Ashkenazi click sounds

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Dana F. writes:

I am a long-time reader of Language Log and was wondering if you might do a post on the linguistic origin of Ashkenazi Jewish Orthodox Jews (specifically from communities in New York) and their habit of making clicking noises with their tongue as a filler when speaking. I don't believe this habit comes from Hebrew or German origins (as far as I know) and I am very curious about it. I thought it might be an interesting topic for Language Log. Thank you very much!

I personally was not aware of this sound, but I did find this article that touches on it and related sounds:

"Top 5 Jewish Noises", Dovid Bashevkin, Mishpacha (1/22/20)

It's the fourth vort here:

Huh?  There are so many different ways for people to express themselves, and Jews are certainly no different. We have our geshmak words that no one else has — mechutanim, bedieved, shayach, goires, and many others. But sometimes all you need is a noise. A krechtz is worth a thousand sorry’s. But before I share my list, I need to make an important disclaimer. I have excluded the sound “oy.” I know, oy. Some may say it’s the ultimate Jewish sound. Maybe so. But it’s also like the bagels and lox of Jewish sounds — the sound Jewish people make because they don’t know any others. So I’m sorry to all of the “oy vey” enthusiasts out there, but here we’re focusing on sounds a bit more profound on the spectrum of Jewish noises. Just as liking the song “Racheim” doesn’t make you a real Shwekey fan, “oy vey” doesn’t quite bring you into the club. Here are my top five Jewish sounds that always get the point across.


I’m no historian, but I don’t think there has been a sincere “pshhh” since the early 1980s. Certainly, there was a time that the “pshhh” sound connoted actual accomplishment and honor, but it’s been decades since then. Now “pshhh” is reserved for two primary circumstances: (1) When the class clown in eighth grade gets an aliyah, you can count on the entire graduating class giving a “pshhh.” (2) It was announced you’re getting honored at a dinner that clearly was turned down by a few other people first. Pshhh, saw you’re getting honored by the shtibel — you gonna forget about the little people next time we have a breakaway Friday davening together? It’s a playful way of reminding someone who just was given a morsel of kavod not to take themselves too seriously. It’s a shame “pshhh” is only understood in the Jewish community. Imagine being able to “pshhh” on conference calls when the company reports sales figures.  Here’s the general rule of thumb: They’re not pshhhing with you — they are pshhhing at you.


“I just heard an amazing vort from Rebbe.” You slowly begin backing away. You’re sure the vort is amazing, but you’re also absolutely certain that it will be absolutely butchered when it’s told to you. “So, in the parshah, the pasuk — wait, do you have a Chumash? It’s better inside.” You playfully pat your pockets. No Chumash, as your eyes slowly scan for exits. But it’s too late. You know you’re going to have to sit through this lukewarm kli sheini recitation of a vort that probably requires about two pages of maareh mekomos to even properly set up. But here we are. Don’t panic. When there’s a lull in the passionate, though likely completely incorrect recitation of the vort, there is a catch-all reaction that can bail you out without having to resort to a follow-up clarification question: Tsssss. Like a balloon slowly deflating, “tssss” is the sound you make when the tension dissipates while waiting for a long vort to end that you, and likely the speaker, did not understand. If you really want to make sure your faux enthusiasm registers, make sure the “tsss” is accompanied by a gentle head bob from side to side and concludes with the sounds of a small bomb going off inside your mouth. Pchhhhh. Next time you’re in this situation, try to cut them off earlier. When they ask you if you have a Chumash, point to your heart, follow with a tssss, head bob, pchhhh, and run for the door.


In the corners of nearly any shul a conversation unfolds that would be incomprehensible to an outsider, but quite unremarkable to an insider.


“Nu, nu.”


“Nu, nu, nu!”


Maybe they’re arguing about who should get a kibbud, or about politics, or talking in learning. It doesn’t really matter what they’re discussing — what’s impressive is that a “nu” can essentially comprise an entire conversation. Its meaning changes depending on the tone, so you have to listen carefully. This is the “Who’s on First” of the Jewish world. Add a question mark at the end, an exclamation point, a string of nu’s, and for each permutation the meaning changes. But most readers likely already know this. Or in other words, “nu, nu.”


