Friday, May 05, 2006

Sterling Kosher Salt

The other day Ben Zimmer hipped me to the Yiddish Radio Project, which I knew about from the NPR series four years ago. Back then I was, to be frank, underwhelmed by the series, which I felt dwelt (!) too long on English language materials. What little Yiddish they did play they talked over. In any case, I'm very glad Ben drew my attention to the Yiddish Radio Project again, because in the interim they've assembled quite a collection of online streaming Yiddish audio, much of it with simultaneous scrolling English translations, which aren't error-free, but are idiomatic and often clever.

My favorite thing I've found so far is this series of 'man-on-the-street' interviews (most of the interviewees are actually women, and they're inside a store). What I really love hearing, though, is authentic American Yiddish, something I've read about a lot, and even read a lot of, but only heard from very elderly informants. This was the Yiddish that developed in America during and after the 'great migration', that is, 1881-1924. It was spoken predominantly by immigrants, though many of the children of immigrants were capable of understanding it, and sometimes speaking it, though they were invariably more comfortable with English. Incidentally, this is a common pattern with immigrant languages in America, though with Yiddish people ascribe this trend to a particular overeagerness on the part of American Jews to assimilate.

American Yiddish is notable for three things: 1) promiscuity with features from different dialects, 2) 'Daytshmerish,' or Germanizing tendencies, and 3) significant borrowing from English. One could condemn each of these features (many do) but I see them as perfectly natural developments. All three features are readily discernable in the clip above, particularly the first - it is sometimes difficult to identify what is the underlying dialect of each speaker, since each speaker exhibits features from a variety of dialects.

I would have thought of this as strange - these are all European-born Yiddish speakers who, prior to immigration, undoubtedly spoke the undiluted dialect of their hometown, so why should they suddenly pick up features from the various dialects they encountered in America?

As I said, I would have thought of this as strange, were it not that a recent experience makes me think that this is in fact perfectly natural. My brother in law has been living in New Zealand for a few years now, and suddenly has picked up a New Zealand accent. Again, I would have thought of this as an affectation, but when he heard a recording of himself, he was shocked.

So why is it, then, that after ten years of not living in Chicago people can still instantly guess where I'm from?


V Smoothe said...

Ben -

I'm by no means an expert here, but I wonder if it has to do with the places you've lived since then. Portlanders never struck me as have a particularly distinct manner of speech. And while some New Yorkers certainly do, I imagine that, given the large number of young people who move there, it would be fairly easy to not spend much time interacting with people who have a heavy NY accent.

I haven't lived in Texas for 9 years now, and in general, I think of myself as pretty accentless. But after visiting my parents for even a few days, I'll notice myself slipping into a mild Texas drawl and friends of mine will comment on it for a week or so after I return.

Ben said...

Yup, I think that's pretty much right. In retrospect, though, I don't think Portlanders talk undistinctly. Now whenever I go back I'm repeatedly floored by how twangy and Midland the Oregonian dialect is, and I wonder how I failed to notice living there six years.

I'd love to hear your 'mild Texas drawl.' Incidentally, Treva (another Texan, for those who don't know) came to visit us recently, and I teased her for stressing the first syllable of 'insurance.'