Results of Survey on American Jewish Language and Identity

Professors Benor and Cohen found that American Jews use many Yiddish words and constructions within their English speech, (such as heimish, bashert, “staying by them,” and “she has what to say”), and that many non-Jews use selected Yiddishisms, (especially klutz, shpiel, and “money shmoney”). Most Yiddish words are more common in the older generations, but some (including bentsh, leyn, and shul) are increasing among younger Jews who attend synagogue frequently. American Jews, especially those who have spent time in Israel or are highly engaged in religious life, also pepper their English with Hebrew and Aramaic words (including yofi, balagan, davka, and kal vachomer). Jews with different social networks have different understandings of the meanings of certain words (such as whether shmooze means ‘chat’ or ‘kiss up’). Outside of New York, Jews are more likely than non-Jews to use certain New York regional pronunciations, such as pronouncing “orange” as “AH-range.” And Jews are somewhat more likely than non-Jews to report that they have been told that they interrupt too much. Benor and Cohen conclude with the observation that the survey "has demonstrated that Jews wear their identities on their tongues, so to speak. ... Age, denomination and traditional religiosity, Jewish education, New York residence, choice of interlocutor and exposure to Israel all relate to Jews' use of words, meanings, pronunciations, speech styles and even choice of baby names and kinship terms." "Over the centuries, Jews have conversed in dozens of Jewish languages, mostly Jewish versions of local non-Jewish languages. Contemporary American Jews continue this chain of Jewish linguistic tradition. They use distinctive linguistic features from Yiddish, Hebrew and other sources to situate themselves in the multi-dimensional social map inhabited by Jews of diverse social, religious and demographic backgrounds." To read a summary of the survey results, click here.