Crowdsourcing has yielded valuable resources like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, as well as many other endeavors, as Clay Shirkey analyzes in Here Comes Everybody. This new media development also sparked two Jewish Studies projects that have occupied much of my time and thinking over the past decade: a survey of American Jewish language and identity and online dictionaries of distinctive words used by Jews in multiple languages.
In 2008, Steven M. Cohen and I sent a survey invitation to about six hundred friends and colleagues and asked them to forward it to Jews and non-Jews. The survey went viral and eventually yielded over 50,000 responses. This large response enabled us to gain a better understanding of how Americans of various backgrounds understand and use various Yiddish and Hebrew words and other distinctive features, like New York pronunciations and overlapping discourse (see results here and here).
The second crowdsourced project is a series of online dictionaries on www.jewish-languages.org: Jewish English Lexicon, Léxico Judío Latinoamericano (Latin American Spanish, with Evelyn Dean-Olmsted), Lexikon över Judisk Svenska (Swedish, with Patric Joshua Klagsbrun Lebenswerd), and Glossaire du français juif (French, with Cyril Aslanov). A Russian version is in the works, and others are planned for the future. The idea behind these websites is that Jews around the world use their local language with a repertoire of distinctive features, including words from Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other languages. In the case of Jewish English, dictionaries have recorded many of these words. But hundreds of words were not documented, especially those used by specific subgroups. That’s where crowdsourcing came in. The websites allow visitors to edit entries and add new ones. Collectively, the lexicons, along with the Jewish Language Research Website that hosts them, have been accessed by over a million unique visitors from dozens of countries. Often people find the Jewish English Lexicon after searching for a word, such as bubbale, heimish, and refuah shlemah. Shana tova and g’mar chatima tova were popular in September, and moadim lesimcha in April. For definitions and information on who uses these and over one thousand other words, click here.
Both the survey and the lexicons were featured in multiple media outlets and linked to by many blogs and websites. They have both led to exciting developments in our understanding of Jewish language and our ability to share that knowledge with people around the world. This was all due to the Internet and the various technologies that enabled crowdsourcing.
Sarah Bunin Benor, professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, received her PhD from Stanford University in Linguistics. She writes and lectures widely about American Jewish language and culture. Her books include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2012).