Did Yiddish Shape the New York Accent?

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.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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12 Responses to Did Yiddish Shape the New York Accent?

  1. Lane says:

    I think that one influence of Yiddish on New York English is syntactical – “and all day long I wait for this guy?” “And after all this time he tells me.” I’m guessing it has something to do with V2 syntax in the Germanic languages. I can’t express this very well because I can’t think of the right examples right now…

  2. ella says:

    it’s sort of funny – living in the middle of a large Hasidic community in Montreal, I hear Yiddish being spoken on the street and on the bus practically every day. These Yiddish speakers do sound rather ‘New York-y’ when they speak English, for what it’s worth. I think the Yiddish influence may be more in the prosody than the phonetics.

  3. ella says:

    & yes, Yiddish is very much a Germanic language – you only need to nearly trip over one stroppy tot shaking his head vigourously as his peyess whip around his head screeching ‘Nein! Nein!’ to be reminded of that.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Lane,

    I’m also guessing it has a different distribution of “this/that”-type words that impacts the usage of similar words in English. Hence there’s a joke at the beginning of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” in which a rabbi, reading the names of children of the deceased at a funeral, stops for a moment and asks, “Eric? This is a Jewish name?” (In “standard” English we would use “that”).

    @Ella,

    Very true! One thing I did notice working in an office where we got a lot of calls from the Hasidic community, was that their accents were in a much higher register, what you might impressionistically call more “nasal,” although I’m not exactly sure what the cause of this is. But it’s a similar quality to stereotypical New York Jewish accents.

    I should mention, btw, that “New York Jewish” is perhaps becoming something of a misnomer, at least in the city itself. The most recent wave of Jewish immigrants is most likely the Russian community in Brooklyn, and they speak with a very different ethnolect.

  5. Mark Paris says:

    I’m not really familiar with IPA, so it’s hard for me to know for sure what you mean by “caw-uhfee”, but that’s close to the way I would try to indicate the way many Southerners pronounce coffee. How would that be different from down here?

    • trawicks says:

      Imagine starting with the vowel in the word “foot” then moving to the “schwa” vowel at the end of the word “comma.” “Coo-uhfee” might be a better way to write it.

      The difference is that in many types of Southern English, this vowel can sound slightly similar to the “ow” in the word “how,” so it’s more like “cow-fee” with the first syllable sounding a bit like an animal which moos.

      • Mark Paris says:

        I think that does it; when I say it the way your show here, it sounds like what I think JNYE sounds like, at least from the movies. And that’s definitely different from Southern coffee.

  6. Amy Stoller says:

    While I think that first German, and later Yiddish, may have had some influence on some aspects of New York dialect, I suspect that the accent was, like much of New England, influenced first by English colonists, and later by Irish immigrants – the latter having also contributed a massive amount of slang to the dialect of New York City.

    The more I work on Irish accents, the more I find that of what I had always assumed to be Yiddish influence occurs in Irish English.

    I know Labov disagrees on the following point – and he is unquestionably THE expert on New York City to date – but I remain firm in my belief that differences in New York accent are mainly attributable to ethnic derivation (though also social class, education, and age); however, I think it’s also true that very often such differences become less and less prominent as each generation gets further from the original immigrants.

    Lane’s point above is an excellent example of word order one sometimes hears from Jewish New Yorkers. I think you’ll find it less common in New Yorkers of other ethnic backgrounds. On the other hand, some of that word order is also found in the Irish language (Irish Gaelic), so it would not be surprising to hear it in Hiberno-English – as indeed one does. (I’m up to my eyebrows in research for an Irish play from the early 1930s, and such constructions abound in the text.)

    • trawicks says:

      The dialect coach for Gangs of New York reportedly had a different take: the New York accent began as a conflation of British English and Dutch. I don’t find much in contemporary Dutch to support this, although both New York English (some varieties) and Dutch have an very back [ɑ] sound (also found, appropriately, in South African English).

      I wonder if there’s something in the supposed semitic substrata in the Irish language that accounts for those similarities? (I don’t know how much Hebrew influences Yiddish grammar, if at all).

      • Ed says:

        It’s very funny you write this today. I’m in Amsterdam and I find that a lot of Dutch people sound like New Yorkers when they speak English. I’d presumed that was just media influence.

      • Ed says:

        One possible link between New York and Dutch is the tendency to use /d/ rather than initial /ð/. Dutch has “de” for “the”, “ding” for “thing”, “dat” for “that”, etc. I believe that this is part of inner-city New York speak as well.

        • Bob says:

          That is true for many languages. The th- sound(s) of English are actually quite uncommon (and difficult for speakers of other languages to pronounce) on a global scale.

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