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Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month

May is Jewish American History Month, and oy vey, there is so much to write about! At Deepgram, we always have speech and language on our minds—and this month, we’re excited to write about Jewish American language. But to start, who are the Jewish people anyway, and how did their communities develop into the form we know today? 

Who are the Jewish People?

The Jews have a very long sense of their own identity; in fact, it is currently the year 5782 in the Jewish calendar. The historical homeland of the Jewish people was in the region of today’s Israel and Palestine (broadly referred to as the Levant in many historical sources), where the city of Jerusalem was the holy center of the Jewish world. Even in the most ancient history, though, Jewish communities also existed in neighboring areas, including in the Ancient Greek world, Egypt and North Africa, and Babylon. Many stories from these early minority Jewish communities that existed outside of the Levant appear in the Old Testament.

The origins of most of the Jewish groups that we see around the world today date back to political events that occurred two thousand years ago in the Levant. Major upheavals came between the year 0 and the year 70 CE, when armed fighting between the Roman Empire and the Jewish population of Jerusalem led to the siege and sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. This began a large-scale migration of the Jewish people in every direction that continued for many centuries, through to the Muslim conquest of the Levant in 638 CE. After that time, although a sizable population of Jewish people remained in the Levant, the population in other regions began to overshadow that of the original Jewish homeland.

The result of this migration is that people who identify as Jews come from many far-flung parts of the world, where their communities have existed for thousands of years. This scattering of Jewish communities is known as the Jewish diaspora. Most if not all diaspora communities lived in places where they were surrounded by much larger populations of other ethnic and linguistic groups. This pattern led to cultural dialog and intermixing, and Jewish communities often adopted languages and cultural traditions that resembled those of the surrounding society while still preserving their unique Jewish identity.

The Jewish Diaspora

Over the centuries, several broad ethnic groups emerged. The Jewish people who migrated to Spain and Portugal in ancient times became the Sephardic Jews (from Hebrew sepharad, meaning Spain). The Sephardic community developed a Romance language called Ladino, which is a close relative of Spanish that preserves many words from Hebrew. During the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s, Sephardic Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Many migrants who fled the inquisition moved to the eastern Mediterranean, which led to large communities of Ladino speakers settling in the Ottoman Empire, and especially in the cities of Thessaloniki and Izmir in modern Greece and Turkey.

Other Jews migrated in ancient times to Northern Europe, particularly to France and Germany. Over the centuries, these people developed into the Ashkenazi Jews (from Hebrew ashkenaz, meaning Germany). These communities developed a Germanic language called Yiddish, which is related to German and also has strong influences from Slavic languages and Hebrew. Over time, the Ashkenazi population shifted eastward to Central and Eastern Europe, where the policies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were friendly toward Jewish settlers. As a result, many modern Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry back to Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

Other Jews stayed in the Middle East and became Mizrahi Jews (from Hebrew mizrach, meaning east). Mizrahi communities developed several languages depending on their location, including Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian. Some groups that started in the Mizrahi region migrated farther and settled in more isolated areas: the Bukhara community in Uzbekistan, the Kaifeng community in China, the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia, and various communities in India, to name just a few. These groups developed Jewish languages that were related to those spoken in the societies where they settled.

Jewish Migration to the US

Jewish migration to the US accelerated in the late 1800s as Ashkenazi people in particular left Europe in search of a better life in America. Ashkenazis established large communities throughout the Northeast, and in New York City in particular. The next major upheaval came during the Second World War. The spread of Nazism through Europe targeted Jewish people, first for oppression and then for elimination. 6 million Jewish people were murdered at the hands of the Nazis—about 35% of the world’s Jewish population at the time—alongside millions of people from other minority groups that the Nazis marked for extermination. These groups included disabled people, the Roma, LGBT people, political dissenters, and others. Millions of Jews who escaped the Holocaust became refugees.

The majority of these migrants went to the United States and to Palestine, which was divided into Israel and Palestine in 1948 by the British authorities who controlled the region at the time. During the foundation of Israel, it was decided that Hebrew would become the nation’s official language. Before that time, Hebrew was a widely-spoken second language that many Jews learned to study holy texts, but almost no one spoke it as a native language. With over 5 million native speakers today, Hebrew stands as one of the most successful language revitalization projects in history.

Today, there are an estimated 7.6 million people who identify as Jewish living in the US and up to 15 million people who have at least one Jewish grandparent, accounting for 2.4% and 4.5% of the US population, respectively. Many Jewish people live in urban areas, with the largest populations in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington. 90-95% of these people have Ashkenazi heritage.

Yiddish Words in English

Ashkenazis brought their Yiddish language with them when they settled in the US, and between 160,000 and 200,000 people still speak Yiddish in the US today. The prevalence of Yiddish has influenced American English, as even non-Jewish Americans likely recognize a number of Yiddish words. We asked Deepgrammers with Jewish roots what their favorite Jewish words are in any language. The resulting list contains mostly Yiddish and Hebrew words, which reflects the fact that most American Jews—including those on the Deepgram team—have Ashkenazi heritage. Nonetheless, we celebrate other American-Jewish languages too.

