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New York City Yiddish: Alternate Evidentiary Standards for Dead Languages?

  1. Aug 20, 2011 #1
    Much academic work has been done concerning the Yiddish language, most of it having been completed more than one hundred years ago. This is very significant, since most such studies recognize the four major dialects of Yiddish which existed in Europe at that time, whereas I believe that a fifth major dialect of Yiddish, that being, of course, New York City Yiddish, arose since that time, but is now, unfortunately, moribund-to-dead.

    So, how does one find an analyzable corpus for such a flash-in-the-pan dialect, and even determine its status as a major dialect or mere accent or anything in between?


    By way of explanation, I was born into a working-class German-American Christian family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In my pre-teen years, my family moved to the East Coast, where I first encountered the last-gasp remnants of the fully-fledged Yiddish culture of NYC, with which culture I instantly fell in love, but, before I had matured sufficiently to truly appreciate that culture, it was already pretty much gone. (I almost think that some man-made black holes must have lasted longer than my tantalizing exposure to that culture.) My major exposure to the Yiddish language comes from my period of attendance at law school in NYC, where the lunch ladies, elevator operators (this was in the 1980's, and I LOVE operator elevators: those of you who've never experienced one don't know what you've missed!), bug-spritzers, and janitors pretty much all spoke Yiddish as their native language. I also lived briefly in the Hillman Homes on Grand Street, where Yiddish was commonly spoken, but, unlike the workers at NYU, the speakers would generally refuse to converse with one not intimately familiar with the language.


    Anyways, back to evidence.

    I once tried to learn to read the Hebrew alphabet, and, many years ago, began to delve into the extensive Yiddish-language material available at the Hartford Public Library in Hartford, Connecticut. But, seeing as that body of literature was largely created for recent immigrants, probably prior to the dawn of the NYC dialect, I doubt it would serve my purposes.

    The best corpus I can think of is old musical recordings, but I've found that many of those seems to jocularly exaggerate the extent of American English influence upon NYC Yiddish. (OK, I realize that Yiddish is a fun language to speak, but can't we get serious occasionally?)

    How do I find a reliable corpus to test my theory?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2011 #2
    Were there Yiddish newspapers or radio stations that broadcast in NYC Yiddish? The written language is only useful if the dialect is expressed to some extent in the spelling or use of certain words, sentence structure or certain expressions that help identify the dialect. However a radio station might have recordings of spoken NYC Yiddish. This would be a more useful approach.

    Obviously finding people who still speak the dialect is best. This is the method that linguists use when they can. They record the speech and often develop a phonetic written record as well. Many Native American languages have been preserved (to a greater or lesser degree) this way. If this dialect was active in the 1980's, there must be people still living who speak the dialect.

    Since Jewish culture is well established in NYC, I'm sure there are others that have similar interests. You might just try asking around in the NYC area or in the social media. I'm interested in Native American languages and spend time on reservations.
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2011
  4. Aug 20, 2011 #3


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  5. Aug 20, 2011 #4
    SW VandeCarr:


    I've knowm a few old speakers in my time, but I've either lost touch with them or I know they've since died.

    I've been familiar with standard linguistic field methodology and with the International Phonetic Alphabet since I was a high school kid, and I'm now 53 years old, but my problem is that my potential informants are pretty much senile or dead, so your radio station suggestions seems to be a potentially fruitful avenue of research. I'll look into it, and I thank you for the suggestion.


    I thank you for your input as well.

    One chronic problem I keep running into is the easy confusion of Yiddish with her closely related sister language/dialect, Standard High German. Many NYC Jews speak Standard High German rather than Yiddish, and the elderly gentleman telling the joke in your video just happens to be one of them. (Actually, he's sort of a mixed speaker, seeing as he says "yevain" (from Standard High German "geworen" instead of Standard High German "er/sie/es war" to mean, "it was", which is a genuine Yiddish trait, but that's a very thin peg to hang your hat on.)

    Thanks for your help, both of you!
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2011
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