What’s the use

Front cover image of This Cannot Happen Here.In my book This Cannot Happen Here – Integration and Jewish Resistance in the Netherlands, 1940-1945 (published by Amsterdam University Press) there’s a small section on the ways in which Jews used language. Here’s that passage.

During the 1930s Jews in the Netherlands were becoming part of a changing Dutch society. They contributed to some of the changes, but during the process of their integration into Dutch society Jews did not necessarily lose all characteristics of their Jewish identity. However, less than in the past Jews defined these characteristics in terms of religion such as congregational membership, synagogue attendance, observance of Jewish rituals and participation in organised Jewish education and activity. More than before, Jews in the Netherlands maintained and further developed Jewish identities in other aspects their daily life. This was expressed, for example, through the way they spoke.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century most Jews in the Netherlands spoke Dutch, which had replaced Yiddish as their everyday language. This had been a slow process, with Yiddish being diluted with Dutch, but the development accelerated after changes in education, where Jewish children increasingly took part in general, not specifically Jewish education. By 1900 some families still spoke Yiddish at home, but this was regarded as uncivilised by the establishment. Not only Jews changed their language – the general population also altered language use. Like other living languages, Dutch was constantly changing. Significantly, several Yiddish words were introduced into Dutch and used by non-Jews. For instance, the phrase het was een sof to indicate that an event had been bad or the use of the name Mokum for the Dutch capital Amsterdam showed that language change was part of a process of mutual cultural transfer.

The historian M.H. Gans has made several observations about the language spoken by Jews in Amsterdam. He noted their patter had certain characteristics that distinguished it from the Dutch spoken by non-Jews in that city.

Traditionally, the Jews of Amsterdam lived in and near a quarter on the east side of the city centre. It was not a restricted area or ghetto and was also inhabited by non-Jews. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam belonged to the part of the city that had some of the worst slums. Demolition of slums forced their inhabitants to move. Some individuals who were successful in business or employment also moved voluntarily to neighbouring and further outlying districts. However, such moves were by no means permanent. Sometimes people moved on, at other times they returned to the old neighbourhood, for example because they preferred living there as they had remained outsiders in the new neighbourhood or because they were forced to return as they could no longer afford the usually higher rents of their new homes. In any case, by 1930 only about 18 per cent of all Jews in Amsterdam still lived in the old neighbourhood. In 1941 there were four neighbourhoods in the capital where more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants were Jewish. In other neighbourhoods Jews often lived in clusters.

The population of Amsterdam used numerous language variants, some of which were specific to neighbourhoods. Jews had their own accents in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated or they adapted the accent of the neighbourhood in which they lived or to which they moved.

Overall, Jews in Amsterdam pronounced some letters less sharp, their intonation was dissimilar, and they gave words extra endings, changed syntax and word order, and made different word choices and combinations. To some, this language sounded more melodious, others found it exaggerated or even vulgar.

Linguists have pointed out that it is common to have several speech communities within one city, which show differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or intonation. These sometimes long-lasting differences can be caused by real or perceived ethnic origins. While this is a group phenomenon, individuals within one family can use different spoken variants of a language, not always depending on their education, and one person can use various language forms at different times, often in relation to the people he or she is addressing. The language Gans heard from Jews in Amsterdam can be best described as a non-standard variety of Dutch. For example, the feature he mentioned of wij bennen instead of wij zijn (we are) is characteristic of non-standard language.

Jews may have used language variety for several reasons. An overtly flowery word choice could have been typical for persons who were uncertain about their language use, for example, working-class people who thought their language use was improper or incorrect. This relates to what linguists call striving for overt prestige (in the eyes of users of the standard language) rather than covert prestige (in the eyes of users of non-standard forms). It suggests that the Jewish users of standard and non-standard Dutch wanted to express a sense of belonging, either to the group that apparently spoke the standard variety – ‘proper Dutch’ – or to the group that did not. As such, how Jews spoke and what they said could have been knowingly or unintentionally a response to attitudes about Jews in the general population, a wish to hide or express a Jewish identity or a desire to participate in or abstain from certain activities, both Jewish and general activities. However, the use of a non-standard variant could also cause misunderstandings between Jews and non-Jews, which set Jews apart within the general population.