    • Bubbe & ZaydeGrandma and Grandpa, both words of Slavic origin. Since many people’s exposure to Yiddish came through their grandparents, these words have special meaning.
    • BupkisNothing. This word is of Slavic origin and may have meant goat droppings, originally from a Slavic word for bean [shaped object]. Often used as an interjection: “Years of sweat and tears and what do I get in return, bupkis!”
    • ChutzpahNearly arrogant courage, audacity. This word has a Hebrew origin, from an ancient word that meant insolent.
    • DreckDirt, crap. From a Germanic word meaning dung. “Dreck!” is an exclamation of disgust or displeasure with something.
    • Futz (around)Waste time with frivolous things, from a Germanic origin that translates to fart. 
    • Hak mir nicht kein tschainik Don’t bang my teapot. An often-used expression by my own grandma in my childhood, which was used to tell me to be quiet and stop being difficult. The first four words are of Germanic origin (don’t bang my), while the last word, teapot, is a loan from the Slavic languages. This expression shows how multilingual Yiddish speakers drew from several sources as they developed their language.
    • KibbitzChat, small talk, gossip. Originally a Germanic name for a bird in imitation of its call, kibbitz can be used as a noun or a verb.
    • KlutzA clumsy, uncoordinated person. Originally from a Germanic source meaning wooden beam and related to the word for block, lump.
    • KvetchTo whine, complain. From a Germanic origin meaning pinch, possibly a reference to the facial expression of whining.
    • L’Chaim To life! This is the most common phrase used as a toast in Ashkenazi culture. The phrase is drawn from Hebrew.
    • Mazel tovCongratulations, literally good luck. A phrase drawn from Hebrew.
    • MentshA virtuous person. This word is related to modern German Mensch, which means person with no connotation of virtuousness.
    • Meshugge Crazy, insane, drawn from Hebrew. Also seen as meshugass, meaning craziness, insanity.
    • NoshTo snack, from a Germanic word for nibble. 
    • Oy Vey! & Oy Gevalt! Oh, God, enough already! Both phrases come from Germanic words for pain and violence, respectively, as an expression of suffering.
    • ShlemielA fool, someone who hurts people emotionally out of carelessness. The origin is unknown.
    • ShlepTo drag or lug something; to go on a tiresome errand. Literally to drag, from a Germanic source. You might “shlep your suitcase up the stairs” or “shlep all over town” running errands.
    • ShlimazelA chronically unlucky person. The first element shlim is from a Germanic source meaning bad. The second element mazel is from Hebrew meaning luck, as seen above in mazel tov.
    • ShmutzDirt, from a Germanic origin. Your Bubbe might say, “You have shmutz on your face!” 
    • Shpiel, Spiel – An opinionated, persuasive speech. From a Germanic source meaning performance.
    • ShvitzSweat, from a Germanic origin. “It’s so hot, I’m shvitzing like crazy.”
    • TchotchkeTrinket, from a Slavic origin.
    • TuchisButt, from a Hebrew origin. “Don’t fall on your tuchis!”
    • VerklemptOvercome with emotion, usually in a positive way. From a Germanic origin meaning squeezed, inhibited.
    • YentaA matchmaker, usually also a busybody and gossiper. Based on the name of a fictional character and popularized as a word in US English by Fiddler on the Roof.

Famous Jewish Linguists

Jewish American Heritage Month was first inaugurated in 2006, and its goal was to highlight the contributions that Jewish Americans have made to American culture and history. Given this post’s focus on language issues, we’d be remiss to wrap up without mentioning some of Jewish linguists who’ve contributed to our understanding of how language works.

    • Perhaps the most famous is Noam Chomsky, who defined a way of thinking about language that has influenced huge swathes of the field and led to a number of sub-theories and variations on his original schema.
    • Steven Pinker is well known today as a popular science writer on various topics, but he started his career in psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology.
    • Victoria Fromkin was an American linguist who studied slips of the tongue and language acquisition. She is perhaps best known for her work with Genie, a young girl raised in abusive conditions who did not acquire language as a normal child would.
    • Edward Sapir is considered by many to be one of the founding scholars of American linguistics as we know it today, working on issues as diverse as linguistic relativity (does the language you speak influence how you think?) and documenting indigenous languages in North America.
    • William Labov essentially founded the field of sociolinguistics. He conducted seminal work on accents in New York, as well as African American Vernacular English.
    • Joseph Greenberg worked extensively on understanding how languages are related to each other as well as linguistic typology—understanding how different features of language are instantiated in different languages.

Final Thoughts

Jewish Americans are a diverse bunch. Centuries of migration have brought Jewish people from many cultural traditions to the United States, where they have blended together into a new Jewish-American identity. This identity is held together less by ancestry or religion than it is by a shared history of learning, trial, tribulation, and joy. So to all the Jewish Americans and our friends out there, we offer a heartfelt l’chaim!

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