Yeshivish

1 12 2011

There is a sociolect of English with which few people are aware. Known as “Yinglish”, it was once mentioned under Ethnologue’s section on Eastern Yiddish, where they observed that the number of proficient speakers increases with one’s proximity to New York City. While it is most certainly an English sociolect, the high number of Yiddish words that are employed make it impossible for those who are unfamiliar with Yiddish to understand it. In Australia, many people know what it is to schlepp to the bank, to be a bit of a klutz, to be in awe of a maven or to work for a schmuck. But how many of them shvitz in the summer, do gornisht in the winter, spend time with the mishpocheh, have a nosh, plotz or kibbitz?

In truth, while “Yinglish” proficiency amongst non-Jews might increase as one approaches Brooklyn, the phenomenon of “Yeshivish” (the sociolect of the Haredi yeshiva system) can be found in all places where people speak English and where such institutions exist. As a sociolect, it constitutes something of a mirror image of Yinglish. Yinglish is English, with a number of Yiddish words – primarily nouns. Yeshivish, on the other hand, is most definitely Yiddish, but a Yiddish in which the speaker occasionally inserts English phrases or uses English words. Consider the following excerpt, taken from a talk by Rav Nissan Kaplan (the mashgiach ruchani, or “spiritual advisor” at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem):

The sample is taken from his website, where a very large number of his classes are available for download. At the top of the page, you will note a series of hespedim (“eulogies”) for Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was the Rosh Yeshiva at the Mir and who passed away almost a month ago. After that, the classes are organised by theme and by year. I recommend his mussar schmuessen in particular, as they provide an insight into the general lifestyle of the Yeshiva students:

5767 (2007)
5768 (2008)
5769 (2009)
5770 (2010)
5771 (2011) – current.

If it is halakha that interests you, I especially recommend three Shabbat-related lectures: one deals with the permissibility of dancing, one with religious Jews who work in ambulances, and one is the first part of a two-part lecture that discusses the legality of asking non-Jews to do work for you. His Talmud classes are probably also excellent, but considerably too advanced for me. If they are of interest to you, they each come with a scanned copy of his notes, which can be used to guide your study of the relevant sugya before listening to the class.

The above audio snippet, which runs for a little more than one-and-a-half minutes, is from Rav Kaplan’s introduction to the new zman (“semester”), in which the students are to be learning Tractate Bava Batra. He begins by opining on the quality of this tractate for an understanding of key rabbinic concepts, but then continues by stressing the importance of devoting oneself in all respects to its study. The main part of the segment revolves around the dangers of sitting in the study hall and being less than 100% committed to the task of learning. You can hear the large number of English phrases that he employs, but they are dwarfed by the number of Hebrew phrases (he quotes liberally from the biblical and rabbinic literature – chiefly the latter), and by a generous smattering of Yiddish, which influences his usage of English syntax.

This brings me, of course, to the crux of the matter. If it is linguistics that interests you, over and above philosophy, halakha or the rabbinic literature, this website is a veritable treasure trove for the beautiful Yeshivish sociolect, and is absolutely bursting with potential for discourse analysis. The anonymous sages of Wikipedia declare that “only a few serious studies have been written about Yeshivish”. Perhaps, with the ready availability of this incredible resource, that may soon change.

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