Nu, Is It That Obvious? - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Nu, Is It That Obvious?

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jerusalem Post - New York Edition

Faster, more aggressive speech is identified with New York and Jews, study says.


It’s not a stereotype: New York Jews really do talk faster. They also interrupt more and argue more – and are more likely than non-Jews to be told they have an “aggressive” style of speaking. Their manner of speech is so well-known – and apparently so widely embedded – that Jews in other parts of the country are more likely than their neighbors to be told they sound like New Yorkers. These and other findings are the results of the Survey of Jewish American Language and Identity, an online poll and statistical analysis released earlier this month by scholars at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. 

Conducted by Prof. Sarah Bunin Benor, a sociolinguist, and Prof. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist, the survey examined the speech patterns, word choices and other idiosyncrasies of Jewish-American speech, comparing responses among subsets of the Jewish population, and between Jewish and non-Jewish respondents. “I have to say, I wasn’t really surprised by much [in the results],” says Benor, an assistant professor of contemporary Jewish studies. “I have a 20-page document of hypotheses. We tested most of them and they pretty much all turned out to be correct. The one thing I was surprised about was that some of the splits [between groups] were not as big as I had expected.” Even for non-experts, the findings are likely to conform to expectations, although they nonetheless offer a fascinating glimpse of how Jewish Americans speak, and how their style of speech is viewed by others. Hebrew-language ability – both fluency and basic familiarity – is on a clear and sharp rise, with knowledge steadily increasing among successively younger groups. While just 15 percent of respondents aged 75 or older “understand at least some” Hebrew, the number rose to roughly 55% among 18- to 24-year-olds, with smaller but roughly equivalent proportions claiming to be “proficient” or “fluent.” Yiddish usage, by contrast, provides roughly a mirror image of Hebrew’s rise. While nearly three-quarters of Jewish Americans 75 or older understand at least some Yiddish, the number falls to less than 20% among 25- to 34- year-olds. Hebrew and non-Hebrew slang from Israel – words such as yofi (slang for “beautiful”) and yalla (Arabic for “let’s go”) – are on the rise among young Jewish Americans, while the same group expresses a diminishing familiarity with Yiddish expressions such as macher (an important person), heimish (homey or cozy) and nu (usually used in the interrogative, as in “well?”).

Hebrew proficiency appears to be closely correlated with attendance at Jewish day schools, although Benor notes that religious activity and other variables also play a strong role. “It’s across the board – people who go to Orthodox or non-Orthodox Jewish day schools report higher knowledge of Hebrew,” she says. “However, the words that people use don’t correlate as strongly with day school as with other factors, such as Shabbat observance and time spent in Israel, Jewish friends and that kind of thing.” Notably for Yiddish enthusiasts, the language appears to be enjoying a slight renaissance among religious respondents aged 18 to 24 – a finding described as “a striking result” in a written overview of the survey. “We would expect that Jews who are younger and farther removed from the generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants would be less likely to use Yiddish words than their grandparents,” the report says. Nevertheless, the return of certain words – and their emergence among observant Jews without Yiddish-speaking ancestors – “indicat[es] their rising importance in religious circles.”

Assembled from just over 30,000 surveys completed by native English speakers living in the US, the study relied on “snowball sampling” – in this case through the forwarding of e-mails with a link to the lengthy online poll. Compiled without special funding, the survey is not based on random sampling – a method Benor describes as “the gold standard” among sociologists, but which was prohibitively expensive without additional resources. “We make the limitations clear in the academic papers that we write,” she says, “and we don’t make any claims about American Jews as a whole. We compare the subgroups within the sample, so I do think that the way we use the data is academically appropriate.”

Focused largely on speech patterns, word usage and level of religious observance, the study does not touch on the relationship between language and socioeconomic status, a topic Benor says she would like to examine in the future. Despite its limitations, the large sample makes it “possible to cautiously compare subgroups... and derive what we believe are meaningful patterns and insights,” Benor and Cohen write in their report. Benor has used the statistics in papers already submitted to several academic publications, and says she plans to use them in a book she has tentatively titled “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism.”

New York Jews, for their part, can rest assured that the city has retained its primacy in Jewish American culture – a long-held status that the study reaffirms. Jews in other parts of the country are more likely than their gentile counterparts to speak what Benor calls “New Yorkish” – “a more aggressive discourse style” characterized by speakers “frequently arguing and overlapping with their interlocutors and allowing for less silence between turns.” Whatever etiquette coaches might say about the style, Jewish survey respondents were 11% more likely than non-Jews to report having been told their speech style is “too aggressive,” a gap that grows even wider among Jews and non-Jews living outside the city. In other parts of the country, differences in speech patterns are often perceived as connected to New York and Jewish identity, with Jews in other regions more than twice as likely as non-Jews to be told they sound like New Yorkers – even when neither they nor their parents have lived in the city.

The question of causality – who influenced whom – is not addressed by the survey, though Benor says Jewish immigrants “definitely” played a role in shaping New York English, and vice versa. In one significant area, New York Jews stand apart even from Jews elsewhere in the country – when it comes to certain sentence structures and other echoes of Yiddish, in phrasings such as “We have what to say” or “I don’t know from that.” “In our study,” Benor says, “the people who are from New York use Yiddishisms more than people who are not."

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