‘As the discussion above has shown,” writes the author of a recent book about linguistic issues, “BTs address this liminality in various ways. Some become FFT — at times even passing as FFB — and others highlight their BT identity.”
Some of you may immediately know who is being talked about. For those who don’t but would like to guess, here’s a simple multiple choice test. Which of the following do the mysterious initials for?
A) Speakers of “Basic Tahitian,” “Free-Form Tahitian” and “Free-Form Basic” Tahitian.
B) Multilingual West African speakers of Bayot and Tura; Fulani, Falor and Tura, and Fulani, Falor and Baga Mboteni.
C) Speakers of southwest German dialects along the Bruchsal-Tubingen line and in the Freiburg-Freudenstadt-Tuttlingen and Friedrichshafen-Freiburg-Basel triangles.
D) American Jews.
It’s a no-brainer, of course. This is a Jewish language column. The obvious answer is D.
A “BT,” for the unenlightened, is a “Ba’al-Teshuvah,” a formerly non-Orthodox Jews who has become Orthodox. An “FFT” is a “Frum From Teshuvah,” a Ba’al-Teshuvah who has gone all the way to ultra-Orthodoxy. An “FFB” is a “Frum From Birth,” an ultra-Orthodox Jew raised as such. The book I have quoted from is “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism” (Rutgers University Press, 2012).
Its author is the sociolinguist Sarah Bunin Benor, who has written widely on American Jewish speech. By “liminality” (from Latin limen, threshold, as in “subliminal”), Benor means being situated between different levels of identity. And the main subject of her book is how newly Orthodox Jews in America partly express their religious identity by adopting or not adopting linguistic usages that characterize the communities they have joined.
These usages pertain to several ways in which the speech of Orthodox American Jews differs from the speech of their non-Orthodox counterparts (which itself sometimes differs, although far more slightly, from the speech of non-Jewish Americans). The differences, as Benor points out, exist on a continuum that corresponds closely to that of Orthodox life as a whole — that is to say, the greater the stringency of one’s Jewish ritual observance, the more one’s speech tends to deviate from standard American English. To chart this continuum, Benor divides the world of American Orthodoxy into four basic categories: “Modern Orthodox Liberal,” “Modern Orthodox Machmir” (the Hebrew/Yiddish word has the sense of “strict-constructionist”), “Yeshivish Modern” and “Yeshivish Black Hat.” Although the lines between them are often blurred, each category is marked by a distinct lifestyle and attitude toward Judaism, and — as Benor demonstrates — by its own way of talking.