Cynthia Bernstein

University of Memphis

Audio | Handout

The Representation of Jewish English in the Southern United States

Jewish English typically refers to the dialect of American English spoken especially by religious Jews of Eastern European descent who settled in the New York City area. Studies beginning in the early 1930's reported the association between ethnicity and region in reinforcing the dialect of New York City Jews (Thomas 1932). A half century later, studies proliferated, but the emphasis remained on the same New York City dialect features, particularly those traceable to the effects of Yiddish and Hebrew on American English (Fishman 1981, Gold 1981, Steinmetz 1981, Tannen 1981). Even today, little attention has been given to the speech of Jews in other parts of the country, including the southern United States. Although Jewish settlement in the South goes back to the seventeenth century, and much has been written about what is typically referred to as the Jewish “experience” in the South, almost nothing is available to describe what linguistic features distinguish the speech of southern Jews from that of their non-Jewish counterparts. If anything, there is something oxymoronic in the juxtaposition of the two cultures, as evidenced by expressions such as “Shalom Yall,” “Mazel Tov Yall,” “Magnolias and Menorahs,” and “Bagels and Grits,” garnered from assorted coffee mugs, cookbooks, and photographic essays. Diaries and autobiographies of Jews living in the South further illustrate and explain the particular sense of dual identities experienced by southern Jews (Apte 1998, Cohen 1999, Evans 1993, Hagy 1993, Hertzberg 1978). This study examines the linguistic consequences of the intersection of Jewish and southern speech varieties, focusing on how those varieties are represented in data from literary texts (e.g., Stern 1995, Uhry 1997), newsletters, diaries, letters, websites, museums, and research centers depicting southern Jewish life.

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