Frumgirl 1: Speaking Jewish

Yiddish, the Jewish language, is a cobbled together form of German and Hebrew mixed in interesting ways. If you speak to first-language Yiddish-speakers today, you’ll find that English has crept up into its own place alongside the original two ingredient languages.

As a people, we are champion cobblers. We stole Klezmer from the Greeks and we steal contemporary tunes today. We went thorough history cobbling and leaving bits of ourselves behind. We left individuality, monotheism, and written language. We left polio vaccines, jeans, theories of relativity and zeppelins. What kind of sad world would this be without zeppelins?

We’re currently making our mark on English. I was nearly bowled over backward when I heard a non-Jewish girl use zaftig. Words like chutzpah and nosh make their appearance constantly, peppering unlikely people with a bit of Jewish flavor.

In the opposite direction, some English words have been enthroned as Yeshivish favorites. Penetrate is by far the most annoying. I challenge you to find a day in a medium-sized Yeshiva in which the word penetrate was not uttered at least once.

Less obvious than actual verbiage, there are also colloquialisms that are either adopted wholeheartedly or summarily rejected from Orthodox speech. I have yet to hear a frummie say he or she will “make good” on something. I am doing my best to make good on the expression in my speech.

Beyond the obvious Orthodox-only figures of speech and standard Yiddish grammar as applied to English (“throw my mother out the window the keys”), one Orthodox-only expression stands unnoticed, even though it is as Jewish as bagels with lox.

It’s okay fine. Without a comma between, said without pause, and meaning the same as “okay” alone. Why we have seen fit to add an extra syllable to our acquiescences, I have yet to figure out, beyond the obvious of rendering the stereotypical Jewish mother speechless for an extra millisecond.

I have yet to hear a non-Jewish person use the two words together as we do. I challenge you to find it.

Whenever in the company of non-frummies, it is most entertaining to listen to both the way people talk as well as what they’re saying. Otherwise, you miss out on millions of cues, bits of interesting individuality, and the most verbal expression of New York’s diversity.

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Published in: on May 29, 2008 at 1:53 PM  Comments (5)  

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  1. I am really interested in languages, and I thought your observations were really interesting. One thing, though: Yiddish is not a cobbling together of Hebrew and German. That is a common misconception that was held by me, to, until I took a course on Yiddish literature. Yiddish actually developed at the same time as German (starting around the 11th century) and alongside German, but neither language was primary (in other words, neither “stole” from the other, beyond the usual borrowings that occur in two parallel, related languages). I just thought you might want to know.

  2. Don’t forget “shlep”. I almost keeled over when my Illinois-born professor used that one.

    I get self-conscious about that stuff more often these days – am I speaking real English or Yinglish? Luckily, in a school where so many are foreign-born, most can’t tell the difference.

  3. Oh, I could go on forever about this, but since I don’t have time, I won’t even start. Though I’m sorely tempted 😉

  4. I think it’s only a matter of time before there appears a distinct “Judeo-English”, much like the other Jewish languages we’ve created from the local vernacular, such as Judeo-German (Yiddish), Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), Judeo-Arabic, etc. In fact, I think there’s something like that in the works in the form of Yeshivish-talk.

  5. You omitted the word “literally”.

    This is my favorite abuse victim in the frum community, and examples are rife. My personal best was an appeal I got to donate for the family of a deceased tzaddik, who “was literally the father of thousands of orphans”.


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