Published: April 8, 2023

Author: Regina (Gigi) Saad
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Ayden Parish 
Class: LING 1000: Language in US Society
Semester: Fall 2022
LURA 2023


Why are many Jewish characters in film and television portrayed with thick New York accents? Linguistically, the Jewish people are usually represented in film and television according to a predictable blueprint: A thick New York accent incomplete without exclamations and excitable inflections. TV shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm exemplify this inherently New York Jewish American accent. In my research project for the course Language in US Society (Ling 1000), I addressed the accuracy of these representations by considering how the low symbolic capital of a New York accent can connote negative stereotypes about the Jewish people as a whole due to William Labov’s (1966) findings regarding the social stratification of /r/.

Why is there such a tie between New York accents and Jewish people? Aside from Israel, the New York metropolitan area has the largest Jewish population in the world standing at 1.5 million in 2011 (Wolfram and Schilling, 2016). Aside from this correlation, Yiddish, a blend of German and Hebrew, also contributes to their likeness. Many Jews incorporate Yiddish phrases into their everyday speech, regardless of fluency; however, Yiddish has also undergone indexical bleaching when traveling across different communities. Words like “bubbe” for “grandmother” may maintain inherent Jewishness, while “schlep” indexes New Yorkness. Other Yiddish phrases such as “glitch” have been completely bleached so they maintain no indexical association (Barrett et al., 2022). If certain Yiddish words maintain a New York flavor and many Jewish individuals incorporate Yiddish into their everyday speech, then this explains Jewish associations with New York and the New York accent as well.

Sociolinguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling (2016) also emphasize conversational differences amongst Jewish American English. Discourse analyst Deborah Tannen (2001) found that Jewish American English involves more overlap between turns than some other varieties of English. This overlap is either interpreted positively as high involvement or negatively as interruption (Wolfram and Schilling, 2016). This aggressive perception regarding New York speech bleeds into the assumption that every Jewish person speaks like a New Yorker. Therefore, if New Yorkers speak aggressively and Jewish people sound like New Yorkers, then this correlation implies Jewish people must be aggressive. One device defined by Tannen, a Jewish Woman from the East Coast, is what she calls “exaggerated paralinguistics.” Exaggerated paralinguistics involves the other in conversation following in a mutually escalating or symmetrical way (Tannen, 1981). In certain Seinfeld clips, two Jewish characters grow more and more excitable, building off one anothers’ enthusiasm, thus exhibiting exaggerated paralinguistics. While there is some truth to this representation, a rather one-sided, repetitive representation can have negative implications, especially if perceived as obnoxious or unfavorable.

According to Labov’s (1966) findings, the utilization or lack of the postvocalic /r/ can connote one’s social class and/or socioeconomic status. The utilization of postvocalic /r/ is widely understood as standard English with high social capital. A non-rhotic English, where /r/ is not pronounced after vowels, may cause linguistic insecurity due to negative implications, including a lack of sophistication. There are many theories why the shift to a rhotic US English occurred, one being the presence of antisemitism and the association of non-rhotic varieties with New York City, which historically has had a strong Jewish population. So, if most Jewish representations exhibit an exaggerated non-rhotic New York accent that is found to be unrefined, and reflects conversational styles that many find abrasive, are Jewish people really being portrayed in a positive light? If someone’s only exposure to Jewish people are these very specific representations, then I fear for the assumptions that will be made.

Can these representations be considered mock language? Although there may be an exaggeration of the Jewish American accent and negative implications may occur, it is entirely different from Jane H. Hill’s (1993) findings regarding Mock Spanish. According to Hill’s findings, Mock Spanish is used primarily by Anglo speakers of English addressed to fellow Anglos. In contrast, instances of Jewish American English are often portrayed by Jewish actors: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld both identify as Jewish. In fact, Larry David was an executive producer of Seinfeld. The dynamic would be completely different if these Jewish characters were not played by Jewish actors. Furthermore, the portrayal of the Jewish American accent and Jewish conversational styles encompasses the character’s speech as a whole, rather than being limited to the incorporation of certain words, as Mock Spanish is. One may argue that there is a presence of Mock Yiddish in these portrayals as well; however, the representation of the New York Jewish American accent rightfully incorporates Yiddish words because the characters are Jewish.

Regardless of accuracy, like any other culture or ethnicity there is variety amongst Jewish American speech. I am a Jew from Southern California and do not speak like a New Yorker, but there are many Jewish individuals who do. I want to stress the importance of diverse Jewish representation, whether racially, culturally, or linguistically. This New York Jewish accent is valid - until it becomes the exclusive Jewish representation. We need more Jewish characters who are proud to be Jewish without the presence of this accent in order to demonstrate Jewish diversity and not further negative predispositions or stereotypes.


Image Credit


  1. Barrett, R., Cramer, J., & McGowan, K. B. (2022). English with an Accent (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  2. Hill, J. H. (1993). Hasta La Vista, Baby. Critique of Anthropology, 13(2), 145–176.
  3. Tannen, D. (1981). New York Jewish Conversational Style. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 1981(30).
  4. Wolfram, W., & Schilling, N. (2016). American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley-Blackwell.