Frum Guide To Talking Like an FFB, BT or an FFT

Abbreviated Guide to Ultra-Orthodox Speech Patterns

Not Your Grandma’s BFF: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are said to have a distinctive, sing-song intonation in their speech.
Getty Images
Not Your Grandma’s BFF: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are said to have a distinctive, sing-song intonation in their speech.

By Philologos

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

‘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.

Benor lists several features that make all Orthodox speech special, such as a high number of loanwords from Hebrew and Yiddish, far more than are found in the vocabulary of non-Orthodox American Jews; Yiddish-influenced phrasing, as in English sentences like “I want you should come right away” or “We’re staying by my in-laws on Shabbos,” and Yiddish-influenced phonetic deviations, such as a full “t”-sound at the end of words and syllables. (An example of this would be saying “right” with the same “t” as is heard in “today,” as opposed to the partially swallowed or glottalized final “t” of American English.)

Two other peculiarities complete Benor’s list. One is a singsong “talmudic” intonation, particularly in sentences with logical reasoning expressed in dependent clauses like, “If you were going to the grocery anyway, why didn’t you buy some bread?” The other is what Benor calls a “hesitation click” — a “tsk”-sound used, like “um,” to give the speaker time to think of what to say next. (Although she is no doubt correct in ascribing this to Israeli influence, she errs in thinking that it is used this way in Israeli Hebrew. The Israeli “tsk” simply means “No,” although when occurring in midsentence in what Binor rightly calls a “corrective click,” this “no” can have the sense of, “On second thought, that isn’t what I really wanted to say, so I’ll try to say it again.” This is probably how, misinterpreted by Orthodox American Jews exposed to Israeli speech, it became an American Jewish “hesitation click.”)

BTs — the abbreviation, like FFB and FFT, is not Benor’s own and is widely used by BTs, FFBs and FFTs themselves — have to work hard at picking up these features if they wish to blend into FFB life; Benor gives several interesting accounts, based on personal acquaintanceship and field work, of how some succeed, some don’t and some don’t always try to, whether it’s because they wish to retain elements of their BT identity or because they simply don’t like to speak what seems to them “incorrect” English. The resistance is rarely to the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words connected to Jewish ritual and study (for example, “daven” instead of “pray,” “learn” instead of “study,” etc.), which seem more authentically Jewish to all BTs; rather, it is to speech habits, like Yiddishized syntax, that have nothing intrinsic to do with Judaism. Yet there are also many cases of what Benor calls “hyperaccommodation,” in which BTs so exaggerate FFB speech habits, as by saying things like borukh hashem, “Bless God,” in every sentence, that they give themselves away as BTs in their very effort to sound like FFBs.

MNW. (More Next Week.)

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


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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.