Yiddish survey aims to find how Americans use Jewish-influenced words

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Oy gevalt, you should only know how many Yiddish and Hebrew influences have found their way into American English already. And you will, once two researchers have analyzed the information they've been collecting from all over North America.

Actually, oy gevalt (oh, no) is not one of the phrases in the Survey of North American Jewish Language. But maven (expert), naches (pride, joy) and klutz (clumsy person) are included. So are bashert (destiny), balagan (a mess) and other words less likely to be recognized by the public at large.

The online survey is the work of linguist Sarah Bunin Benor of Los Angeles and sociologist Steven M. Cohen of New York, faculty members at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Three, four and even five generations after their Yiddish-speaking ancestors immigrated to the U.S., some Ashkenazic American Jews [hailing from central and eastern Europe] still use Yiddishisms, like 'I need that like I need a hole in the head' and 'Money, shmoney,'" Dr. Benor said.

The study aims to determine who uses Yiddish and Hebrew words and how, as well as other distinctive hallmarks of Jewish speech such as phrasing and pronunciation.

The researchers sent out their queries about a month ago, hoping for 2,000 responses. They wound up with more than 41,000 and have started analyzing the data earlier than expected. (For more information on the survey and to contact the researchers, go to www.huc.edu.)

Results should be ready within two months and will be used in several papers on various aspects of Jewish life and language.

"We sent [the survey] to 600 people and asked them to disseminate it to friends and family," Dr. Benor said. That means it's not a random sample, and the researchers will make that clear in their reports.

"We do not plan to make any grand claims about 'all Jews' or 'all North Americans,' only about correlations among subgroups," they state in a Frequently Asked Questions posting.

Some 7,000 respondents were not Jewish.

"We specifically asked for that as a control group," Dr. Benor said. "If a lot of non-Jews use a word, it's just part of American speech."

Not only did the survey spread further and faster than anticipated, but also it prompted more detailed and passionate responses.

"We got over 5,000 comments," Dr. Benor said. "Most are along the lines of 'very interesting survey,' but a lot are personal anecdotes about how they learned certain words, family immigration history or personal engagement in Jewish life. There was clearly a desire to discuss one's Jewish journey."

Dr. Benor has published several papers on the Yiddish-influenced English speech of Orthodox Jews, but she noted that they are not the only Jews who speak distinctly. In fact, she said, she's heard non-Orthodox Jews who are deeply involved in religious life utter sentences with more Hebrew and Yiddish than English.

The pair is also looking at how Americans of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) and Sephardi (Spanish) background have incorporated Yiddish into their speech, so the survey includes a few words from Judeo-Arabic (bar minan, or God forbid) and Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino (meldado, or the anniversary of a death).

The survey provoked a lot of questions, mostly based on what the respondents thought was missing: Why didn't you list my particular branch of Judaism, why didn't you include this word or that one?

"We didn't think everyone would want to spend two hours taking a survey," she said. "And we didn't use some words, like 'shiksa' or 'shagitz,' [non-Jewish woman or man] because we didn't want to offend people."

But some people were still offended by all sorts of things, she said, like why the survey seemed so New York-centric.

"Our hypothesis is that Jews from other parts of the country will have New York influences in their speech, even if they've never lived there."

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published August 19, 2008 4:00 AM


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