Do you have to be Jewish to Kvetch?

Posted: July 22, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

 “Oy vey,” she said, to nobody in particular. (But I knew she was talking to me.)

It was the first day of class of my second semester at grad school. I walked into the assigned room ten minutes before the class was supposed to start and, not recognizing anyone I knew, sat down in the first empty seat I spotted. The woman sitting right next to me (whose name, I would later learn, was Rebecca) was talking on her cell phone. I wasn’t trying to listen in on her conversation (really!), but it was obvious from her serious tone of voice (OK, and from some of the things she was saying, I’m only human) that it involved some sort of complicated relational issue. A couple of minutes later she hung up, sighed deeply, and said, to nobody in particular: “Oy vey.”

I may have been listening to her conversation, but I hadn’t really looked at Rebecca. I did so now. There wasn’t anything that struck me as particularly ‘Jewish’ about her (although she claims, for reasons I have yet to understand, that her curly hair should have been a dead giveaway), but her comment made me suspect that she was presenting herself to me, an obviously frum (religious) Jew, as a ‘member of the tribe.’ More than just an expression of exasperation, oy vey was a code word. It signaled: Hey, I’m Jewish too, you know!

Oy vey is a Yiddish expression of frustration or dismay. In areas with historically high concentrations of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, oy vey is often used by non-Jews who have no cultural connection to Yiddish, as well. (A sign on the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, NY reads: ‘Leaving Brooklyn? Oy Vey!’) So when a native speaker of English in a classroom in New York City says oy vey, it may indicate nothing at all. Or it may communicate a whole lot.

For some time now linguists have used the term code-switching to describe the use of two languages, interchangeably, within a single sentence (intrasentential) or conversation. John J. Gumpertz offers the following definition for code-switching: “The juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to different grammatical systems or subsystems.” He presents an example of English/German code-switching: Go and get my coat aus dem Schrank da (out of the closet there).

Now, bilingual speakers of a language often insert a foreign word or two when they have trouble coming up with the corresponding word in the target language. But speakers may also switch to another language for a whole host of linguistic, psycholinguistic, and social reasons, including a desire to show alignment with members of a particular cultural or ethnic group. Originally viewed as ‘sloppy’ speech or linguistic aberrations, linguists now understand that code-switching is natural, valid, and often makes for especially rich communication. Researchers such as John J. Gumpertz and Carol Myers-Scotton have produced a body of important scholarship that shows the complexity and the social significance of code-switching in a large variety of contexts.

But even without delving into the technical details of conversational code-switching, the problems with this term quickly become apparent. Consider an exchange I had with Rebecca on a different occasion. I had complimented her on a dress she was wearing, and then asked if it was new. “No,” she replied. “It’s actually an old schmatta (Yiddish: rag).” Now, I don’t know if Rebecca speaks Yiddish – I suspect she doesn’t. Can we accurately refer to her use of Yiddish words as code-switching, if she’s not technically fluent in that second ‘code’? Perhaps her parents or grandparents speak it, and some of these words have become part of her language.

These are the sort of complications that make code-switching such a contested subject. Peter Auer challenges models that consider fluency in both codes to be a prerequisite for code-switching. Rather, he suggests that when a particular ethnic group uses a blend of languages in a distinctive way, their way of talking should be considered a code, or language variety, all its own. Many researchers have taken similar positions, referring to the unique ways that members of a particular group use language as a separate dialect, or an ethnolect. William Labov, for example, points out features of specific dialects of English spoken by members of various social groups within New York City. As for Rebecca, some linguists would say she speaks an ethnolect called Jewish English: a language variety they say consists of, among other things, Yiddish and Hebrew loanwords and distinctive phonological and syntactic features. If this is so, then how many of these so-called ‘features’ must one use to be considered a speaker of Jewish English? All of them? Some of them?

I am reminded of another friend I have, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Christina too tends to throw Yiddish phrases around when she’s talking to me. When I look surprised (as inevitably I do), she likes to remind me that she went to school with a lot of Jewish girls (JAPS, she calls them: ‘Jewish American Princesses’). Does Christina speak Jewish English, too? While the relationship between language and identity is uncontestable (and utterly fascinating!), we quickly realize that classifying people according to a particular dialect, or labeling a dialect based on who we think speaks it, is a tricky affair. As Anna De Fina writes:

“Researchers in the area have realized that neither can we take for granted membership in social categories such as ethnicity, class, or gender, nor can we presuppose the aspects of social life that are relevant for the configuration of those categories.”

Oy vey.

