About us

Have a question about Jewish languages? Check our FAQ.

Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)

Jewish Language Project

Mission

To promote research on, awareness about, and engagement surrounding the many languages spoken and written by Jews throughout history and around the world.

 

Vision

  • Every known Jewish language variety will be well documented

  • Resources regarding Jewish languages will be publicly available on the internet, thereby increasing comparative research, postvernacular activities, resources for Jewish educational institutions, and knowledge about the linguistic diversity of Jewish communities around the world

  • Jews will feel a stronger connection to far-flung Jewish communities, past and present

Editorial

Since 2002, this site has been produced and edited by Sarah Bunin Benor, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, United States. Questions and comments can be directed to her by email or via our contact form.

To cite this website

Benor, Sarah Bunin, ed. 2002-present. Jewish Language Website. Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. jewishlanguages.org.

Learn more

This website is one of several initiatives of the Jewish Language Project. You can learn about other initiatives, personnel, funding, and press here.

HUC Jewish Language Project logo.jpg

Website goals

1. To provide an introduction to Jewish languages for the general public

2. To provide resources and curricular materials for educators about Jewish languages, past and present

3. To serve as a resource for the field of Jewish linguistics - the study of Jewish languages on an individual and comparative basis - encouraging collaboration among scholars of various Jewish languages

4. To provide information and bibliographic references for linguists and Jewish studies scholars who wish to incorporate Jewish languages into their research and teaching.

 

FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions

How many Jewish languages are there?
 

It depends how you count. Do you consider Moroccan Judeo-Arabic and Yemenite Judeo-Arabic to be separate languages or varieties of the same language? How about medieval Judeo-French and contemporary Jewish French? Orthodox Jewish English in New York and Reform Jewish English in San Francisco? In other words, anywhere from 20 to hundreds.
 

How do you determine whether a Jewish community's way of speaking is a separate language or just a dialect of the majority language?
 

Some scholars use intelligibility as a criterion: if two language varieties are mutually intelligible, they are dialects of the same language; if they are not, they are separate languages. But that doesn't always work, as sometimes speakers of language A say they understand language B, but speakers of language B say they can't understand language A. Political autonomy and writing systems also play a role in distinguishing between languages and dialects. Because of these complications, we consider this question unanswerable.


 

Is Hebrew a Jewish language?
 

Hebrew is a central language of Jews because of its history in the origin of Jewish communities, its historical and continuing presence in religious texts, and its use in contemporary Israeli society. This site focuses on languages in diaspora Jewish communities; therefore Hebrew is not highlighted.

 

Are all Jewish languages endangered?
 

Yiddish is thriving in Hasidic communities, and Judeo-Tajik and Judeo-Tat are still spoken by young people in select communities. All other longstanding Jewish languages are endangered, as the only remaining active speakers are elderly. New Jewish language varieties, like Jewish English and Jewish Latin American Spanish, are thriving. We provide statistics on number of speakers here.

 

How are Jewish languages written?
 

Most Jewish languages that thrived in the Middle Ages were written in Hebrew letters with modifications to account for their non-Hebrew sound patterns (combinations of characters and diacritics representing vowels and consonants). Most Jewish languages that arose in modernity are written in the system of their non-Jewish correlate (Latin, Cyrillic, etc.), and some older languages have shifted as well. Hebrew-origin words are sometimes written in Hebrew letters and inserted into the primary language's writing system.

 

Is there literature in Jewish languages besides Yiddish?
 

Absolutely. Most Jewish languages have been used for translations of Jewish prayers and biblical and rabbinic literature. Several have also been used for periodicals, drama, prose, poetry, and even philosophy. These include Judeo-Arabic, Ladino/Judezmo/Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Tajik, and Jewish English.

 

Aren't Jewish languages a phenomenon of the past?
 

This is a common perception. Often people think about Ladino and Yiddish as the primary examples of Jewish languages. These are among the few exceptions in Jewish history: languages that were maintained for centuries away from their lands of origin. Ladino was born on the Iberian peninsula, and after Jews were expelled, they maintained their Hispanic language in areas were other languages were spoken (Turkish, Greek, etc.). Yiddish started in Germanic lands and thrived in Slavic lands after many of its speakers migrated. However, most Jewish communities have spoken a variant of a local non-Jewish language. Assuming this as the norm for Jewish languages, contemporary Jews continue this practice: they speak a variant of the languages spoken by their non-Jewish neighbors, incorporating Hebrew words and other distinctive features.

 

I need a text translated from or into a Jewish language. How can I find a translator?

See our list of translators.

 

I have a question about a word or language. How can I find a scholar to ask?

See our list of scholars, organized by language, name, and country.

 

How can I learn a Jewish language?
 

Only a few Jewish languages are taught formally: Yiddish and Ladino/Judeo-Spanish/Judezmo. You can find dictionaries of several Jewish languages, especially their Hebrew-Aramaic components.

How can I learn more about Jewish languages?

Here's a podcast explaining what Jewish languages are and giving information about Judeo-Tat/Juhuri, Judeo-Tajik/Bukharian, and Jewish English (Adventures in Jewish Studies podcast: season 2, episode 3, "World of Jewish Languages").

Here's an introductory bibliography.

 

Here's a video introduction, focusing on language endangerment and three examples, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Tat/Juhuri, and Judeo-Median languages of Iran: