How To Understand Yeshivish

On Language

A Yeshivish Idyll: Speaker 1: Gosh, this is truly a paradise, isn’t it? Speaker 2: By the
grace of the Divine One we did indeed find a beach respecting the value of the human body!
Getty Images , dialogue courtesy of Alex Luxenberg
A Yeshivish Idyll: Speaker 1: Gosh, this is truly a paradise, isn’t it? Speaker 2: By the grace of the Divine One we did indeed find a beach respecting the value of the human body!

By Philologos

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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Browsing on the Internet while working on last week’s column, which had to do with a blessing in the morning prayer, I came across the following:

“The lechatchila time for shacharis is neitz. B’dieved, if a person davened from amud hashachar and onwards he is yotzei. In a shas hadchak he may daven from amud hashachar and onwards lechatchila…. After chatzos it is assur to daven shacharis. One should wait till after mincha and then daven a tashlumin. The possibility for a tashlumin doesn’t exist for someone who was bemaizid.”

As strange as this passage may seem, there is nothing very unusual about it. It is written in what has semi-jocularly been called “Frumspeak” or “Yeshivish,” a perfectly normal form of discourse for many Orthodox Jews in America. Translated into ordinary English, it would read:

“One should plan to say the morning prayer no earlier than sunrise. After the fact, if a person unknowingly prayed earlier, starting with the break of dawn, he is considered to have performed the commandment. If he has no choice [because he will not have time after sunrise], he may knowingly pray starting with the break of dawn…. After midday, saying the morning prayer is forbidden. One should compensate [for having missed it] by waiting for the afternoon prayer and repeating that a second time. Such compensation, however, is unacceptable in the case of someone who acted deliberately [in skipping the morning prayer].”

There are, by my count, 13 different words or terms in the Yeshivish passage, some used more than once, that would be incomprehensible to any non-Jewish speaker of English, as well as to a great majority of non-Orthodox Jewish speakers. Yet, is Yeshivish really a different language in the way that Yiddish, say, is different from German? Or is it just ordinary English with foreign words — in this case, rabbinic Hebrew ones with an Eastern European inflection — inserted into it? How, linguistically, is it to be analyzed?

On the face of it, it’s ordinary English with foreign words. If one looks at its English vocabulary, there seems to be nothing grammatically, morphologically or lexically deviant about it. Yeshivish isn’t like Yiddish, in which, in addition to its non-Germanic elements, German words themselves may have changed their original form, be pronounced differently, be conjugated and declined in different ways, and be joined together in different syntactical structures. You don’t have to learn a new language to understand Yeshivish; you simply have to know some rabbinic Hebrew.

On the other hand, we do occasionally find English words in Yeshivish that have meanings that do not exist for other English speakers. Here are two examples culled from an Internet chat site conducted in Yeshivish. The subject of discussion is, again, the morning prayer — or, more precisely, how fast it can or should be recited. Example 1 goes:

“I was speaking to a litvishe bochur [a non-Hasidic yeshiva student] and he was saying how he used to daven [pray] behind the rosh yeshiva [headmaster] but couldn’t stand how he had to wait so long with nothing to do until the R’Y [rosh yeshiva] finished the shemone esrei [silent prayer]. So he changed his place to next to the sefarim [bookshelf]. That’s a great story, but the way he said it was, ‘My R’Y has an 11-minute shemone esrei and I have a 4-minute shemone esrei.’ It didn’t ring right.”

In standard English, of course, one would say, “It didn’t sound right,” or “I didn’t like the way it sounded.” Although our chatter apparently speaks English as a native language, he was using the English verb “ring” like the Yiddish verb klingen, which means “to ring” but also “to sound” in an expression like “s’ klingt modne,” “It sounds strange.”

A fellow chatter of his provides Example 2:

“I used to race to keep up with the supersonic nusach Ashkenaz minyan [prayer group using a standard Ashkenazi prayer book], sacrificing all meaningful davening for the sake of tsibbur [conforming with the congregation]. But then I noticed that the shaliach [prayer leader] davened nusach Arizal [prayed according to the semi-Sephardic liturgy used by Chabad Hasidim] at his own pace, with no concern for where the minyan was holding.”

Here, too, “where the minyan was holding” is a calque expression taken from Yiddish, in which the verb-plus-preposition haltn in means “to be in the middle of or up to something.” It’s an idiom unique to Yeshivish.

In theory, such expressions could begin to multiply in Yeshivish, to the point that, accompanied by other departures from standard English, they result in a new language. In practice, this is unlikely to happen. No matter how socially insular they may be, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in America are simply too much a part of American life and too affected by it to go their own way linguistically: Their members hear and speak standard English at work and in the street, read standard English books and newspapers, shop and do business in standard English, and acquire their professional training and practice their professions in it. Standard English is thus almost certainly what they will go on talking to one another, with an occasional lapse from it and a high admixture of non-English words, particularly when discussing religious subjects. It won’t sound like standard English to others, but an American “Yiddish” it won’t be, either.

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


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