you can say of Judeo-Italian or even Ladino, in which the “kh” sound disappeared entirely.

Something similar is the case with grammar. While Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox American Jews don’t, as a rule, use grammatical constructions that are different from those used by non-Jews, I can think of at least one major exception to the rule. This is the borrowing of the Yiddish usage of coupling noninflected Hebrew verbs with inflected forms of the Yiddish verb zayn, “to be,” so that one says in Yiddish, for instance, “M’darf zayn mekhabed dem rov,” “You should respect the rabbi,” which translates into Judeo-English as, “You should be mekhabed the rov.” Not that “You should be respecting the rabbi” is impossible in American English (in Irish English, it’s actually normative), but it’s not generally how you’d say it.

A Judeo-English of sorts thus definitely exists, and the further to the “right” you go on the religious spectrum, from moderate Orthodoxy to strict Orthodoxy to ultra-Orthodoxy, the more the Yiddish influence on it grows and the more distinctive it becomes. Here, from an amusing and fascinating little book by Chaim Weiser, called “Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish” (Jason Aronson, 1995), are the opening lines of Brutus’s eulogy in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears./I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./The evil that men do lives after them,/ The good is oft interred with their bones./So let it be with Caesar.”), translated into the Judeo-English that Weiser calls “Frumspeak” or “Yeshivish”:

Rabosai, Roman oilam, heimishe khevra, her zikh ayn.
I want to pater you from Caesar, not to give him shvakh.
Rishus has a shtikl nitzkhiyus
The velt is keseder moyneya your kavod.
-By Caesar it’s also azoy.

So don’t despair, Mr. Treitel, things aren’t as bad as all that. Or to put it in Frumspeak: Don’t be meya’esh, it’s takke not azoy shlekht.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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