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English Acquisition by Immigrants (1880-1940): The Confrontation as Reflected in Early Sound Recordings Eric Byron

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The Ramifications of Not Being Able to Speak Enough English to Communicate and Not Understanding What Is Being Said

Upon landing in America, immigrants learned those words that they thought they would need first. In the 1928 recording "Siirtolaisen Ensi Vastuksia," (The Immigrant's First Difficulties) performed by Arthur Kylander for a Finnish immigrant audience, that is exactly what happens. "The piece dwells on the language difficulties of a newly arrived immigrant worker, whose first English phrase is, 'No, sir.' The phrase helps him deal with his oppressive boss, but unfortunately it is turned against him by his girlfriend."(Green, 109)

Immigrants frequently had a hard time making themselves understood even when they thought they were speaking English. The primarily Slovak 1931 recording of "John Lajdak Na Strit Car" (John Lajdak on a Street Car) performed by Michael Tokarich and Dan Foldes on Victor, catalogue number 2219 suggests what happens when a person cannot get across what that person wants to say in English. John tries to tell his Irish street car conductor in very broken English that he wants to get off at a certain street. The conductor does not understand him and throws him off at what appears to be the next stop.

And just as often as immigrants had trouble making themselves understood, they themselves misunderstood. This problem occurs on the other side of "John Lajdak Na Strit Car." "John Lajdak I Policman" (John Lajdak and the Policeman)was recorded in May 1931 and performed in Slovak, English with a Slovak accent, and English by Michael Tobarick, Dan Foldes and Mary Wentz on Victor, catalogue number 2219. A policeman knocks on the Lajdak family's door in order to serve John with a jury duty notice. Fearing that something is wrong, John and his wife become scared. Eventually, John realizes what the policeman wants and explains to him that he cannot serve on a jury because he is not a citizen.

The Façade That One Knows English

Immigrants pretended for any of a number of reasons that they were not immigrants and did not speak the language. At times they simply wanted to distance themselves from those people that they considered to be green, the ones just off the boat. At other times they felt that by covering up their immigrant status, including changing their names, they had a better chance for success in this country. Giovanni De Rosalia and Company playfully utilize this theme in "Nofrio E La Finta Americana," (Nofrio and the Spooner) which they recorded on a Victor label in 1919, catalogue number 72404.

"An Italian woman sees an Italian speaking man she fancies. Even though she knows Italian, she decides to have a little fun by pretending to be an American. He remarks on her beauty, but despairs of communicating with her because he knows so little English. All of his attempts to sweet talk her are met by insistence that she doesn't understand him. Finally, she lets him know that she understands that he wants to marry her, but refuses his offer. She explains that she cannot marry him since he does not speak English. She also adds that it will take a long time to learn English. He gets desperate and threatens to shoot himself if she continues to say no, drawing his revolver. She suddenly stops him in Italian, giving herself away. She says that if he wants to marry her, he must get her parents' approval. He tells her that he'll ask her father, her mother and her sister." [10]

One Thought That One Finally Understood English

Even when one thought that one finally had some kind of handle on English, suddenly words no longer meant what they were supposed to mean. This change in meaning is exactly what occurs in the 1923 Victor recording, catalogue number 77251, "The Baseball Game." Performed by Ethel Olson primarily in English with a Norwegian accent, along with some Norwegian words, Ethel becomes frustrated when she cannot understand what is happening, even though she knows the meaning of the words.

"Do you know vere I vas yesterday, Mary? I bet you can't guess. I vas on a ballgame. Dat's de craziest ting I ever vas to. I remember vun time ven before, ven before me and Ole vas married. You know, ve vas yust venting togeder. He asked me on de telephone if I vant to go and see de Tigers play de Cubs. I said sure, and I vent. And I vas vaiting all afternoon in front of de zoo at Lincoln Park, and Ole never come at all.

