From Bagels to Bodegas: The Language of New York

Yiddish signs lined immigrant neighborhoods in the 19th century

“That dog fah-schtinks! Fah-schtinkinah dog!”

“There’s no way that’s a real word, Mom.”

“It is! It’s Yiddish! Call Gramma and ask!”

February 21st is International Mother Language Day. According to the United Nations’ website, International Mother Language Day seeks “to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism… and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.” Not unlike our mission here at the museum, where we also put a large focus on tolerance, diversity, dialogue, and history, International Mother Language Day is one day that we are excited to celebrate today and be inspired by every day. The day has been around since 2000 and the website makes sure to note that every two weeks, a language disappears “taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.” There are so many languages that are disappearing and it is our duty as global citizens to engage with those who still remember their mother languages in order to help maintain traditions and share our history. Yiddish is one of those languages that many consider to be disappearing, but as Monty Python said, it is “not yet dead!” Luckily for me, my mom is always throwing in Yiddish words here and there and I am fortunate in that I am still able to call my grandmother to confirm if my mom is correct.

Museum at Eldridge Street original minutes book in Yiddish from the Museum’s permanent collection

My family came to the Lower East Side around the same time that the Eldridge Street Synagogue was built. In the late 1800’s, the Lower East Side was filled with millions of Yiddish speakers. They came from the countries of Eastern Europe and made their way to the neighborhood after going through immigration at Castle and Ellis Islands. In our Museum’s permanent exhibition, you can see historic signs from local businesses and an original minute book from the congregation, all in Yiddish. You also might hear a word or two being peppered into otherwise English conversations, much like the one between my mother and I.

Gramma confirmed that “stinky dog” is not quite “fah-schtinkinah dog” but rather “farshtunken hunt.”
“I was close!” my mother exclaimed. “Plus, it’s definitely pronounced ‘fah-schtinkinah,’ you heard Gramma!”

Neighborhood sign for a local business in Yiddish from the Museum’s permanent collection

Yiddish was not my grandmother’s mother tongue, nor was it her mother’s, or even her grandmother’s. My 3rd great-grandparents, the ones who came to the Lower East Side from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue and the tradition was passed down through the generations. My grandmother says that the only time her parents spoke Yiddish was when they did not want her and her sisters to understand; my mother has said similar things about my grandmother and her sisters. The Yiddish that my mom and I know was picked up from my grandparents and great aunts. We know a few words here and there, but we cannot hold a conversation and clearly the words have changed slightly overtime.

At the same time that Yiddish was booming on the Lower East Side, passersby could also hear German, Italian and Irish! And that multilingualism hasn’t disappeared – a visitor to this area today might hear Chinese, Spanish or a little bit of Yiddish that has survived with the help of places like the Museum at Eldridge Street.

Most of us are doing our part to promote linguistic diversity even if we do not realize it. We pick up words from our family, friends, and neighbors who picked them up from other relatives, friends, and neighbors. We may even speak a few words in a language that we have no familial ties to, thanks to the diversity of cities like New York.

Yiddish words like “bagel” and “schmear” are practically daily speech for most New Yorkers, and words like “oy,” “schlep,” “schmutz,” and “putz” can also be heard throughout the city. In addition to these Yiddish classics, New Yorkers have also inducted words like “bodega,” “stoop,” and “delicatessen” into their daily vocabularies. These loan words are testament to the rich cultural tapestry of our country.

The United States of America is unique in that it does not even have a national language. Today, the most commonly spoken languages in the USA are English and Spanish. The same goes for New York City however, according to the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), our city is home to as many as 800 different languages. In fact, the borough of Queens is considered to be the most linguistically diverse place in the world with over 150 languages spoken in a 108.1 mile area.

Map of the languages spoken in Queens, NY

Today on the Lower East Side, the Yiddish signs have been replaced with Chinese ones. Neighborhoods change, but multilingualism continues to thrive within New York City and beyond. In honor of International Mother Language Day, ask your family, friends, and neighbors what their favorite loan word is. Mine is definitely “fah-schtinkinah!”

Haley Coopersmith is the Museum’s Manager of Public Programs.

Chinatown, NY

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