Jewish English Among Adjacencies of Non-Jews in Middle America

(Revised abstract for LIPP poster acceptance)

Jacqueline Hirsh Greene | Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

A forthcoming paper by Sarah Bunin Benor, titled “Pastrami, Verklempt, and Tshoot-spa: Non-Jews’ Use of Jewish Language in the United States”, explores new findings on the use of Jewish language features among non-Jewish Americans. Among Benor’s key observations were that knowledge and usage of features such as Yiddish loanwords and Yiddish-influenced grammar are primarily attributed to social networks, and also that meanings of loanwords are subject to change when used enough by a non-Jewish mainstream. A majority of the 40,000 survey respondents identified as being predominantly adjacent to Jews. This current study seeks rather to understand the extent and from which modes of diffusion predominantly nonadjacent non-Jewish Americans use features of Jewish English, meaning non-Jews who do not live in densely-populated Jewish areas nor have much social contact with Jews.

A survey was distributed by way of a snowball sampling methodology (Dusek et al. 2015: 281) and yielded a total of 105 responses. Over half of respondents are from or live in the southwest region of the United States, most often from states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. The predominant age-groups were 20-30 and 60-70.

Results echo some of Benor’s findings, such as that social-networking indeed seems to be the most relevant mode of diffusion for those Jewish-adjacent non-Jews, and as well that loanword meanings can shift when used often enough by an out-group. However, the results also indicate new patterns, such as that nonadjacent non-Jews have overall much less knowledge of Jewish features than Benor’s study would suggest. As well, because a social networking aspect is not present among nonadjacent respondents, the most common mode of diffusion seemed to be media sources. Thus there is a crucial gap in Jewish language usage between groups of non-Jewish speakers: those more adjacent and those less or nonadjacent to Jewish friends and communities.

Selected References

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2009. “Do American Jews speak a ‘Jewish language’? A model of Jewish linguistic distinctiveness”. The Jewish Quarterly Review 99: 230–269.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2010. “Mensch, bentsh, and balagan: Variation in the American Jewish linguistic repertoire”. Language and Communication 31: 141–154.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. Forthcoming 2021. “Pastrami, Verklempt, and Tshoot-spa: Non-Jews’ Use of Jewish Language in the United States”. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Dusek, Gary A., Yuliva V. Yurova, and Cynthia P. Ruppel. 2015. “Using social media and targeted snowball sampling to survey a hard-to-reach population: A case study”. International Journal of Doctoral Studies 10: 279–299.

Eckert, Penelope. 2012. “Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation”. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 87–100.

Fader, Ayala. 2009. Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.