Between 1880 and World War I, a wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants crashed on America’s shores. They spoke Yiddish, and then English, with a special tone, a kind of sing-songy incantation. About a decade after they landed, linguists began paying attention. “People start noticing, huh, they speak English kinda funny,” says Rachel Steindel Burdin, a linguist at the University of New Hampshire who studies Jewish English.
The study of melody, pitch, pause and intonation is called “prosody” and it’s now a hot, if still esoteric, topic among the language set. But the Jewish prosody stylings would be familiar for anyone who’s heard some of the 20th century’s most famous comedians—Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Don Rickles and others have exploited its rich texture. Perhaps the greatest example is Mel Brooks, here as Yogurt in his 1987 movie Spaceballs, at 0:58: