In Becoming Frum, linguist Sarah Bunin Benor quotes a 9-year-old Orthodox child saying of ba’alei teshuvah (Jews who have adopted traditional halakhic observance as adults), “Their voice sounds weird, like not a Jewish voice.” We assume that by “voice,” the child refers to language rather than vocal timbre, and Benor examines the journey that “BTs” make from evoking judgments of that kind from Orthodox children to comfortably using the words and expressions that constitute Orthodox Jewish English.
The result is warmly enjoyable as an introduction to Orthodox Jewish culture, but as a treatment of language, only faintly revelatory. Benor argues that Jews are more likely to use Hebrew and Yiddish words the more observant they are and are more likely to use them with one another than with outsiders. Well, yes—but one might be pardoned for asking who would have expected otherwise.
Actually, before the 1960s it was unusual for a linguist to frame such an investigation. What led some to do so, under the new rubric of sociolinguistics, was the new interest in hyphenated identities and history “from below.” Benor’s work certainly shows how far linguists have come since 1933, when leading linguist Leonard Bloomfield could breezily pronounce that language changes when the lower classes imitate the upper. A moment’s thought about developments in modern American English is enough to see how overhasty that conclusion was (or, if you prefer, what an epic fail, to employ a new locution hardly analyzable as a product of the “upper crust”). Just how much insight sociolinguistic studies have provided is another question.
Upon reading that people “creatively use the religious and cultural resources available to them to construct their multilayered selves” in a “community of practices,” it is hard not to sense a certain over-analysis. Benor informs us, for example, that:
Two men learning Gemora [studying Talmud] together use many loanwords, and the same men fixing a car use fewer. A mother uses several loanwords when talking to her daughter about the laws of taharas mishpacha (family purity), but she uses fewer when talking to her about potential shiduchim (matches). When Orthodox Jews speak to outsiders or newcomers, they generally use fewer loanwords and often translate those they use.
But a molecular biologist doesn’t toss off biochemical jargon while making a toast at his daughter’s wedding either, and few would perceive anything remarkable in this.
Benor seeks to show just how a BT goes about learning words such as tznius (modesty) and mamish (really), Yiddish-based expressions such as “We’re staying by our grandmother,” and the Ashkenazic rather than Sephardic (today also Israeli) pronunciation of Hebrew words, such as “SHAH-bus” rather than “sha-BOT.” BTs, it emerges, acquire these words and expressions through questions, repetition, and errors, and often overuse the lexicon at first to demonstrate commitment, later settling into a “native”-style moderation, which Benor titles “the bungee effect.”
But many of us would simply call this learning, period, and as such, Benor’s study is more useful as catalog than as argument or discovery. Orthodox Jewish English is, to be sure, somewhat more than a mere collection of heimishe words. For instance, Benor shows that one way to tell an FFB (frum from birth) Jew from a BT is that BTs tend to use Hebrew-derived verbs in bare form, as in “He mekareved me” (i.e., brought me into the halakhic fold), which the FFB would correct to be, “He was mekarev me.” She also identifies the “hesitation click” often used by Orthodox speakers midsentence before revising a point or moving a conversation in a new direction, by “touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth and bringing air inward.” Overall, however, Benor’s study brings to mind a bracingly renegade statement from career sociolinguist Ralph Fasold of Georgetown University on the state of the art (in a textbook, no less): “A hallmark of a really successful theory is that it will propose convincing arguments in favor of counterintuitive principles, as has happened in particle physics in this century. In other words, a really successful theory will eventually lead to surprises, and I am not sure we have yet been really surprised.”
If the findings of Becoming Frum are ultimately unsurprising it is less the fault of the author than the tradition in which she works. The idea that “multilayered selves” are worthy of special note rather than unsurprising norms is so entrenched in contemporary humanities and social sciences that, as a sociolinguist, one can barely avoid it. Yet while the Western scholar of language treats multilingualism as a special object of study, more properly it is monolingualism that ought be treated as intriguing. Going through life speaking only one language is unusual as humans go, in both the present and the past.
