Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Yeshivish" as a second language

I did not have the privilege of attending a yeshiva, nor was I raised in the Orthodox world. So "Yeshivish" is a new language for me. Here are some of the expressions that I've learned--and, frankly, don't appreciate.

"Mommy doesn't let"
MoChassid's daughter's expression was one that I'd never encountered until . . . , well, until I read the linked post.

The proper American English way of saying this would be "Mommy doesn't let me." The Yeshivish version results in an incomplete--and grammatically-unacceptable--sentence.


Since when does the word "by" mean the same thing as "at the home of" in English? What's all this "I ate 'by' my brother," or "We stayed for Shabbos 'by' his parents" nonsense?

Referring back to the MoChassid post linked above, I agree completely with commenter Tesyaa that " . . . if she says "by" in the Yiddish construct at a college interview, she will be going to community college." . . .

"Give over"

Since when does a person "give over" a Torah discussion? Whatever happened to the plain English "give"? This is another expression that I read for the first time within the past month or so, and I don't like it one bit.

I'm a "language person." I have a BA in French, with about 12 credits in English and 9 in Spanish to my name, and have studied, at various times, American Sign Language of the Deaf and Israeli Hebrew. I don't take kindly to distortions of my native language by people who actually believe that they're speaking English.

Sunday, February 7, 2010 update: And the winner from yesterday's d'var Torah (Bible discussion) is . . .

"Bring down"

. . . as in "Rashi brings down a teaching from midrash . . ."

Honestly, that phrase is so far removed from Standard American English that I wouldn't even have been able to understand it, had it not been for the context in which it was spoken. I gather that it means "presents" or "gives as an example or explanation," more or less. But I think that this is an example of what JDub meant when he commented (below): "If you can't translate it, you don't accurately understand it." For the record, my husband can't translate "bring down" either.


Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

If someone speaking Yeshivish thinks it is English I agree it is a problem.

Gettysburg address in Yeshivish

Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish


Tue Feb 02, 11:15:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

Nice post. I don't think the "by" usage is exclusively Yeshivish. It's also very "New Jersey", as in "we had sunday dinner by Nana's; she still makes a good gravy."

Tue Feb 02, 11:21:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Larry, I tried to read that Yeshivish version of the Gettysburg Address, and can only say that my "Yeshivish" is at least as limited as my Yiddish--I could hardly understand a word. :)

Steve, I don't remember that usage. I guess it's been too long since I've lived in New Jersey. :)

Tue Feb 02, 11:57:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

The pledge of allegiance is easier:

English Version

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Yeshivish Translation

"I am meshabed myself, b'li neder, to hold shtark to the
siman of the United States of America and to the medina which is gufa
its tachlis; one festa chevra, b'ezras Hashem, echad ve'yuchid, with
simcha and erlichkeit for the gantza oilam."

Tue Feb 02, 12:51:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Well, that's better--I understand about a quarter of that one. :)

Tue Feb 02, 02:46:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

"By" is a Yiddish construct. The word, spelled bet-yud-yud means "at." That one is a yiddishism, not yeshivish. It's fairly common in folks for whom Yiddish is their native language.

This speaks volumes about the insularity of the community, that they have developed their own dialect. That said, even in my ModOrth community, I speak differently than I do at work. I say "shabbos" "shul" "chumash" and various other things rather than "Saturday" "synagogue" and "bible." We all do. There's is just a more extreme version.

And why do I find it funny that the word verification for my comment is "narreshe" as in "narreshekeit"!

Tue Feb 02, 02:49:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...


The pledge isn't even close to an accurate translation. Simcha and erlichkeit doesn't come close to meaning "liberty and justice" but I assume this is intended more tongue in cheek than accurate yeshivish.

Shira: One point I'd argue is that you say that you don't take kindly to distortions of your native language. I'd argue that most British folks feel the same way about how we pronounce and speak the Queen's English. English, like all languages, evolves. In this distinct population, it is merging, to some extent, with Yiddish. It's as much their language as it is your's. You may not like it, but I'm fairly certain they wouldn't care.

Do you take equal umbrage at the way certain segments of the African American community speaks (notably, the younger ones)? How about Latinos? They also are creating their own language forms, based off of English (look at the Puerto Ricans in NY, who are Nuyoricans). I'm just saying.