The Gemara uses two nearly identical phrases to express dissent. Sometimes the phrase used is “Lo amar midi,” but other times, the Gemara uses a slightly different term, “Lo amar v’leho midi.” What’s the difference between the two? My esteemed and uber-shtoltzy chavrusa, Rabbi Binyamin Silver, JD, once told me that the former phrase is the Gemara saying, “What was said is not correct.” In the latter, however, the Gemara is saying, “You didn’t even say nothing.” I’ve loved the distinction ever since. Sometimes you don’t want to argue with someone — you want to communicate that whatever has just been said doesn’t even have enough substance to argue with. You didn’t even say nothing. Thankfully, when we want to communicate such absolute dissent, we don’t need to rely on Talmudic terminology. We have a sound: Tschk. Move your tongue towards your front teeth and the roof of your mouth and snap it downwards. Hear that click sound? That means “you’re so wrong it doesn’t even merit an explanation.” If anyone ever tongue clicks at you, just be thankful. They’re trying to stop you before you say something truly awful. If you don’t stop speaking after the first “tschk,” you’re bound to wind up in worse territory: Feh.

uh, UH

Everyone needs motivation. Onlookers and supporters encourage marathon runners with their cheers. A child gets excited with thoughtful words of affirmation: “Almost there — you did it!” The affirmation in the beis medrash is not a phrase, it’s a sound: “uh, UH.” The emphasis and tone slowly rises with each successive “uh.” You’re saying good — “uh, UH” — say noch besser. But this noise has begun to travel outside of the confines of the beis medrash. I once went to a little league game, or as it is charmingly called in the yeshivah world, “Yiddle League.” When the home team gets a big hit, you can actually hear all the Tattes in the stands audibly grunt together, “uh UH” as the child rounds the bases. And when the child finally crosses home plate, the collective “uh Uh” crescendos into a passionate “oo-aah.” When communities invite me to speak, my signature motivational speech is about 40 minutes of impassioned “uh UHs” that conclude with a resounding “oo-aah.” Everyone understands it, but no one ever invites me back. Nu, nu.

The problem with reading this essay is that it is so heavily larded with Yiddish (פארשפארט מיט יידישע ווערטער / farshfart mit eydishe verter) that you'll miss much of the humor if you don't know the latter language.



Can you hear it?


Selected readings


  1. Stephen Goranson said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 9:59 am

    "Not even wrong."
    "Das ist nicht einmal falsch."
    Wolfgang Pauli

  2. Andy Behrens said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 10:02 am

    Tschk is the concise way to express Wolfgang Pauli's famous remark "That is not only not right; it is not even wrong".

  3. Tom Dawkes said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 10:20 am

    On 'nu' see Leo Rosten's entry on this in 'The Joys of Yiddish' (Penguin Book, 1971) pp.274-6.

  4. Frans said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    It's a bit unclear to me what kind of sound is being referred to, but it's not uncommon among some speakers of Dutch and German to use a tongue click as an alternative to or in addition to "um", as well as for some other situations including disagreement.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 3:45 pm

    From Peter B. Golden:

    Very interesting. I was expecting something akin to the click sounds of Bantu…Quite different.

    I haven’t heard most of these sounds. I am sure they exist, but unknown to me. Oy and Nu are both Slavic. Yiddish is filled with Slavicisms and more than a few calques (not to the extent of Wexler’s “relexification”), but they are everywhere. The Slavic words belong to the oldest layers of the language coming from Old West Slavic/Old Czech or West Knaanic as some are calling it in its Jewish context. The origins of Yiddish, still much in dispute, seem to stem from Judeo-German-speaking Jews (many of whom were previously Judeo-Francophone) coming to Bohemia, where a Slavic-speaking smaller Jewish community lived. Together Yiddish was formed.

  6. Coby said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 4:12 pm

    I don't think nu is Slavic (I'm a native speaker of Polish and almost native of Yiddish); it may be related to Polish no but I think it comes from German nun.

  7. Ferenc said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 4:54 pm

    > so heavily larded with Yiddish (פארשפארט מיט יידישע ווערטער / farshfart mit eydishe verter)

    Google translate is really bad at Yiddish. I think it meant פֿאַרשפּאַרט (farshpart), but that doesn't mean "larded with", it means "locked" (versperrt). And of course ייֽדיש is pronounced yidish, not eydish.

    I would say "צעמישט מיט אזוי פילע יידישע ווערטער" (tsemisht mit azoy file yidishe verter) = "mixed with so many Yiddish words", which may not be completely idiomatic, but it would be understood by a Yiddish speaker.

