Mamash Not the Queen’s English

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
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I’ve received a number of responses from readers to my March 4 column on “Yeshivish,” two of which I’ll share with you today. One is scholarly, the other is comic, but what rule states that the two can’t appear side by side?

On the scholarly side, the American Jewish linguist Sarah Bunin Benor has sent me an article of hers, “Do American Jews Speak a ‘Jewish Language’? A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness,” published in the Spring 2009 issue of The Jewish Quarterly Review. An excellent discussion of Yeshivish, Ms. Bunin Benor’s article comes to a conclusion that may seem, at first glance, the opposite of that of my column, namely: “Yes, American Jews [who talk Yeshivish] do speak a Jewish language comparable to Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, and many other Diaspora languages.”

Shtelling Avek: Abraham Lincoln, the most yeshivish of presidents.
wikicommons
Shtelling Avek: Abraham Lincoln, the most yeshivish of presidents.

But this isn’t really at all opposed to what I said, since my column ended with the conclusion that Yeshivish is not, and probably never will be, comparable with Yiddish, while Ms. Bunin Benor’s thesis is that it is comparable with other historical Jewish forms of speech in which the divergences from the co-territorial languages spoken by non-Jews (Persians, Arabs, Greeks, etc.) were much smaller than those of Yiddish from German. With this I have no quarrel — certainly not when it comes to Judeo-Greek and Judeo-Persian, which differed from standard Greek and standard Persian, much as Yeshivish differs from standard English, almost entirely in matters of vocabulary.

In the case of Judeo-Arabic, on the other hand, there were parts of the Arabic-speaking world, such as Baghdad or Morocco, where Jewish speech differed from non-Jewish speech in ways that extended beyond distinctively Jewish (generally Hebrew-derived) words. And yet, Ms. Bunin Benor argues, this is also true of Yeshivish in a number of ways that my column failed to take into account. Some of the examples she gives are:

Phonetic differences. Although subtle and few, these do exist. Thus, for instance, many speakers of Yeshivish tend, even though English is their native language, to partially devoice final consonants as is done in Yiddish, so that “wrong” becomes “wrongk,” “beard” becomes “beardt,” etc.

Grammatical differences. A few of these exist, too. For example, Yeshivish speakers (again, under the influence of Yiddish) sometimes use the English present tense rather than the past perfect, as in a sentence like, “I’m a ba’al-teshuvah [a newly observant Jew] for 15 years,” instead of, “I’ve been a ba’al-teshuvah for 15 years.”

Syntactical differences. Yeshivish speakers do things like interpose adverbial phrases between verbs and their direct objects, such as when they say, “I study all day Torah,” as opposed to standard English, “I study Torah all day.”

Such divergences from standard English, Ms. Bunin Benor admits, are, so far, minor. Are they likely to grow much greater? As I said in my column, I have my doubts; she, with scholarly caution, takes no stand on the matter. For those of you who are interested, her article can be read at http://tinyurl.com/4bdhwep and is well worth the effort.

•And on the comic side, Ernesto Brach sends me the following translation into Yeshivish of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, taken from Chaim M. Weiser’s book “Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish” (Jason Aronson, 1995), with slight variations. I found it both ingenious and very funny. Those of you who know enough Yeshivish to follow it will, I think, agree:

“Be’erech a yoivel and a half ago, the meyasdim shtelled avek on this makom a naya malchus with the kavana that no one should have bailus over their chaver, and on the yesoid that everyone has the zelbe zchusim.

“Now we’re holding by a geferliche machloikes being machria if this medina, or an andere medina made in the same oifen and with the same machshovos, can have a kiyum. We are all mitztaref on the daled amos where a chalois of that machloikes happened in order to be mechabed the soldiers who dinged zich with each other.

“We are here to be koiveya chotsh a chelek of that karka is a kever for the bekekavodike soldiers who were moiser nefesh and were niftar to give a chiyus to our nation. Yashrus is mechayev us to do this. Lemayse, hagam the velt won’t be goires or machshiv what we speak out here, it’s zicher not shayach for them to forget what they tued uf here. We are mechuyav to be meshabed ourselves to the melocha in which these soldiers made a haschala — that vibalt they were moiser nefesh for this eisek, we must be mamash torud in it — that we are all mekabel on ourselves to be moisif on their peula so that their maisim should not be a bracha levatulla — that Hashem should give the gantze oilam a naiya bren for cheirus — that a nation that shtams by the oilam, by the oilam, by the oilam will blaib fest ahd oilam.”

Did I say Yeshivish wasn’t a new language? After reading Weiser and Brach’s “translation,” I’m not so sure anymore. It’s one thing to discuss a page of the Talmud in a strange form of English that only Orthodox Jews can understand, quite another to give the Gettysburg address in it. A yasher koyach!

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


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