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For performers like Mel Brooks, who made ample use of the accent in a number of his films and routines, growing up in Yiddish-speaking households rendered such dialect books superfluous. He and many of his contemporaries, however, got the joke: Accents can be funny, and Yiddish accents can be especially funny.
But what is it about the Yiddish accent that makes it funny? Is it because certain foreign accents are perceived to render English speech comical, like Apu’s on “The Simpsons”? Not entirely. Part of it has to do with the cultural package behind the accent. One answer, it seems, can be found in the clip below.
The clip shows Emmy-winning TV writer/producer Stan Daniels warming up an audience before a live taping of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In a bit that was probably funnier than the show itself, Daniels recites “Old Man River,” the laconic dirge from “Showboat,” with the innovation of a Yiddish accent. The result, which layers a classic Yiddish accent onto what is culturally associated with a Southern black man’s lament, is difficult to watch without cracking a smile.
Daniel’s genius is inflecting particular words, forcibly wrangling what are meant to be melancholic laments into puzzling interrogatives. In doing so, he upends the original intention of the lyrics and manages to create a stark parody — using only accent, intonation and gesture — without changing a single word.
The emotive nature of Yiddish-speaking immigrant culture, the musicality of the language and a well-known penchant for physical and facial gesticulation all contributed to it being perceived as “funny.” Once such an accent is inserted into the language of a stiffer Anglo-Saxon culture, the speech is rendered absurd. What’s fascinating is that the accent itself carries so much cultural baggage that it’s not even necessary for Daniels to include even one word in actual Yiddish.
The magic of the accent is all about the mix. By intertwining certain linguistic features into their speech, Yiddish speakers created their own variant of English. This variant, combined with Italian and Irish versions of the same, helped create the distinctive “New York” accent, which itself is on the wane.
With the last generations of Yiddish-speaking immigrants dying off, their accents are dying with them. Worse yet, a number of historical dramas that purport to tell the stories of Yiddish-speaking Jews — such as “Schindler’s List,” “Defiance,” “The Pianist” and so on — have their actors speaking with accents, but not Yiddish accents. The Yiddish-humor link is so strong that Hollywood wouldn’t dare create a dramatic role that involves a heavy Yiddish accent, which, of course, is too bad. By expunging the Yiddish accent, these films are guilty of a sad sort of linguistic revisionism.
For those of us who had the pleasure of having Yiddish-accented parents and grandparents yell at us, cry with us and laugh with us, the full-bodied nature of their accented speech will always be a fond memory. The Yiddish accent is gone, but the Yiddish language? Well, it just keeps rolling along.
Eddy Portnoy is a contributing editor to the Forward.