Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.
Were the dialects of Yiddish spoken on the Lower East Side during the turn of the last century mutually intelligible? For example, if they have lived at 97 Orchard Street at the same time, could the Polish Levine and Lithuanian Rogarshevsky families have understood one another?
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side hailed from a number of different regions, among them Hungary, Galicia, Rumania, and Russia. Although the "eastern Yiddish" dialect spoken by people from each of these regions evinced a shared linguistic heritage, their “Lithuanian,” “Polish,” and “Ukrainian” sub-dialects differed substantially from one another in vocabulary and grammar, as well as in the pronunciation of certain vowels.
A language “always in a rapid process of growth and dissolution,” the Yiddish spoken by Eastern European Jewish immigrants was further transformed by the encounter with America. The historian Irving Howe writes, “A whole sublanguage or patois grew up in the immigrant districts, neither quite English nor quite Yiddish, in which the vocabulary of the former was twisted to the syntax of the latter.”
It is possible, therefore, that while Yiddish-speaking immigrants from modern Poland (like the Levines) may have experienced some immediate difficulty in communicating with Yiddish-speaking immigrants from modern Lithuania, a shared linguistic heritage and an increasing overlap between Yiddish and American English appears to have narrowed this linguistic divide.