  8. Monscampus said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 7:08 pm

    As a native speaker of German I've come across *nu* (in this case not related to *nun*) in some dialects influenced by Slavic languages, e.g. Dresden. It's used as an affirmation and could be translated as *ja*. I once heard a long interview with a dialect speaker who answered every question with *ju*. I had no idea what it meant then.

    This was also discussed here

  9. david said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 9:06 pm

    @ Monscampus I wonder if it is related to the Greek ναι [nai] meaning yes. In Greek it is often repeated ναι, ναι or ναι, ναι, ναι.

  10. martin schwartz said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 10:37 pm

    Let's note that "Ashkenzim" refers not only to those whose lingusitic ancestorship is Yiddish, but also Jews if German-speaking ancestorship, a sociologically different group. OK. As someone who speaks and grew up with Yiddish, I don't know what Dana F. is
    referring to.Yiddish has sounds comparable to the Eng. "tsk" of regret, "hmm" in various tones indicating curiosity, skepticism,
    comprehension, surprise, etc., "uh", in its various senses, etc. etc.
    though probably Yiddish has more of these, uses them more often
    and perhaps with greater nuance than Englisn and with more gesturing of the head. As for the Yiddish of Orthodoxy, I heard no clickery from the very observant Yiddish-speaking family I was close to in childhood, nor from the Chabad hasidim with whom I spent much time in my adulthood. NOW, as to Dovid Bashevkin:
    It seems what he's reporting is what may be called Modern(ish)
    American Yeshivish, a farrago of English. Yiddish, and Israeli Hebrew, with the latter eating away at the Hebrew content of real Yiddish, spoken by young men in the male schools
    called yeshiva-s. Thus for example, a ['tasty'] "word that no one else has". mechutanim. is merely Isreali for'in-laws'; real Yiddish has
    mekhetonim or mekhetunim; similarly pasuk 'Biblical passage'
    vs. Yiddish posek or pusek, and other such examples. Btw,
    mechutanim, bedieved ['already done, aforementioned–thanks to
    Yael Chaver for mg.], shayach ['germane, appropriat'e'] and goires
    [= ???] Bashevsky, in another article in Mishpacha, lists as Yiddish "Yahrzeit'" [annual commemoration of the departed], a semi-Germanism which in Yiddish is yortsayt or yurtsayt. "Ubershtoltzy" is neither Yiddish (which has iber-) nor German (über-), but never mind. Leaving
    aside the apparently pshh (apparently obsolete) and tssssss,
    the only sound which B. speaks of as a "click" is his "tschk"
    which seems to be, from his description, a variant of our "tsk"
    equally k-less, but B.'s accuracy is phonetic description is dubious in light of "eydish" for idish = 'Yiddish'.
    As to matters for which there ar comments above, indeed
    "farshfart" seems to be a misreading of *farshpart, from shparen
    'to force (in). As for nu, Prof. Golden has it right; it is indeed Slavic
    for 'so, well' (not from German nun 'now'); my mother's dialect,
    in which u > i, has ni. B.s report on nu reads like a parodic joke.
    Incidentally, there's a nice Yiddish song about how people of three
    personality types (a Talmudic topos) say nu under happy and disappointing circumstances; its sung by the great canor Pierre
    Pinchik, 'Two sides of Pinchik" YouTube, at 35.35 on the sound bar.
    Fans of Greco-Turkish music can hear phrases of the song in the
    makam Rast. Anyway as to Ashkenazi clicks, No sah, not like Xhosa.
    Martin Schwartz
    a semi-German word

  11. martin schwartz said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 10:54 pm

    Oh, the phrase under my signature is not a self-description
    but a misplacement by my computer off a phrase from the body of my text!

  12. David Fried said,

    January 28, 2023 @ 11:57 pm

    Modern Israeli Hebrew absolutely has a click meaning "Nope" or more emphatically "no way," which seems to me to correspond to the tongue click described in the article
    . It doesn't have the specialized meaning– not even wrong—mentioned by the author. Nor have I heard it among Yiddish speakers, although I'm no authority. In general I agree that the article is describing American yeshivish speechways, rather than the American Jewish speech I grew up with in the fifties.

  13. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:49 am

    @David Fried: I suspect the Israeli click for "nope" is an East Mediterranan matter. Greeks, and I'm pretty sure Turks,
    make a sound like our "tsk" of regret to mean 'no', often
    with retraction of the head. Maybe thus also Arabs.
    For the head, cf. Lat. abnuo vs. annuo, the moving the head to the side for 'yes', also East Mediterranan.
    Hmm, I missed a chance to pun
    on the nu-ances of Yiddish nu.