My, men [but] der vas many people on dat ballgame. Goodness, saa mange folk har jeg aldri setti I mitt liv [I have not seen so many people in my life]. Ve vas sitting der real nice, and pretty soon, you know, der vas an awful screaming. And I said, 'Ole, vat's de matter now?' And vat do you tink he said, Mary? Dat somevun had struck a fowl. Dat means a chicken, don't it? Yust tink, so mean as to hit a poor little chicken." (Olson and Olson, 34-35 served as a basis for this transcription.) [11]

Stressing the Role of English Indirectly

Many recordings by and for immigrants inserted English words and phrases in order to give their recordings more punch, to connect them to the American realities in which the immigrants found themselves. Not only were specific English words used but their position in the composition emphasized their significance. In titles examined up to the present, English words appear repeatedly in Yiddish recording titles. To a lesser extent they turn up in Italian titles and occasionally in titles by other ethnic groups. However, much more work needs to be done before anything definitive can be stated. Some examples include:

Ethnic groupTitle PerformerLabelYear
Jewish Latest StyleClara Gold Columbia E3471 1917
ItalianNofrio Nel RestaurantGiovanni De Rosalia Columbia E3471 1917
Jewish "The Line Is Busy"William Schwartz & Rose GreenfieldVictor 725041918
Jewish "Der Junk Peddler"Ludwig Satz Victor 722051918
Italian"Dint 'O Subway"Gennaro AmatoVictor 14-806511927
Bohemian"Party Na Mr. Vokurka"Vaclav AlbrechtVictor 803631927
Hungarian"Mr. Dollar Pista Megy Az Ohazaba"Bogres LajosVictor V-110251929

Writers of skits and songs also exploited the position of English in the body of the work to convey a specific impact. The 1922 Yiddish recording "Watch Your Step" performed by Gus Goldstein on Vocalion 14332 is one of the best examples of this kind of structural arrangement. Notice that the lyricist Sam Lowenworth not only entitled the composition with a popular English expression "Watch your Step" but the English he used generally came at the end of each line. The first two stanzas give a sense of the language mixture.

"America a land fun hurry up.
Eyner loyft tzu zu business.
Eyner loyft in shop.
Eyner hot a date.
Gekumen is tzu shpeyt.
Eyner loyft tsu pinochle. n
Er hot a double bait.

Eyner loyft tzu a poker game.
Eyner loyft farzetsen
Zein watch and chain.
Eyner loyft tzu a play.
Eyner loft in cabarey.
Eyner loyft in drugstore
Vayl der boikh tut im vey."


"America, a land of "hurry up."
One runs to business.
One runs to the shop.
One has a date.
He came too late.
One goes to a pinochle game.
He has a double bait.

One runs to a poker game.
One runs to the pawnbroker.
To pawn his watch and chain.
One runs to a play.
One runs to the cabaret.
One runs to the drugstore
Because he has a belly ache." [12]

Image: Gus Goldstein, "Watch Your Step," Vocalion B-14332, 1922.

This brilliant composition suggests another dynamic in interaction that at least Jews were having with English speaking America. Lowenworth's words can be broken down into two categories: words the immigrants needed on a daily basis such as "business," "shop," "drugstore" and later on in the song "job," "boss," and "subway." With the exception of drugstore, one finds these words over and over again in recordings by and for immigrants.

The second category of words and expressions, such as "watch your step," "hurry up," "date," "double bait" "game," and "watch and chain" and later in the recording "pep," "queen," and "silk stockings," the immigrants did not need to survive in America. They had perfectly good Yiddish words for these things and ideas. Nevertheless, "Watch Your Step" did incorporate English terminology, which immigrants understood and appreciated, as illustrated by the fact that many immigrants did purchase the record. It is also interesting to note that many of the words and expressions were also fairly new in general American parlance. According to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, around 1905 people began accepting the word "date'" to mean a person of the opposite sex with whom one might be having some kind of romantic connection (Partridge 1984, 292). The same dictionary states that "hurry up" became popular around the turn of the century as well (584). "The Online Etymology Dictionary" claims that "full of pep" ("Watch Your Step" includes the phrase ful mit pep which means "full of pep.") was first used in 1922 or about the same time this recording was made (Harper). Further, Irving Berlin even entitled a play he wrote in 1914 "Watch Your Step" (Mackler).

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Eric Byron is the Coordinator of the Ellis Island Discography Project at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum of the National Park Service. He can be reached at (212) 363-3206 ext. 153.

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