To resolve some of these contradictions, Sarah Bunin Benor of Hebrew Union College in California proposes the idea of an ethnolinguistic repertoire, defined as “a fluid set of linguistic resources that members of an ethnic group may use variably as they index their ethnic identity.” For me, this means that as a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jew, I have an exciting arsenal of language ‘tools’ at my disposal. I might intersperse my English speech with Yiddish and Hebrew words (like when I call a wedding a chasunah; or refer to my mother-in-law as my shviger); I have been known to attach, without shame, English suffixes to Yiddish words and Yiddish suffixes to English words (describing religious types as frummies, from frum, and turning shlep: to drag, into shleppy). I’m sure that, on occasion, I pronounce English words with the characteristic trilled /ɹ/ of Yiddish phonology, and sometimes add voiceless stops to word-final /ŋ/ (saying wrongk instead of ‘wrong’ – much like the stereotypical pronounciation of ‘darling’ as darlingk by the ‘Jewish mother’ stock character). At times I’ll use common English words as though they mean something quite different (“We’re eating by the Greens,” or “I really don’t hold of this plan.”) In typical Jewish fashion, I may begin an exasperated interrogatory phrase “again with…?” (an expression derived from the Yiddish shoyn vider mit: already with.). Also, I know that I have a tendency to interrupt people in conversation far more often than the average American. (Unless, of course, the ‘average American’ is a native New Yorker, in which case it is a bit different…) But here’s the thing: I do not utilize all these linguistic resources all the time. My speech may sound distinctly Hasidic when I talk to my family, definitely frum when I talk to my high school students, and quite unexceptional when I’m teaching at the college or conversing with my friends and colleagues. My children claim they can tell who I’m on the phone with as soon as they walk into the room.

Looking at language choices as a repertoire gives us greater flexibility when explaining why members of the same ethnic group may use language differently (intra-group variation), why members of different groups sometimes speak in similar ways (out-group use), and why one individual such as myself may use language variably in different circumstances (intra-speaker variation). So Rebecca might very well be performing her Jewish identity with Yiddish phrases, and Christina may use similar expressions to amuse, to surprise, or to show some type of affiliation. And then there are my friend Pamela’s kids, half Jewish, half Italian, who say “oy vey marrone.” (How’s that for language hybridity?) All of them, consciously or not, are making use of a distinct linguistic repertoire.

As for me, I will probably continue talking to my sister about her son’s shidduch, to my high school students about delivering a dvar torah, to my colleagues about interlanguages, fossilization and Bloom’s Taxonomy, and to my non-Jewish friends about… oh, anything at all. I use the expression ‘cultural fluency’ metaphorically sometimes, but it is also true literally. As a cultural hybrid, I am grateful for this ability to adapt linguistically to a broad range of contexts. It gets confusing sometimes, but mostly it’s all good. As the South-Asian owner of a fabric store I visited in NYC last week said to me when I entered his store:

Baruch Hashem.”

Do you speak Jewish English? New Yorkish? Another hybrid language?  What is in your  ethnolinguistic repertoire?



Auer, P. (1998). Code-switching in conversation: language, interaction and identity. London: Routledge. v – 355.

Benor, S. B. (2010). Ethnolinguistic repertoire: Shifting the analytic focus in language and ethnicity. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 14(2). 158 – 183.

de Fina. A. (2007). Code-switching and the construction of ethnic identity in a community of practice. Language in Society, 36. 371 – 392.  

Gold, D. L. (1985). Jewish English. In J. Fishman (ed). Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. JLeiden: E.J. Brill. 280 – 298.

Gumpertz, J. J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Steinmetz, S. (1981). Jewish English in the United States. American Speech, 56(1). 3 – 16.

  1. jane falk says:

    As a linguist myself, I appreciate your tackling this interesting but messy subject, and getting it right!

  2. NF says:

    NF says: July 24, 2011 9:12 p.m.

    I was chuckling all the way through. I loved every word! It is entertaining, enlightening and amusing all at once. And the BEST BEST three words in the whole post are: “oy vey, marrone.” MOM

  3. LanguageGeek says:

    This is great. I’m a polyglot and I do this OFTEN, sometimes for fun too. Our friends from Germany came to visit and stay with us a couple of months ago, and they brought their 3 girls. Since the father is American, the girls speak a hodge-podge of Denglish…one example..their 10 yr old told her mom “Ich muss brush teeth machen”..and without missing a beat her mom replied “Schnapp dir deine toothbrush!”…

  4. LanguageGeek says:

    And to answer your actual Question, even though I’m not Jewish, I speak Newyorkese with the best of them. I even got a copy of Joy of Yiddish when I was 9. Oy gevalt!

  5. Utterly fascinating post. If we can’t apply the term “code-switching” to Rebecca, we can definitely apply the term “bageling.” Is that code-switching for code-switching?

    In our house, we have a variety of languages floating in and out of our conversations. It’s not unusual in the course of an evening to hear Hebrew, Yiddish, Yeshivish and Russian all smushed together with English.

    I also make adjustments to my speech depending on the conversation – to my parents and brother, who aren’t frum, I use “regular” English (as opposed to frumglish), to my frum neighbors, I will use the Yeshivish lingo. I used to think that it was a bit disingenuous, like I wasn’t being true to my roots or something, so I’m glad to see that not only am I not alone in this, but that I can just chalk it up to being culturally fluent. Love that.

    Great blog. Thanks for following mine – I’m so happy it led me to yours! Yay!

    • Bageling – I love it! My friend Pamela (the one I mention in the post) just told me that her Jewish/Italian kids refer to themselves as pizza bagels! (So is this where culture, language and food all converge, I guess) And disingenuous it is not – I say embrace your hybridity!
      Incidentally, Sarah Benor (whom I also mention in this post) has a book coming out entitled “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism” which may be of interest to you, based on what you describe.

      I spent a large chunk of time this week exploring your blog this week and I really enjoyed it! And thanks for subscribing.

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