Yiddish's Influence on English

One of the more interesting sides of Yiddish is the effect that the language has had upon American English and its speakers -- namely how certain phrasings and inflections have drifted by way of immigration. We often see this effect in pop culture without realizing it; many of us having become accustomed to the Yiddish influence. Especially in the northeast with large Jewish populations around New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, these language constructs became common, and have since crept into sitcoms and movies.

One of the key elements that Yiddish speakers brought with them to the United States was the syntax of their language. We now commonly understand the phrase "This you call a hospital?" to be a sarcastic or rhetorical question.

Leo Rosten expounded at length on the power of Yiddish as an expressive language that emphasized tone and inflection in addition to diction, and how much of this has been carried into English. For example, even the English question "I should buy two tickets for her concert?" can take on seven meanings depending on where the emphasis is placed -- a common thing among Yiddish speakers:

  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "After what she did to me? And nu, her mother should return some of my calls now and then?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "What, you're giving me a lesson in ethics? And who are you that you should think you know?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "I wouldn't go even if she was giving out free passes -- or if she paid me!"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "I'm having enough trouble deciding if it's even worth one - and you barely even call since your father died, nu, all the sudden you have time to see a concert with me?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty, what with that tone-deaf mother of hers, she can be no better."
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "Did she buy tickets at our daughter's recital? What, all the sudden she expects me to do for her? Hrmph!"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "You mean, they call what she does a 'concert'? This is an art form?"
  • Aside from the inflection changes, Yiddish also introduced new ways of ordering of words as a device to express additional surprise, sarcasm or scorn. In the popular culture, a grandmother or grandfather is often seen muttering phrases in one of the following forms:

  • "Brilliant plan, isn't it?"
  • "She only tried to kill her husband."
  • "So soon you're going home?"

  • These language-tricks confer additional meaning; and while not as strong as the original Yiddish, lend greater expressiveness to English.

    For those with an interest in more of Rosten's work, see also The Education of Hyman Kaplan and The Return of Hyman Kaplan.