Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Bill Haddican


Juliette Blevins

Committee Members

Douglas H. Whalen

Isaac L. Bleaman

Subject Categories

Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics | Language Description and Documentation | Phonetics and Phonology


sociolinguistics, language variation and change, phonetics, sociophonetics, contact linguistics, bilingualism


This study analyzes the acoustic correlates of the length contrast in New York Hasidic Yiddish (HY) peripheral vowels /i/, /u/, and /a/, and compares them across four generations of native speakers for evidence of change over time. HY vowel tokens are also compared to English vowels produced by the New York-born speakers to investigate the influence of language contact on observed changes. Additionally, the degree to which individual speakers orient towards or away from the Hasidic community is quantified via an ethnographically informed survey to examine its correlation with /u/-fronting, a sound change that is widespread in the non-Hasidic English-speaking community.

The data for this study consist of audio segments extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with fifty-seven New York-born speakers representing three generations; and from recordings of Holocaust testimonies by thirteen survivors from the Transcarpathian region of Eastern Europe, the ancestral homeland of most contemporary Hasidim. The duration and first and second formant frequencies of the vowels were extracted and analyzed statistically. The results show that while the contrast among European-born (first generation) speakers is relatively weak overall, there is a significant increase in both the durational and qualitative distinctions of the long-short counterparts of the high vowel pairs (/i/ and /u/) between the first and second generations. These vowels continue to diverge in quality across subsequent generations, with the short vowels becoming lower and more centralized in phonetic space. Based on these findings, I hypothesize that the length contrast in the pre-war Yiddish of the Transcarpathian region was changing and possibly on the verge of collapse. In the high vowels, contact with English reversed or inhibited a merger, with a remapping of length differences on a quality plus quantity dimension parallel to American English {/i/-/ɪ/} and {/u/-/ʊ/}. However, contact did not have the same effect on the low vowels, since there was no parallel low vowel contrast with which inherited HY {/aː/-/a/} could be associated.

Furthermore, a cross-linguistic comparison of the HY vs. English vowel systems shows that while the short high vowels of second-generation speakers are more centralized relative to their HY counterparts, younger speakers exhibit increasing convergence of their HY and English vowels. These results are interpreted with reference to models of second language acquisition, emphasizing differences in language input that might result in the acquisition of different systems. Moreover, the patterns uncovered in the cross-linguistic analysis suggest that contact-induced phonetic drift may account for the changes observed in HY. Finally, there is evidence that /u/ is fronting in post-coronal contexts. However, unlike the changes in the short high vowels, this change is not correlated with generation. Rather, statistical modeling shows a significant effect of Hasidic orientation, with outwardly oriented individuals showing a greater tendency for /u/-fronting than those who are maximally oriented towards the Hasidic community.

HY is an organically developing dialect caught between the opposing pressures of a traditionalist religio-cultural ideology that supports it and a majority language that competes with it. This study identifies some of the cognitive forces that may underlie sound change in a minority language under bilingual contact and uncovers locally significant factors that are implicated in the propagation of such change. It also highlights the dynamicity of Hasidic culture and provides linguistic evidence of its interaction with mainstream American culture, thereby presenting an expansive view of the Hasidic community that counters narratives portraying it as anti-progressive and static.