Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
“I like to shpeak plain, shee? Dot'sh a kin' a man I am!”
SPEECH, DIALECT, AND REALISM: ABRAHAM CAHAN

The East Side cafes … showed to my inner sense, beneath their
bedizenment, as torture-rooms of the living idiom; the piteous
gasp of which at the portent of lacerations to come could reach
me in any drop of the surrounding Accent of the Future. The
accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined
to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of
humanity (here the “ethnic” synthesis shrouds itself thicker than
ever); but whatever we shall know it for, certainly we shall not
know it for English …

—Henry James, The American Scene

“America for a country and 'dod'll do' [that'll do] for a language!”

—Abraham Cahan, Yekl

IN ABRAHAM CAHAN'S first English novel, a Russian Jewish immigrant renames himself Jake, a common practice among immigrants bent on Americanization. On the opening pages of Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, one of his fellow sweatshop operators addresses Yekl by his chosen name—“'Say Dzake'”1 —so that the very first words of dialogue on the printed page call attention to the accented speech of these immigrants in their newly acquired language. Neither the presser, nor Jake himself, can pronounce the proud sign of his American identity. “Dzake,” the sign of Yekl's efforts to enter Englishspeaking America, is not an English word on the typed page; it would certainly not be recognizable English for Cahan's readers for whom it is a strange and unmistakably foreign sign. Indeed, Cahan has not italicized it, as he has the word “Say,” because italics in his novel always mark English ruptures into what is otherwise an English “translation” of absent original Yiddish speech. By not italicizing “Dzake,” Cahan signals that this word is not English, in contrast to the word that precedes it, “Say” which is presumably pronounced correctly. “Say Jake,” a phrase that never actually appears on the printed page, is what neither the presser, nor the other immigrants in the room, nor Jake can do.

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