Tue Feb 02, 02:58:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

It's true that many of us tend to "code-switch" among English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, and/or Arabic, depending on the part of the world from which our ancestors came and/or where we were educated. I guess that, as Larry commented above, the real problem occurs when a person is so poorly educated that he or she actually doesn't realize that what she or he is speaking or writing is not standard English. That's why it's so important for parents to correct their children's English usage, no matter how much they kvetch, er, complain, about it.

"narreshe" :) I love it! Believe it or not, I actually got "srugi" as the word verification on Gila's "My Shrapnel" (an Israeli blog) the other day!

Tue Feb 02, 03:09:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

JDub, I guess the issue is context. I would certainly take umbrage at the use of non-standard English in a "mixed" crowd, and I would object vehemently to the teaching of non-standard English as a substitute for standard English. It's important for all of us to speak the same language when we work together.

Tue Feb 02, 03:13:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

On second thought, JDub, I've gotten very used to my ex-Soviet co-workers conversing among themselves in Russian. Perhaps that fact undermines my argument that we should all speak standard English at the office. But I still say that when we're speaking English in a mixed group, we should at least attempt to speak the standard form (with allowances made for those who speak English as a foreign language).

Tue Feb 02, 09:14:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

I think it's an abomination, but predictable. Every poor inner city population has developed an uneducated English dialect.

Black English got parodied when a group in California tried to dub it Ebonics and get people taught it as a second language. The weird Spanish/English combination of Spanglish is pretty common. And now this Brooklyn dialect of English is called Yeshivish.

It's an impediment to success, but not terribly shocking. What is terrible is that young people, not born to poor families in Brooklyn, pick this up as a "Jewish" thing later on. It's not a Jewish thing, it's an uneducated Brooklyn thing.

The supreme irony, I was shown a summary of a study of Jewish speech patterns. Among the 60+ Orthodox crowd, this language pattern does not exist. In the < 30 Orthodox crowd, it's VERY VERY VERY common.

So it's not a Yiddish derivation, since the generation that spoke Yiddish doesn't use it. It's a modern invention, from insularity, poor education, and a persecution complex.

Tue Feb 02, 09:25:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Tevel said...

@ Larry: Thanks for a great laugh!

Tue Feb 02, 11:22:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

Miami Al:

I think that study doesn't say what you think it says. Yeshivishe is a meld of Yiddish, talmudic/rabbinic terms, and English. That 60+ olds don't speak it is actually irrelevant, since most 60+ year olds were born here. You'd have to be looking at an even older population to see how they spoke English, and there are numerous similarities in the grammatical structures, although the yeshivishe crowd throws in more talmudic terms than our largely illiterate forefathers. (At least mine.)

Also, this type of speaking never left the yeshivishe velt. The old time rebbis spoke straight Yiddish. The younger ones learned from them, and mixed English and Yiddish. Students have absorbed it from them and it's now a dialect, pidgin, whatever. That my grandmother never spoke like that (and was the daughter of two yiddish speakers) is irrelevant.

Shira: Totally agree that context is everything, but I wonder how many of the ones that do venture into the outside world actually talk yeshivishe? I live "out of town" (Metro DC area) and know plenty of folks that talk yeshivishe in an appropriate context, but speak normally in the workplace, although they may slip (as I do, from time to time) but they recognize that they are slipping and correct themselves.

My bigger issue is that the use of the language permits sloppy learning. When I learn, either with my chavrusa or my daughters, I make sure to translate every word into English. If you can't translate it, you don't accurately understand it. It just means you are jumbling the learning words together with English.

With that, peace out, yo. (See, I'm multi-lingual.)

Wed Feb 03, 08:01:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"My bigger issue is that the use of the language permits sloppy learning. When I learn, either with my chavrusa or my daughters, I make sure to translate every word into English. If you can't translate it, you don't accurately understand it. It just means you are jumbling the learning words together with English."

Miami Al, I agree 100%.

It occurs to me, though, that there may be another issue at work in the use of Yeshivish (and other Jewish languages) in mixed settings.

Wed Feb 03, 09:38:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...


Let's make a distinction between the use of Talmudic concepts in an appropriate context, without translation, that is perfectly reasonable for a second generation immigrant culture, like Spanglish... The use of Hebrew/Aramaic terms in English is fine if one realizes that it is a foreign borrow, it's not fine when it's used as thought the incorporation in English is reasonable.

There is ZERO excuse for "eating by someone..." You eat AT their home. Perhaps you are eating "by them" if you are eating at a neighbor's house.

That is not a Talmudic term, that's broken English, and unacceptable for a native-born speaker.