  14. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 1:10 am

    I've just been informed that Sarah Bunin Benor has written about the "clicks", including palatal, of Yeshivish. QED?

  15. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 2:09 am

    @ Martin Schwartz

    The way to say “no” with a “tst” sound of the tongue in Greece is going together with a symbolic body language. This one is unique to the modern Greeks and their Illyrian cousins, the Albanians, I think. They do a nod accompanied by a raised eyebrow to express the “no” or “no way.” It was recorded in the Homeric corpus for the first time (κυανέῃσιν ἐπ’ ὀρφύσι) and still in use today in Greece and Albania. The “moving the head to the side” for “yes” is also mentioned in the Homeric corpus as (κεφαλῇ κατανεύσμαι).
    See : Langage et symbolique du corps dans l’Illiade et le cycle troyen, from Marion Darracq.

  16. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 3:28 am

    @Lucas Christopoulos: I just googled gesture 'no' in Turkish.
    I got several hits, including from Turkish cultural sites,
    saying that the informal way to say no in Turkish is to move the head back, lift the eyebrows, and make a "tsk" or tutting sound.
    [NB "tutting!"]. Also affirmations that the sideward head motion =
    'yes' in Turkey, all as I seemed to remember.

  17. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 3:40 am

    @ Martin Schwartz
    Thank you Martin. As the Turks were not there yet at the time of Homer, I suppose that we understand where it is coming from.

  18. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 3:43 am

    @Lucas Christopoulos and all: I just checked–same routine for "no"
    in the Arab world. Whence, I assume, Israel.And thence maybe
    Yeshivish?? I (nor anyone) can say much about ancient Illyria,
    butt he Albanian gesture, as so much in their language, accords with the Turkish and Greek.Well, we've gone in our meanderings from Ashkenaz to eski naz, if you follow my Turkish. Or not.

  19. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 3:51 am

    Louká mou, mia elliniki genesi ein' entaxi gia mena–
    a Greek origin is OK for me.

  20. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    ναί Martin, οἶδα..we should understand if this kind of "tic" is genetic or traditionally transmissible in a specific cultural environment…

  21. Levantine said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 11:10 am

    I’m a Cypriot Turk from London, and while we do indeed indicate “no” by tilting our heads back while raising our eyebrows (the tut is optional), I don’t recall ever having seen the sideways head motion for “yes”. I’m not denying it’s a thing in certain places, but it’s certainly not as widespread as the gesture for “no”, which I believe is pretty universal in the Eastern Mediterranean.

  22. Peter B. Golden said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 11:13 am

    Having lived and studied in Turkey (Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi, I can say that the ts sound accompanied by raised eyebrows (often just a quick flick, sometimes the eyebrows are enough) is a common way of expressing "no." It is not Turkic – I have not seen it used by other Turkic-speaking peoples. Presumably, it is part of the Byzantine (and earlier) inheritance of Ottoman. Turkish slang, BTW is filled with Albanian, South Slavic and Ladino words…as one would expect.
    As for Slavic "nu" -its etymology is uncertain. Vasmer (Russ. ed.) terms it "onomatopoeic" (звукоподражательное) – although I don't see how that works. "Nu" is found in Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian (I spoke a Russo-Belarusian patois (Трасянка) with Ukrainianisms mixed in (a kind of Суржик) with my grandparents, family friends et al.), Slovenian, Czech, Slovak "nuž, Polish (as "nu" in "nuże" -Vasmer does not note "no" which is used as @Coby notes), Upper Lusatian has "nó", nu" Lower Lusatian "no, nu."

  23. Levantine said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    This tallies with my experience interacting with other Turks:

    “Although for Turks a nod – the back and forth forwards movement of the head – does indeed mean ‘yes’ as in most countries, a backwards tilt of the head, often with the eyebrows raised, means no.”

  24. Ben said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    @Peter B. Golden
    I had always assumed oy came from Biblical Hebrew אוי (usually translated 'woe!')

  25. Ben said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 12:23 pm

    Is the click we're discussing always [!]? Or can it vary?

  26. Monscampus said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 1:07 pm

    @david said

    German *nu* related to Greek? I find that quite hard to believe, although I can't prove it.

