Isaac Bleaman successfully defended his dissertation, entitled Outcomes of minority language maintenance: Variation and change in New York Yiddish, on Monday, May 21. The committee and abstract are below. Congratulations, Dr. Bleaman!
Committee: Lisa Davidson, Renee Blake, Laurel MacKenzie, Sarah Benor (Hebrew Union College), and Gregory Guy (supervisor)
This dissertation applies the methodology of variationist sociolinguistics to document the outcomes of language maintenance efforts in Yiddish, which is spoken in New York by two distinct communities: Hasidic Jews and Yiddishists. For Hasidim, the maintenance of Yiddish is a linguistic reflex of a broader ideology that opposes acculturation to non-Jewish society. In contrast, Yiddishists maintain the language while also participating in many non-Jewish cultural practices and institutions, including public education. Despite their geographic proximity and ideological commitment to the same minority language, the two communities have very little contact with one another. These factors make Yiddish in New York an appropriate testing ground for the effects of community structure and language ideology as constraints on variation and change in maintained languages.
The primary data come from forty sociolinguistic interviews with native Yiddish speakers—twenty Hasidim and twenty Yiddishists, balanced for gender. The first analysis focuses on release burst duration in word-initial stops, a phonetic variable that speakers do not consciously control. Statistical modeling finds a significant effect for community affiliation, such that Yiddishists produce word-initial stops with consistently longer (more English-like) bursts than do Hasidim, across all places of articulation. This result reflects the higher rate of English dominance among Yiddishists compared to Hasidim, but is surprising given the Yiddishist community's emphasis on linguistic prescriptivism and purism. A comparative analysis of archival interviews with Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors reveals that the phonetic differences between Hasidim and Yiddishists cannot be attributed to the communities' differing European input dialects. The findings instead suggest that Hasidim and Yiddishists have undergone a process of linguistic divergence in New York, facilitated by their communities' divergent language practices and maintenance ideologies.
The sociolinguistic interviews also provide quantitative data for the analysis of a morphosyntactic variable, the rate of number agreement in sentences with postverbal plural subjects. This analysis also finds a significant effect for community affiliation, whereby Hasidim display a lower rate of normative plural agreement than do Yiddishists, especially in the existential construction. This finding is consistent with the fact that Hasidim do not prioritize overt standardization as part of their language maintenance efforts, while Yiddishists do. The results of a post-interview task in which participants were asked to edit a written text for grammatical and stylistic errors also reveal that Yiddishists are likelier than Hasidim both to correct perceived errors and to agree with one another in their corrections.
Decades of sociolinguistic research have documented the factors that affect the overall success of language maintenance efforts by linguistic minorities. By analyzing interspeaker variation and language change quantitatively, this dissertation demonstrates not whether the community language will continue to be spoken, but how.