When non- Orthodox, Jews become ba’alei teshuva (BT), they accept the rules and stringencies of halacha. But they are also immersed in the midst of a whole new ethos involving hats, wigs, cholent, brisket and Yiddish-influenced grammar.
Language plays a significant role in how Orthodox Jews identify each other. Often BTs add “greener” constructions such as “staying by them” and “you want that I should help you?” to their otherwise standard English grammar.
The most conspicuous aspect of Orthodox language is the addition of hundreds of Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish words into English speech and writing. This includes words from the religious domain—like tsnius, modesty; chumra, stringency; and blech, the metal stove-covering that facilitates re-warming food on Shabbat—and words that might be part of any average conversation (like mamash, really). As Jews grow and progress in their religious observance, they escalate the mention of God in their language. They refer regularly to Hashem and answer “How are you?” with “Baruch Hashem, blessed be God.” Often Hebrew words are incorporated into English following Yiddish patterns, as in “That’s the way to be mekayem, fulfill, the mitzvah” and “Don’t be mevatel, nullify/waste, my z’man, time.” Language constructions like these may sound strange to non-Orthodox Jews and are sometimes hard for BTs to integrate.
English grammar can also be unique in this framework. Orthodox Jews use the word “so” in situations where it is not generally used: “If I notice someone who’s mixing up terminology, so I’ll realize that they’re just becoming frum.” Adverbial phrases are sometimes placed before rather than after the object: “I was able to speak pretty well the lingo.” There are unique ways of pronouncing some English vowels and consonants. And, of course, there is the semi-chanting modulation used in Talmud study, which has been transported into everyday speech.
When people become newly Orthodox, they encounter this vast landscape of sociolinguistic variation, and they make decisions—conscious or not—about which words to take on and which pronunciations to use. Whether they say “HA-la-KHAH” or “ha-LUH-khuh” and how much they transform their grammar aids others identify them not only as Orthodox but also along the continuum between Modern Orthodox and Haredi.
Yeshivish, also known as Yeshiva English, Yeshivisheh Shprach (language), or Yeshivisheh Reid (speech), is a dialect or more precisely a sociolect or a variety of English spoken by yeshiva students and other Jews with a strong association with the yeshiva world. A sociolect involves both passive acquiring of particular language related usages through relationship with a local community, as well as active speech or writing to demonstrate a relationship with a particular group. The term sociolect can refer to socially-restricted dialects, or used as a synonym for jargon and slang.
Commonly used expressions among Orthodox Jews are frequently stated with their Yeshivish equivalent. For example, using shkoyakh for “thank you.” As an example:* “The lechatchila time for shacharis is neitz. B’dieved, if a person davened from amud hashachar and onwards he is yotzei. In a shas hadchak he may daven from amud hashachar and onwards lechatchila … After chatzos it is assur to daven Shacharis. One should wait till after Mincha and then daven a tashlumin. The possibility for a tashlumin doesn’t exist for someone who was bemaizid.”
Translation: “The ideal time for morning prayers is sunrise. After the fact, if one prayed from the [earlier] appearance of the morning star and onwards, it is acceptable. In an emergency situation, one may pray initially from the appearance of the morning star and onwards. After mid-day [six hours after sunrise] it is prohibited to recite the morning prayers. One should wait after the afternoon service and then recite a make-up or additional prayer. This option does not exist for one who missed the time cut off intentionally.” Even the topic itself is beyond the ken of the average Jewish English speaker.
Friends will frequently greet each other by asking “Where are you holding?” This “Yeshivish” greeting is part of the verbiage of a certain subset of the Orthodox community. It is a form of English, leavened with rabbinic Hebrew and Talmudic Aramaic, with Yiddish expressions thrown in. This is commonplace today in the world of yeshiva students, their families and parts of the Orthodox Jewish community. The Yiddish verb haltn has the primary meaning of “to hold,” and the greeting is a literal translation of vu halt ir, whose idiomatic sense, often regarding someone’s progress in a Talmudic or rabbinic text, is “Where are you up to?” or “How far have you gotten?”
Typically, Yeshivish speakers use it only within their own community. There is not much point, after all, in saying things like “I’m not dealing with the question gufa, in itself,” or “Let me put it to you poshut, simply,” if you know the person with whom you are speaking is not going to understand you. Many people in the yeshivishe orbit are often under the impression that it is normal English, or at least, conventional Jewish English.
It is true that the Orthodox Jewish community in America is growing (it is the only part of the American Jewish population that is), as is the number of its yeshiva students and Yeshivish speakers. But Yeshivish does not have many of the aspects of a separate language. It lacks a grammar or a phonetic system of its own. While it resembles standard English and has its own vocabulary, it is heavily determined by specifically Jewish matters. A conversation between two Yeshivish speakers about the proper time for daily prayers, or how best to rid a home of its leaven before Passover, may not be comprehensible to non-Yeshivish speakers. This isn’t the case if they are discussing last night’s sports event or the purchase of a new car. In the latter case, although they may throw in an occasional “avade, of course,” “efsher, perhaps,” or any one of dozens of other Yeshivish words, they will basically use the same words as would ordinary English speakers.
Yeshivish is far less of a language in its own right than is a dialect like Black English, with many grammatical constructions that are not found in standard English. With a unique pronunciation, it can be difficult for an ordinary English speaker to understand even in normal situations. It is similar to regional dialects in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
If current demographic trends continue, there will be an increasing number of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox speakers who will speak Yeshivish. If so, it is not impossible that it will depart from standard English in more and more ways. It may never evolve away from it as much as Yiddish did from German. That’s because Yiddish was always heavily influenced by Slavic languages like Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. (e.g. there are 10 different Yiddish words for potato.) An equivalent situation does not exist in America. Yiddish only became true Yiddish when its speakers went from Germanic lands to Eastern Europe, just as Ladino, Yiddish’s Spanish-based Sephardi counterpart, came into its own when Jews took it with them to the Turkish and Greek-speaking Ottoman empire after their expulsion from Spain.
However, Yiddish and Ladino are the wrong languages with which to compare Yeshivish. There have been many other so-called Jewish languages over the centuries. Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Provençal, did not differ all that much from their non-Jewish originators. That is because these speakers stayed where they were and remained subject to the latter’s influence. As with Yeshivish and English, the grammar and pronunciation of Judeo-Persian, for example, was basically the same as those of Persian; what was unique was their specifically Jewish vocabulary.
Is Yeshivish spreading beyond the confines of its original speech community? Is Yeshivish on its way to becoming a new Yiddish? Are we witnessing the birth of a new Jewish language? There is no need to speculate whether a Judeo-English is being born. Commonly called Yeshivish, it already exists.
*Many thanks to Philologos (formerly The Forward, now Mosaic Magazine), Sarah Bunin Benor (“Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism”) and Chaim M. Weiser (“Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish”).
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, a veteran educator, tries to speak grammatically correct English whenever possible, bli neder.