American Jews speak their own language. This is the thesis that Professor Sarah Bunin Benor is working under as she gathers up phrases and words for her project “Jewish English: Distinctive Lexicon.”
I spoke with Benor recently and she explained that while it is not like Yiddish or Ladino, American Jews have a specific vocabulary and unique linguistic ticks that make it distinctive. She compared it to Judeo-Greek.
The lexicon, which complements the recent Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity that she recently conducted with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, features phrases that come from biblical Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic, biblical literature, and liturgy. It also includes English phrases such as “nice Jewish boy” and “matzah pizza.”
Benor said that the idea behind the still-young project is to create one official lexicon for American-Jewish English — one that would be a regularly updated searchable database of our shared vocabulary.
In the conclusion paper to the study, the authors explain that:
American Jews’ use of distinctive language also aligns them with other minority groups in the United States. African Americans use distinctive grammatical patterns, pronunciations, words, and other features. Latinos continue to use influences from Spanish and other distinctive features even several generations after immigration. For these groups, language is an important component of how they express their identity, and many of them use language that is much more distinct than that of American Jews. Of course, not all African Americans or Latinos speak distinctly, and those who do use different linguistic features with different audiences. For Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities, the selective use of elements of a distinctive linguistic repertoire enables them to align with some people and distinguish themselves from others.
The Jewish-American Lexicon
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.