  27. martin schwartz said,

    January 29, 2023 @ 9:14 pm

    @monscampus said: @)david said–nothing of the sort.
    He mentioned Modern Greek naí (in Greek letters).
    There is an Anc. Gr. nu(n) enclitic, cognate with Slavic nu,
    German nun, and Eng. now. See Wiktionary Reconstruction
    Proto-Indo-European/nu. — this gives a satisfying listing
    of the various cognates, on which you can click for specifics.
    As for Gr. naí, Wiktionary rightly indicates it's from the
    PIE demonstrative base *h1en(V)- , *where h with subscript 1
    is the "first larygeal'. I didn't check if Wiktionary has Yiddish
    nu in the aforementioned lemma or separately, but there is no
    reason to separate it from Ukrainian, Belarus((s)ian, Russian etc.

  28. R. Fenwick said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 12:42 am

    @Ben: Is the click we're discussing always [!]? Or can it vary?

    The Turkish-Greek-Albanian click in question is actually the dental [|], not [!].

    (Tangentially, [|] as an IPA letter has always irritated me because of the extreme difficulty of distinguishing between it and [l] in handwriting and sans-serif fonts. It's one instance where I think the IPA's dispensing with an earlier symbol – in this case, [ʇ] – really got it wrong.)

  29. Sarah Benor said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 8:19 pm

    I did write about this in my dissertation and then my first book, Becoming Frum (p. 106):

    At the other end of the spectrum of salience is a linguistic feature I refer to as a hesitation click. It is used for self- repair, to express a negative reaction to the previous or current statement, or as a general hesitation marker. The click derives from Israeli Hebrew and is similar to the practice called “suckteeth” or “kiss- teeth” in African diaspora communities.53 I heard this click in all the Orthodox communities where I conducted research, as well as among some non- Orthodox Jews who have spent significant time in Israel. Here are some examples:

    Self- repair:

    “It’s not common, but it’s— [click] there are other subjects.”
    “But sometimes it’s more— [click] I don’t know how to explain it.”


    “No, but it’s not— [click] no, you don’t understand.”
    “We just do. [click] It’s not that girls can’t.”


    “What if there were— [click] If there were snakes and scorpions, they would have
    found them.”
    “It’s not as, [click] you know, as choshuv.”

    I believe that the click is picked up by Americans who spend time in Israeli yeshivas, and when they return to the United States their friends and relatives pick it up from them. The click seems to be a very “contagious” linguistic feature, as many Orthodox Jews who have never spent time in Israel use it frequently. Aside from loanwords, this was the feature that I heard from the most speakers, FFBs and BTs.

  30. Hans Adler said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 8:36 am

    As a native German speaker, I am surprised by Frans' claim that some German speakers do that occasionally. I think I am pretty unique in doing it occasionally, and I am absolutely certain I got it from Greek speakers. Which is why, despite the negative meaning of the sound, I accompany it with a sudden upwards movement of the head. For me it expresses outrage when someone has said something preposterous, combined with resignation. I almost only do it when I'm alone.

    However, many Germans use the similar "ts ts ts" with a (horizontal) head shake to express the related sentiment of disapproval paired with resignation.

  31. Frans said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 1:26 pm

    @Hans Adler
    You seem to be talking about some highly specific meaning.

    What I was responding to was the "habit of making clicking noises with their tongue as a filler when speaking. I don't believe this habit comes from Hebrew or German origins."

    As stated, I have no idea what sound the OP is describing specifically. I just know that I've spoken to German people who would say something like:

    "Let's see here… *clicks tongue*, this tire needs replacing." (filler, probably equivalent to um)


    A: "I think that's yellow."
    B: "Well, *clicks tongue*, I think that's rather a brown color." (disagreement)

    I've never heard a German or Dutch person use a tongue click to express "ts ts ts", but I don't think that's particularly relevant.

  32. Frans said,

    February 3, 2023 @ 1:33 pm

    Although I just realized that we, at least in Dutch, do in fact have three disapproving clicks while shaking our heads as part of our language, but that's an extremely different kind of click than the one I was thinking of.

  33. Monscampus said,

    February 4, 2023 @ 11:50 pm

    @martin schwartz

    @monscampus said: @)david said–nothing of the sort.
    He mentioned Modern Greek naí (in Greek letters).

    I suppose that's me being told?
    We both read David's comment that I referred to. I just happened not to repeat it verbatim. Thanks anyway.

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