BTW: Poor Italians in Brooklyn and New Jersey also had that speech structure. It's a lower class dialect that's being passed off as Jewish.

The level of white trashiness that is sliding into Orthodoxy by way of the Brooklyn Yeshiva crowd is INCREDIBLY disturbing to me.

Wed Feb 03, 10:44:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...


that comment about learning was me, not Al!


I'll disagree again. I studied Yiddish in college, and "by" is the appropriate use for "at". It's not a question of simply broken grammar, it's very clearly linguistically a holdover. As to the white trashiness, I can't agree. When I see a yeshiva guy wearing a trucker cap with a confederate flag, I'd agree. Conversely, the next time I see a hillbilly wearing a borsalino, I will think you are right. ; )

Wed Feb 03, 11:43:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

This has been my experience, as I am in the middle of my conversion process and learning what it means to me to be "Jewish by choice." Add into the mix that my congregation is mixed members with Reform and Conservative backgrounds, some with strong Yiddish backgrounds, some not so much, some native California's with "book Hebrew" pronounciation, others with Israeli influence, New York influence, Hungarian families, and on and on... And my BA is in Linguistics.

Sometimes I think I'm "caught between several accents" as I try to learn and join in. When English is affected too, I also struggle with understanding and participating in the conversations.

Wed Feb 03, 11:48:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops! Sorry for misattributing the quote about learning,JDub.

Now, now, guys, no fighting. :) In all seriousness, I suspect that this may be a classic case of "you're both right," as the old story goes. On the one hand, it's quite possible that "by" used instead of "at" is a holdover from Yiddish, as JDub said. But now that it's being used by people whose native language is English, some of whose *grandparents* may not even have been fluent in Yiddish, why is it still being used, as Miami Al asked (more or less)?

Cayswann, as you can see, even *I'm* still learning "Yeshivish." :) Good luck on both linguistic and conversionary counts.

Wed Feb 03, 02:29:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Gotcha, so rumpled black suit, shirt with stains on it, and expensive hat that hasn't been in style in 80 years is somehow better than a trucker hat? Just checking...
Driving 15 year old minivans with rust stains is WAY different than a 15 year old F-150...
If one is a native Yiddish speaker and inadvertently uses the word "by" in English, it's no different from any other immigrants that screw up English nuance.
When American born children of American born parents, with university educations all around, start blowing it to "seem" Jewish, in a way that the children of the Yiddish speaking immigrants don't, it's broken English.
It's a modern invention because the Yiddish immigrant generation, and their children, didn't speak English that way, and it's been invented as a Jewish expression pulling from a Yiddish mannerism.
Yiddish and English are both Germanic languages, but they branch from different parts of the family.
Two generations ago, our families fought to be "white," gaining acceptance into colleges, the job market, professional success... all of which risks being torn down as this retreat into paranoid self-ghettoization dominates Orthodox Jewish culture.
I don't think many people REALIZE that it's broken English, because I've seen it creeping into day-to-day communication.

Wed Feb 03, 04:37:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post and follow up comments.
In my family, my mother went to night school to learn to read and write Yiddish correctly besides speaking it. My grandmother came to America when she was, if I remember hearing, when she was about a year old (the 1880s flood of immigrants)
My mother was always proud of the fact that she knew proper Yiddish. She also had some college -- the first in her family.

Wed Feb 03, 11:15:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anon, it's good to know that some folks are serious enough about their Yiddish to chose to become completely literate in it.

Sorry, JDub, but I'm inclined to think that Miami Al may be right, and the proof of the pudding is MoChassid's youngest child. The daughter mentioned in the post is so young that she may not even be in pre-school yet. And her father's a Wall Street lawyer, if memory serves me correctly. How on earth could such a young child from such a well-educated family possibly have learned such "English" unless it were in common use in her very-upscale Jewish neighborhood?

Wed Feb 03, 11:47:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

This may sound like a crazy analogy, but please hear me out.

I've been trying not to listen to music during my year of aveilut (mourning) for my mother, but, if memory serves me correctly, the back-story to the Michael Jackson video and song "I'm Bad" was that a college kid was trying to prove that he still had what some in the Black community call "street cred," that he was just as bad as the rest of the guys, as if being bad were a good thing.

I think Miami Al is correct in saying that the use of "Yeshivish" is just as much a way of establishing the (right-wing?) Orthodox Jewish version of "street cred" as is the wearing of a black hat (or whatever the female equivalent of a black hat is).

