The Disappearing Yiddish Accent

Language Isn't Dying But Some Dialects Are Fading Fast

By Eddy Portnoy

Published August 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

They say that Yiddish has been dying for the past 200 years. Up until about 50 or 60 years ago, saying as much was kind of a crude bluff, but now it would be a lie to say that Yiddish hasn’t been severely diminished. According to UNESCO’s most recent list of endangered languages, Yiddish falls into the category of “definitely endangered.” But what, exactly, is in danger here? Yes, secular Yiddish already needs a walker, but Haredi Yiddish has, in fact, ever-increasing numbers of speakers.

Contemporary Haredi Yiddish, however, is probably not your bubbe’s Yiddish. That is to say, it’s not exactly the Yiddish of the masses of Jewish immigrants that washed up on America’s shores during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is unquestionably a branch on the tree of Yiddish, but it’s more a product of a Yeshivish bunker culture than a Yiddish culture wide open to new worlds of literature, theater and art, as early 20th-century Yiddish was.

When a language slips into oblivion, a culture also disappears. Sometimes aspects of disappeared languages resurface in other languages and cultures, such as the many Yiddish words that have been given second lives in English, serving as an example of how integrated Yiddish speakers were in general society. But before American English embraced Yiddish words, Yiddish speakers spoke English with an accent: the linguistic bridge between languages. As Yiddish speakers traded one language for another, they invariably entered the new one with the accent of the old, wrapping their English in the warm, lilting tones of Yiddish.

Sadly, the classic Eastern European Yiddish accent, the linguistic stepping stone that both bridged and divided generations, would probably garner a “critically endangered” classification if UNESCO had such a list for accents. Once a common linguistic feature of places like Miami Beach and Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one hardly hears a genuine Yiddish accent anymore.

Haredi Yiddish, dominated as it is by Satmar Hasidim, doesn’t have the traditional Yiddish accent of most Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Nor does the Yiddish of younger Yiddishists, who employ more muted tones when they speak. This links them to the older generation of Yiddish scholars who assiduously studied the folk masses, but certainly didn’t want to speak like them. While both of these groups speak English, or some other vernacular, it certainly isn’t with an accent that is recognizable as a Yiddish one. So when the last Yiddish-speaking immigrant shuffles off this mortal coil, Yiddish will certainly live on, but its bridge to other vernaculars, the traditional accent, will die a silent death.

Once one of the most widely used comic foils in show business, the Yiddish accent has been used to garner laughs for more than a century. From the early days of Vaudeville, the Yiddish accent has been a consistent producer of quality laughs. In fact, the Yiddish accent was once such a staple of early 20th-century dialect humor that numerous accent instruction books and joke books were published to guide performers toward the perfect Yiddish accent.

Moreover, the Yiddish accent was popular: Cartoonist Milt Gross’s books, which featured Yiddish-dialect versions of Poe’s “The Raven,” Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and classics like “It Was the Night Before Christmas,” were often best-sellers — and it wasn’t just Jews who bought them.

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.

Mel Brooks as a Native American Yiddish speaker.
Mel Brooks as a Native American Yiddish speaker.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.