Yiddish-Language and Ethnic-Jewish Influence in SAE
Characteristics of the U.S. Jewish Population
- The Jewish population is less than 2% of the total U.S. population,
ca. 5-6.5 million out of ca. 312 million [October 2011]
- 19th-century Jewish immigration to the U.S. (see
article) differed from that of most other European immigrants, in that
the Jewish immigrants were a religious minority as well as a 'national' or
ethnic minority. The new Jewish-Americans often needed to continue
protecting themselves against the anti-semitism that many other immigrants
brought with them to the U.S. As a result, the American Jewish community
continues to have a more distinct identity than that of many other
- Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe often entered the
U.S. speaking only Yiddish and the dominant languages of their former
country (German, Polish, Hungarian, etc.). Education in the language
and culture of their new country was seen as the key to success, while
still retaining their Jewish identity (see The
Jewish Americans Assimilation: Making America Home).
While many adults never became fully fluent in English, their children
were put into public schools, rapidly learned English, and acted as
interpreters for their parents. This led to Yiddish and English words
often being combined into a 'Yidlish' vernacular, elements of which still
prevail. While English was recognized as their new national language,
Yiddish was seen by European Jewish immigrants as a language of community
- Today, the Jewish population in America is highly geographically
concentrated. Some 85 percent live in just 20 metropolitan areas, mainly
in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, California,
Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois (see map).
- The Jewish media stereotype (often seen in TV programming, for
example) is (mainly) region-specific to the New York City area and
southeastern Florida, the latter primarily comprised of retired New
Yorkers. The stereotype is overwhelmingly urban, with virtually no rural
- Other aspects of the U.S. Jewish profile include educational
achievement, prominence in the medical and legal professions, academia and
public service, the arts and humanities, and the entertainment industry.
Jewish and Yiddish Influence in American Literature and Popular Culture
- The Jewish influence on SAE might best be seen in American
literature, as illustrated by by this brief listing of Jewish-American
novelists, playwrights, poets, and critics of the past half-century.
Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow,
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, E.L. Doctorow, Woody
Allen, Paul Auster, Jerzy Kosinski, Mark Helprin, Cynthia Ozick, Grace
Paley, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Kemelman, Susan
Sontag, Bruce Jay Friedman, Leslie Fiedler, and countless others . . .
- If one is familiar with the leading works of contemporary English
world literature, one will know the experiences of Jewish-American
writers, and the idiom they have used to convey these experiences.
- Jewish-American literature has particular relevance to many of the
central themes of modern literature: personal and cultural identity,
personal and collective guilt, and the quest for meaning in one's life,
- Being Jewish in contemporary America vs. the European 'old country'
and the Holocaust
- Being Jewish in America vs. living in Israel
- Remaining Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian U.S. population; (1)
the 'threat' of cultural assimilation (cf. Roth & the temptations of
'blonde America'); and (2) conflicts between one's faith and country (cf.
Defender of the Faith [first printed in The New Yorker
on 14 March 1959; part of the collection titled Goodbye, Columbus])
[see also full text (PDF)]
- It is thus not surprising that "seeing one's analyst" (cf. almost any
Woody Allen film) is far more associated with the Jewish-American
stereotype than that of, say, Black Americans.
- The entertainment industry also has a strong Jewish representation.
A characteristic and often self-deprecating humor, conveys Jewish cultural references
throughout the U.S., as seen in countless TV series and films and both
popular and elite literature, as for example illustrated by the "Jewish
mother" stereotype in Portnoy's
Complaint, by Philip Roth. (For a contrasting style by the same
author, see also an excerpt from The Plot
Yiddish vs. Other Languages Associated With the American Jewish
- Yiddish is a Germanic language, written in Hebrew characters. The
name "Yiddish" means "Jewish." Yiddish was the vernacular of eastern and
central European Ashkenazic Jews (the Sephardic Jews of Spain spoke
Ladino, a medieval dialect of Spanish) up to the 1940s.