By way of *Jewish* musical illustration, I suggest that you listen to Blue Fringe's "Flipping Out," which includes, if memory serves me correctly, a description of a newly-right-wing-Orthodox yeshivah student who suddenly starts peppering his speak with "words" like "shkoyach."

Thu Feb 04, 12:12:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

I think Al and I are arguing past each other.

First, I was kidding about the white trashiness. I agree about the rumpled/stained suit.

Second, I'm not disagreeing that the adoption of "yeshivishe" by people is not directly connected to THEIR speaking yiddish. Agree 100%. My point is that Yeshivishe is much more organic in its growth than you give it credit for. There is an unbroken line of folks for whom this was natural. It then got adopted by a much wider group of people, in order to belong to the club. I agree with you on that.

That said, who among us doesn't do that? Much to my chagrin, I have a potty mouth, always have had one. Yet, I tend to only speak foully at work, where I am surrounded by like-speaking attorneys. (There's something about practicing law that causes one to swear frequently.) At home I don't use words like that except in extreme duress (smashing my finger with a hammer).

When you're surrounded by folks saying "shkoyach" you tend to do it too. When the response to "How are you?" is "Barukh hashem" you tend to adopt it as well. It's just normal human behavior.

And in any event, my kids, for whom yeshivishe is something about which they've never heard, have atrocious spelling and grammar. it's a constant fight, and I blame email, their school, and their mother, not necessarily in that order! ; )

Thu Feb 04, 07:53:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

JDub, I agree that grammatical incorrectness is not limited to speakers of Yeshivish--I've been nagging my son about his grammar for years. (For the record, since my son grew up before the use of e-mail became common for kids--and before instant messaging and text messaging even existed--I blame his schools. A regularly-repeated argument went something like this: "But the teacher thinks my English writing is fine." "I don't care--I speak English better than your teacher does.")

I agree that we do tend to imitate the language of those around us. But when "Yeshivish" becomes so "normal," rather than being reserved for synagogue and other places and occasions at which one is surrounded by Jews, that 4-year-olds think that "Mommy doesn't let" is standard English, that's a problem.

Thu Feb 04, 09:03:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Folks, what's your opinion of Miami Al's "sociological" argument, if that's the correct description?

"If one is a native Yiddish speaker and inadvertently uses the word "by" in English, it's no different from any other immigrants that screw up English nuance.
When American born children of American born parents, with university educations all around, start blowing it to "seem" Jewish, in a way that the children of the Yiddish speaking immigrants don't, it's broken English.

. . .

Two generations ago, our families fought to be "white," gaining acceptance into colleges, the job market, professional success... all of which risks being torn down as this retreat into paranoid self-ghettoization dominates Orthodox Jewish culture.
I don't think many people REALIZE that it's broken English, because I've seen it creeping into day-to-day communication."

In my opinion (and I think Miami Al hinted at this idea earlier), the use of Yeshivish is the linguistic equivalent of the wearing of a black hat--and both very-outdated customs are an attempt to return symbolically to a near-mythical past way of life, one that some, but certainly not all, right-wing-Orthodox Jews consider to have been superior to the contemporary way of life. It's the belief in "yeridat ha-dorot"--the concept that previous generations were invariably superior to the current generation--taken to extremes.

My grandparents and parents would have given their eye teeth for the opportunities that their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have had, ones that they worked hard to try to provide for us. Why are some, but not all, among the right-wing-Orthodox so eager to throw all these opportunities away? Why are there some people in the yeshivish and chareidi communities who are actually proud of never having gone to college, or embarrassed that they went or are going to college "just for 'parnassah' (employment)" purposes? When did having a PhD and a decent income become something to hide? What's so great about being a poor, illiterate immigrant, that some folks are trying to pretend, through their language and dress, that that's what their are?

Thu Feb 04, 12:27:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

See my Sunday, February 7, 2010 update for my most-recently-discovered "Yeshivish" term.

Sun Feb 07, 12:28:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

Shira, I'm not sure "bring down" falls into the "yeshivish" category. I've seen this usage frequently in discussions of halakha; it's commonly used by a variety of contributors on Hirhurim, for example. I've always interpreted it, perhaps incorrectly, as reflecting a process by which a particular law or custom arrived at its current status. It seems to suggest a process by which a later generation reached a conclusion based on an earlier generation's holdings. In that respect, while uncommon, it's not really in the same league as some of your examples from your original post. I can see using it in a legal discussion with a non-jewish colleague, who I suspect would have no problem understanding what I meant. Perhaps my fellow member of the Bar, Jdub, will have a different opinion.

