The New Jew-Speak, via Google
Sarah Bunin Benor’s new Jewish English Lexicon crowd-sources distinctive contributions to the language
Benor makes it easy to collaborate. So, you look up a word and don’t agree with what the dictionary says? No problem; you can immediately propose a correction. Every entry includes a link marked “Edit” with the explanation, “See something you disagree with? Feel free to edit it.” If you look for a word and it’s not there, the Lexicon also invites you to do something about it. The Welcome page has a link marked “Add an entry,” with the explanation, “the Jewish English Lexicon is made possible by visitor participation. Please take a few minutes to add a word or two.”
This freedom, however, isn’t anarchy, as is the case with the entirely user-generated Urban Dictionary, which accepts any definition for a word and posts competing definitions, inviting readers to vote thumbs up or thumbs down. In contrast, the Jewish English Lexicon announces, “All changes will be moderated.” The moderator is Benor herself, who draws on more than a decade of studying Jewish languages and cultures, not only in the United States but worldwide. The background for the Jewish English Lexicon includes a Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity conducted with Steven M. Cohen and reported in 2009. The research questions asked in that survey helped in construction of the Lexicon, questions like these:
“How do American Jews speak English? Who uses Hebrew and Yiddish words and New York regional features? When using Hebrew words, who prefers Israeli pronunciations and who prefers Ashkenazic ones? Which Yiddish-origin features do some non-Jews use?”
To get authoritative answers, they used the Internet to elicit responses to a questionnaire from some 25,000 Jews and 5,000 non-Jews living in America who were native English speakers. Their survey “used the snowball sampling technique (sending e-mail and asking recipients to forward it to others).”
And that brings us back to “klutz,” “schmooze,” “spiel,” and “pastrami.” What do they have in common that distinguishes them from the hundreds of other entries in the dictionary?
Well, all four—even “pastrami”—come from Yiddish. That’s a distinction, but it’s one they share with hundreds of other entries in the Lexicon; Yiddish is the second-most-frequent source of words in the Lexicon, next to textual Hebrew (“Hebrew in the Bible, ancient or medieval rabbinic literature like the Talmud and responsa, and liturgy,” as opposed to modern Israeli Hebrew).
No, what sets apart to “klutz,” “schmooze,” “spiel,” and “pastrami” from all other entries is what Benor discovered in her survey: They are as widely used by non-Jews as by Jews. Indeed, for “pastrami,” the Lexicon notes: “The word was introduced into American English by Yiddish-speaking Jews from Rumania in late-19th-century New York. It has become so common in America that it is no longer considered a Jewish word.” (Full disclosure: A month ago, when I noticed that “pastrami” wasn’t yet in the Lexicon and told Benor, she added it, which seems typical of how she responds to suggestions.)
Benor looks ahead to a day when she can include a voice component for pronunciations. She’d like to be able to use Hebrew letters for spellings of words. And that’s by no means all. She is working with a colleague on a Latin American Spanish version of the Lexicon, focusing on Jewish communities in Mexico City and Argentina. Like the Lexicon, it will be part of a website she produces and edits, the worldwide Jewish Language Research Website.
Benor is a two-fisted scholar if there ever was one. On the one hand, the Internet; on the other, good old-fashioned print (though also available as an e-book). Published last fall, almost at the same time as the Jewish English Lexicon, was her book Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. In this, as well as the Lexicon, she demonstrates that scholarly doesn’t need to be pedantic. Chapter 2 of Becoming Frum, for example, is titled “ ‘Now You Look Like a Lady’: Adventures in Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Fieldwork.”
She looks like a lady, she reads like a novelist. Enjoy!
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
He’s one of the most inventive stand-up comedians around. So, why does he sound like a throwback?