One of the first dialect anecdotes I heard was from the director of my high school production of Guy’s and Dolls. “The Brooklyn accent is dying out,” she said. “There isn’t as much of a Jewish presence there anymore.” This analysis might imply that Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European jews, had a particularly seminal role in shaping the New York City accent.
What I find fascinating about Yiddish is that, for a language with such an iconic status, you don’t hear much of it in the media or the street. Yes, we’ve all heard borrowings such as klutz, schmuck and spiel, but do we really know what Yiddish sounds like?
Here’s a sample, courtesy of this older gentleman telling a joke:
Spoken Yiddish, I admit, surprises me. It’s very clearly a Germanic language, a fact forgotten amidst all the mythology surrounding it. And to be honest, I find fewer obvious similarities to New York City English than I would expect.
That being said, Jewish New York English (JNYE?) has long been identified as an ethnolect within the spectrum of the New York City dialect. So this specific variety must have Yiddish influences, right?
Maybe. There has been a theory for several decades now that relates to the distinctive “Jewish” New York pronunciation of words like coffee, thought and raw. In JNYE, these words have a high, diphthongal vowel (“caw-uhfee,” “thaw-uht,” “raw-uh,” i.e. IPA [ʊə].) Anybody who watched Saturday Night Live in the early ’90’s will remember Mike Myers’ Cawfee Tawk with Linda Richmond segment, exaggerating this very pronunciation.
One supposed explanation* is that early Jewish immigrants, lacking a clear vowel for words like strut and cup would use an “aw” ([ɔ]) sound instead. The immigrants’ children, trying to make a more clear distinction between this vowel and the vowel in “thought,” “coffee,” etc, clearly distinguished it by pronouncing it closer in the mouth. Hence “caw-uhfee.”
I haven’t read enough about this theory to say if I agree or not. But if true, it may explain some of the other salient features of Jewish New York speech. For example, are the vowels in the words goat and goose, which have very diphthongal qualities in broad Jewish New York accents, reactions against more monophthongal pronunciations in an earlier type of “Yiddish” English?
In other words, are some New York accents reactions against Yiddish?
These are tough questions to answer, because Yiddish is, after all, a foreign language. I doubt immigrants at the turn of the 20th-Century spoke with any kind of uniform accent of English. As such, it’s hard to say which aspects of the Yiddish language impacted the New York accent (or didn’t).
And I must say, many “Jewish” New York features are pronunciations I’ve also heard in Irish, Italian and Chinese New Yorkers**. And to be clear, I haven’t remotely read everything there is to read on the New York accent and its possible sources. So what exactly is “Jewish” New York English (if it exists anymore?) And how much did Yiddish play a part in its development?
*William Labov has mentioned this theory, but I can’t remember the degree to which he endorses it.
**Something I’ve been surprised by (but probably shouldn’t be) is that first-generation Chinese-American New Yorkers who grew up in Chinatown often have some of the most marked New York accents I’ve heard in Manhattan.