Sun Feb 07, 05:01:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Two thumbs up for "Blue Fringe" overall, and certainly for the song "Flipping Out" which makes me laugh every time I listen to it. (Their 2nd album, Seventy Faces, is my favorite of the three albums.)

Sun Feb 07, 06:18:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Copied from the comments to yesterday's "Update alert" post of mine, referring readers back to this post:

The Reform Baal Teshuvah said...

I think "bring down" may be a metaphor, the idea being that Rashi is bringing down for us ignoramuses from the holy, elevated treasure trove of midrash, a midrash that explains a verse.
Sun Feb 07, 04:47:00 PM 2010

Mon Feb 08, 09:04:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

TOTJ Steve, you may have a point. After all, I think we would say, in secular "legalese," that the judge "handed down" a ruling. Of course, in the case of a secular judge, the term "to hand down" may refer to the fact that the judge's so-called "bench," in a courtroom, is generally elevated above the rest of the courtroom.

Mon Feb 08, 11:14:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Cayswann, I really miss listening to music and going to concerts. I have about 4 1/2 more months of mourning for my mother before I can dust off my CDs.

Mon Feb 08, 01:14:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Bring Down doesn't bother me. It's Yeshiva Jargon for a process that only applies inside a Yeshiva. This is no better/worse than any other specialized field having jargon and using it within that field.

Lawyers cite rulings. Courts hand down rulings from the bench. And Halacha involves bringing down a rule by analogy, that's jargon.

I don't believe that speaking "Yeshivish English" like "eat by" is like wearing a black had, I think it's like talking about "frying fish" (instead of flying fish), or "axing a question" (instead of asking them).

It's looking uneducated and poor from a poor mastery of the language.

Mon Feb 08, 06:46:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

I'm going to agree with Al. Brings down is jargon, but it's only used in the context of an halachic or midrashic discussion. I've never heard frum lawyers say "oh, Justice Thomas brings down the argument from Buckley v. Valeo in . . ."

It's a problem in using the present tense to describe an event that occurred in the past, but I'm not terribly bothered by it. This is one I can't translate back, and my jargon is pretty good. It's an English construct to explain a position in halacha or midrash. It's also so common that everyone I know uses it in divrei torah.

Tue Feb 09, 07:52:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"Bring Down . . . It's Yeshiva Jargon for a process that only applies inside a Yeshiva. This is no better/worse than any other specialized field having jargon and using it within that field."

Point made, Steve.

"speaking "Yeshivish English" like "eat by" . . . It's looking uneducated and poor from a poor mastery of the language."

You see the use of Yeshivish as a symptom of poor education, rather than as an identity marker. That's an interesting perspective.

It could be argued, though, that a poor secular education is, in itself, an identity marker in some extremely-right-wing-Orthodox communities.

Tue Feb 09, 09:08:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

>>Point made, Steve.<<

Thanks, but that was Jdub, not me. Although it was well said.

Tue Feb 09, 09:53:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...


It's 100% an identity marker. It's no different from black "street English." At my VERY elite University, there was a black on-campus living group, that self selected. Their local culture was to wear the "street clothes" that was popular in rap culture, and use mannerism popular in rap music, combined with a tough guy act.
Most of these people were the children of doctors and lawyers (elite University) -- yet would talk about being "from the street."
It's an identity marker. It's identifying with an uneducated underclass, and completely manufactured, just like "Gangsta Rap" was manufactured by secular Jews in the music industry by hiring black Americans from suburbia to reflect "the street," this cultural identity was created by wealthy Religious Jewish Americans to build their "Yesvhish Cred..."
Unfortunately, it leads to kids learning broken mannerisms, not knowing how to communicate properly, and a self-ghettoizing situation where we'll return right to being impoverished immigrants.
I see Ivy League educated people using the phrase routinely, and I find it extremely unlikely that they do not slip in a professional setting.

Tue Feb 09, 12:56:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I apologize for my apparent inability to remember which commenter said what.

Miami Al (I hope!), that's exactly why I compared Blue Fringe's song "Flipping Out" with Michael Jackson's "I'm Bad." Both songs are illustrations of what you describe as "self-ghettoizing."

Tue Feb 09, 01:41:00 PM 2010  

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