- While strongly influenced by German, modern Yiddish differs from
German mainly in the simplification of inflections and syntax, the
influence from Slavic languages, and its looser pronunciation of Germanic
words. Yiddish is similar to English in its word formation and use of
- Yiddish is rich in idioms, proverbs, and expressions descriptive of
character and human relations. It often uses diminutives and terms of
endearment. These qualities and usages give Yiddish a uniquely warm and
personal flavor. Since it was spoken by ordinary people rather than by
scholars, its vocabulary is weak in abstractions, though rich in its
variety of expletives. It also has few items which are descriptive of
nature, with which the Jews of eastern Europe had relatively little
- Active use of Yiddish declined in the last half of the 20th
century. The Holocaust decimated the Yiddish-speaking population of
Eastern Europe; those who survived are now elderly. Many European Jews
who immigrated to the United States adopted English. In Israel Yiddish is
secondary to Hebrew, and is spoken mainly by members of the older
generation who have an eastern European background. These numbers are
also declining with time.
Ways in Which Yiddish Has Influenced American English
- When European Jews immigrated to the U.S., many English words and
phrases entered Yiddish as the Jewish Americans learned English in order
to prosper in their country, while at the same time trying to retain the
cultural traditions of the 'old country' (see New York Forward plus From Haven to Home: 350
Years of Jewish Life in America (LOC)).
- Conversely, many Yiddish terms, and some syntactical structures,
have been assimilated into SAE. These may be thought of as code-switching
devices for Jewish cultural identity within American culture generally.
(See, for example, Wikipedia's List of
English Words of Yiddish Origin for an overview of these.)
- The underlying syntactical structures of Yiddish are often used
with English words, especially with certain phrases that have become
identified with American Jewish culture. See for example Leo Rosten's The Joys of
- Popular books (such as Born to
Kvetch) explain these words to the general public, at the
same time that they poke fun at their use and syntax (see the "Dick and Jane" background file;
then see Yiddish
With Dick and Jane [Flash] as examples). [Of related interest may be What Was
I Thinking: Subtitles . . . ]
- Other examples of terms, and of the influence of the U.S. Jewish
community on American English (assisted considerably by Woody Allen films
and [past] TV series such as Frasier (see clip below),
Seinfeld, The Nanny, and Sex and the City) include
schmaltz, chutzpah, schlemiel, klutz, kvetch, yenta, schmuck, and
schnozz. Many non-Jewish Americans (though certainly not all) will
recognize some of these words.
However, bear in mind that while many Americans from other
regions and ethnic backgrounds may recognize Yiddish words such as
those above, it is more likely that only those who are more educated, or
widely read, or who have Jewish friends and acquaintances via their place
of residence or profession would fall into this group.
Note how in this excerpt from Merry Christmas, Mrs.
Moskowitz [ca. 7:35 or 8:55 for the 'Oy to the World' segment],
Frasier Crane could produce a number of Yiddish words, but did not always
know what they meant (cf. his gaffe with mohel] [see also IMDB 'quotations' from
the episode]. Another perspective is in the YouTube clip Got Yiddish?.
Remember also the general lack of recognition of the word schlep in
- There are a number of standard American phrases which originated
from Yiddish, including: Get lost, What's up, I should worry, I should
live so long, I need it like a hole in the head, You don't know from
nothin', Pardon the expression, and Enjoy! Certain types of
rhyming slang, especially those where deprecation is shown via partial
reduplications, also originated in Yiddish for example "Joe-schmo"
or "Oedipus-schmedipus, so long as he loves his mother."
Also of interest may be the Brief Yiddish-English
Glossary, Common Yiddish Terms in SAE, and
the Jewish glossary (plus
related resources from this site), as well as Yekl: A Tale of the New
York Ghetto (1896).
US-1 Objectives For Yiddish/Ethnic Jewish Influence in SAE
- An awareness of sociocultural, regional and other 'markers' of
Yiddish words and phrases in SAE
- An awareness of the influence of Jewish historical, religious and
political "consciousness" in America
- An awareness of common references to American Jewish culture in
humor, food, holidays, and lifestyle
- The distinction of certain 'non-standard English' Yiddish grammatical
structures and exclamations in SAE vs those of Black English or simply
uneducated English ('hillbilly' caricatures, etc.)
Main Areas of Linguistic Influence
- Elite literature, drama, poetry, literary criticism
- Popular literature, to a lesser extent
film & television
- Comedy (Catskill
region "borscht belt" comedians; "identity" humor [Woody Allen])
- "Local" advertising, influence, in New York City area
'Yiddish Influence' Outline
US-1 References Index
US-1 Class Schedule
Last Updated 10 March 2013