Dissertation Oral Presentation Friday (6/20): Roey Gafter

The Department of Linguistics is pleased to announce a dissertation oral presentation:

“The Most Beautiful and Correct Hebrew”: Authenticity, Ethnic Identity and Linguistic Variation in the Greater Tel Aviv Area

Roey Gafter

Friday, June 20, 2014, 10am-11:15am
Margaret Jacks Hall, Rm 126

Abstract: Among Israelis, Jewish ethnicity is usually understood as a dichotomy between Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) and Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). While this distinction is extremely socially salient in Israel, little is known about how these categories related to linguistic variation. In this dissertation, I explore the interaction of Hebrew phonetic variables with ethnicity, and show that the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi binary hides many meaningful distinctions, both linguistically and socially. I challenge the notion of an ethnolect, and claim that while there is no single distinctive “Mizrahi Hebrew”, certain linguistic features are associated with particular aspects of a Mizrahi identity, and can be used in the construction of specific ethnic personae.

My main source of data is sociolinguistic fieldwork in two field sites in the greater Tel Aviv area, which have decidedly different Mizrahi populations: the first is Rosh Ha’ayin, a town whose population is predominantly Yemenite (often described as “the most Mizrahi Mizrahis”). The second is Tel Aviv proper, which has an extremely mixed population. I analyze two consonantal features: the first, pharyngealization, is the feature most stereotypically associated with Mizrahis, but all extant research suggests that it has been lost in the speech of most contemporary Israelis. I demonstrate that contrary to received wisdom, there are still some younger Mizrahis in my sample with robust pharyngealization, but only among the Yemenites of Rosh Ha’ayin, who express overt language ideologies about the link between this conservative linguistic feature and an authentic Yemenite identity. And while pharyngealization is very uncommon among most younger Mizrahis, I show that it is enregistered as a Mizrahi feature, and that Mizrahis who do not consistently pharyngealize, still do so when performing attributes associated with a stereotypical Mizrahi persona (such as being down-to-earth and authentic).

This insight also applies to another variable I research, /h/-deletion, which is stigmatized as sounding uneducated and unintelligent. I demonstrate that [h] in Hebrew actually varies between three productions – produced, deleted and replaced with a glottal stop. There was no significant interaction between this variable and ethnicity in the Tel Aviv sample, but while the social meaning of /h/ is not directly linked to ethnicity, it can combine with pharyngeals in constructing a consistent style: the Yemenites of Rosh Ha’ayin use more fully articulated [h] and less glottal stop, once again overtly linking this variable with the notion of the most authentic variety of Hebrew.

Taken together, both variables highlight the importance of moving beyond binary distinctions when trying to understand how language and ethnicity interact – on the social level, a more nuanced understanding of ethnic identity is needed since the linguistic behavior of Mizrahis cannot be explained simply in terms of “sounding more or less Ashkenazi”. On the linguistic level, features usually considered as categorically present or not, reveal more complicated patterns upon careful inspection.

(The format for this open part of the oral exam is a 30-45 minute talk by the PhD candidate followed by questions from those attending, for a total of no more than 75 minutes. Please arrive promptly!)

Oral exam committee: Penny Eckert and John Rickford (Co-advisors), Rob Podesva, Meghan Sumner
University oral exam chair: H. Samy Alim (Education)