In that light, there is a more radical kind of mixture between English and Jewish languages that many find genuinely surprising, even bizarre—and sometimes even illegitimate. Yet this mixture, the “Yeshivish” spoken by Jewish men studying at yeshivas, is in the technical sense no more surprising than the way of speaking that BTs acquire. “Yeshivish” can, indeed, be quite the mixture, sprinkled so thickly with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic words that it is incomprehensible to outsiders. Chaim Weiser’s seminal (and whimsical) Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish gives an example: “There are four ikar ta’amim why the Yeshivishe oilam speaks davka Yeshivish. The ershte ta’am in altz specificity. Lemushel . . . ”That is, if I may venture a translation, “There are four main reasons why the Yeshivishe crowd consciously chooses to speak Yeshivish. The first reason is for its specificity. For example . . .”
There is, it should be noted, a thin line between this language associated with the activity of Talmudic study and the speech variety upon which Benor concentrates, in which it would hardly be unusual to hear, as she quotes, “We should be mesameach the chossen and kallah” for “We should entertain the groom and bride.” However, even the especially full-blown Yeshivish of a bokhur immersed in learning is a linguistically unsurprising phenomenon. It seems otherwise only because of our print-focused perspective, in which standardized, written language is processed as “the real language,” in relation to which change and mixture qualify as irregular and impure. Under this perception, a language that accepts more than a few words from other languages sacrifices its “purity.”
Yet actually (or grahde, as I might say in Yeshivish), as purity goes, all of the world’s six thousand languages are shamelessly “fallen.” Languages sharing the same mouths inevitably comingle their words and even their grammars; there is no “pure” language known. For example, in the sentence, “She proved she had a sense of humor at a time when the country is still debating whether to take her seriously as a potential commander in chief, “proved, sense, humor, country, debating, seriously, commander,” and “chief” are all from French; “potential” is from Latin; and “take” is from Danish. English is often praised as uniquely adaptive in having such a mixed vocabulary, but it is actually quite ordinary. Over half of Japanese’s vocabulary is from Chinese; Albanian took about sixty percent of its words from Greek, Latin, Romanian, Turkish, Serbian and Macedonian, and so on.
Only after languages are written down and standardized does this ceaseless blending come to seem peculiar and disruptive. That Americans for whom Hebrew and Yiddish are keystones of identity would develop an English interlaced with words and constructions from those languages is no more surprising than the phenomenon of “Spanglish.”
It is hardly that intersections between language and culture are never surprising. In Belgium, middle-aged and younger people often switch between French and Flemish from sentence to sentence, but older people often switch from one language to the other within the very same sentence. This is a subconscious linguistic response to political tensions. Those who grew up when those tensions had yet to reach today’s boiling point are inclined to blend the languages more intimately. It follows, then, that because of still-simmering cultural clashes between Anglophones and Francophones in Québec, it is rare to hear even perfect bilinguals speaking in English and French at the same time the way Latinos commonly do with Spanish and English in the United States.
These are counter-intuitive phenomena that a layman would not be likely to predict. Language mixture in the general sense, however, is not surprising: Languages coming together is a default. Yeshivish, along with the less-extreme renditions of the same phenomenon that Benor studies, is one more of the language varieties Jews have created based on the language of their nation of residence. Yiddish began as Jewish German, Ladino had its start as Jewish Spanish, and Bukharans speak a Jewish Persian. Among the most segregated Jewish populations, then, there is also a Jewish English.
It will remain common, nevertheless, for even Orthodox Jews to refer to Yeshivish as a kind of moderately off-putting stunt or oddity, a talking “like that,” as I have often heard it described. Similarly, academic linguists will continue to treat it as a topic of interest that when humans join new social groups, they take on that group’s ways of talking. In the grand scheme of things, however, both perspectives marvel at the ordinary. There is an ironic lesson from Benor’s book, as well as the general discussion of varieties of Jewish American English: Modern linguistic life, entrenched in standardization and monolingualism, makes the ordinary human activity of learning new ways of speaking and the linguistic mixtures which result seem peculiar.
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