Thursday, November 5, 2009

New research on Jews' (and non-Jews) language use

I just got email regarding a linguistic study on Jewish language use. Results are here. Many of the implications are fascinating. Language is a major site of contention with different Jewish cultures. Jewish culture is sometimes called Yiddishkeit, for example, though Yiddishkeit is only one kind of Jewish culture. But the researchers find that certain Yiddish words can denote level of religious observance:
Perhaps surprisingly, age also has an independent effect on most of these words: they are used MORE by younger Jews, indicating their rising importance in religious circles. This is a striking result when it comes to the Yiddish-origin words. We would expect that Jews who are younger and farther removed from the generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants would be less likely to use Yiddish words than their grandparents. And this is the case for Yiddish words like macher, naches, and bashert. But Yiddish words in the religious sphere – bentsh, daven, shul, etc. – seem to be making a comeback. Even Jews with no Yiddish-speaking ancestors, including Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, people whose ancestors spoke Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other languages, report using Yiddish words like these. Some elements of Yiddish have clearly become markers of religiosity, and they seem to spread from Yiddish-speaking Black Hat Orthodox communities to non-Orthodox religious communities.
So there's often more going on! That reminds me of the adoption of dating culture in New York circa 1900 (an example where the moral is probably clearer). Looking back, it's easy to see how dating culture put tremendous pressure on women to live up to mens' expectations, including for sexual behavior. Sometimes it's more difficult to keep in mind that young women chose this alternative over another set of constraints. The point being, it's important to take the choice seriously rather than simply criticizing it for regressive elements that might be present but aren't the whole story.

Another section deals with the use of the Yiddish word schmooze among Jews and non-Jews:
Another area of linguistic variation is how speakers understand words. When used in English, the Yiddish word “shmooze” can have several uses. In addition to its original Yiddish meaning ‘chat’ (“We stayed up ‘til 2am just shmoozing”), it is also used as ‘network’ (“There were lots of big-wigs there. It was a great opportunity to shmooze.”). And in addition to its original intransitive usage, it can also be transitive, meaning ‘kiss up to [somebody]’ (“He spent the whole party shmoozing the vice presidents”). Finally, it has become a particle verb: “shmooze up,” meaning ‘chat up’ (“He spent the whole party shmoozing up the vice presidents”).

We asked about these four uses of “shmooze” in the survey, and we found that the original ‘chat’ meaning is more common among Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, older Jews, and Jews who have more Jewish friends; the innovative meanings are more common among others
We can imagine stereotypes influencing the meaning as the word enters English. A simple chat acquires a manipulative quality, an ulterior motive. Non-Jewish users self-consciously use the Jewish word to emphasize that aspect related to gaining power and influence. Interestingly, a Yiddish influence on American culture, commonly assumed to be proof of Jewish acceptance, becomes a site of communicating antisemitic stereotypes. (I confess, I didn't realize schmooze in Yiddish simply meant "chat," and I've generally understood it in the less neutral way.) On the other hand, chutzpah seems to have shifted to a less specific meaning that becomes more positive -- a shame, because, it's a great word without any suitable alternative.

(Vaguely related -- or, actually, not, but still worth reading.)

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