Introduction to Jewish Languages
Introduction to Jewish Languages
by Sarah Bunin Benor
(a general introduction to Jewish languages, a modified version of an article that will appear in a Jewish studies textbook in the coming years)
Language is central to social life. Through our words, pronunciations, and grammar, we communicate not only conversational content, but also social information. We align ourselves with some people and distinguish ourselves from others, expressing multiple allegiances, sometimes even within the same sentence. Members of diasporic, ethnic, and religious groups tap into multiple repertoires of linguistic features that indicate both their unique traits and their commonalities with those outside of their group. These features might include elements of ancestral languages and dialects that reflect historical migration patterns, and they might include words for cultural practices and orientations important to the group.
Jews – a diverse diasporic, (multi-)ethnic, and religious group – participate in these trends. Through language, they have indicated their multiple allegiances: residents of and (to varying extents) integrated into the surrounding society and constituting a distinct communal entity, inspired by ancient texts and ancestral migration patterns. In most locations throughout the Jewish Diaspora, Jews have spoken a variant of the language of their non-Jewish neighbors, distinguished to varying extents. In a few communities, they have maintained a language that originated elsewhere, incorporating influences from the languages of their new non-Jewish neighbors. In contexts of both types, Jews have regularly modulated their language, using more or fewer Jewish features depending on audience, topic, and genre. By analyzing these linguistic practices, Jewish studies scholars gain insight into the inner lives of Jews and their relations with non-Jews.
The history of Jewish language is marked by empire change, expulsions, and migrations. Originally speaking Hebrew, Jews gradually learned Aramaic when the Babylonian and Persian empires controlled Palestine. This was due to forced migration to Babylon and to economic and cultural pressure to speak the more prestigious language in the Holy Land. But Jews’ Aramaic was heavily influenced by Hebrew, such that the language of some biblical and rabbinic texts can be classified as Judeo-Aramaic. This influence came in part from the earliest bilingual Hebrew-Aramaic speakers but continued over the centuries because Jews maintained Hebrew for liturgical purposes – recitation and study of Biblical texts and prayers. The influence of Aramaic can also be seen in the writing system: the Aramaic alphabet replaced Paleo-Hebrew symbols and continues to be used as the alphabet we know today as Hebrew.
Subsequent empire changes and migrations led to Jews speaking Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Arabic and, later, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-German, Judeo-Tajik, and other languages throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Western Asia. Like Judeo-Aramaic, these Jewish variants were similar to the surrounding languages but influenced to varying extents by Hebrew (and Aramaic) and written in Hebrew letters. They sometimes also differed in additional ways, using distinctive pronunciations or grammatical features. These linguistic differences were caused by both internal and external factors. Internal factors included Jews studying biblical and rabbinic texts, reciting blessings, prayers, and songs in Jewish ritual contexts, and wanting to maintain some degree of separateness from the surrounding society. External factors included restrictions on Jewish participation in particular professions or institutions, especially educational systems. Wherever Jews lived, their speech and writing reflected both integration into the local society and the separateness of the Jewish community.
The two most famous Diaspora Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino, are exceptions in this history, as they are post-coterritorial, meaning they were maintained away from their lands of origin. Jews who spoke Western Yiddish, also known as Judeo-German, moved eastward from areas where their neighbors also spoke varieties of German to areas where their neighbors spoke Slavic and other languages, including Czech, Polish, Belarusian, and Hungarian. Rather than adopt those languages for day-to-day in-group communication, they maintained their Germanic language and incorporated influences – words, pronunciations, and grammatical features – from the new local languages. Similarly, Jews were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century and moved to other regions, including Morocco, Turkey, and Greece. Rather than adopting Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and other new local languages, they maintained their Judeo-Spanish. Even so, they had some knowledge of those languages, and, gradually, some words – especially from the dominant Ottoman Turkish and Moroccan Arabic – became part of Judeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino, Judezmo, Spanyol, and, in North Africa, Haketia.
In addition to Yiddish and Ladino, several Jewish languages have differed so much from the local non-Jewish correlate that Jews and non-Jews could not understand each other’s (in-group) language. In some cases this was because Jews gradually changed their language, and in other cases it was because Jews maintained a language when their non-Jewish neighbors shifted to a different language. For example, in the Kurdish region of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, Jews and Christians in the same town sometimes spoke varieties of Neo-Aramaic that were mutually unintelligible. Similarly, Juhuri (Judeo-Tat), spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan, is different enough from Muslim Tat that Muslims and Jews cannot understand each other. Jewish communities can be analyzed as located along a continuum of linguistic distinctness: some spoke very similarly to their non-Jewish neighbors, and others spoke very differently. For example, in Damascus, Judeo-Arabic and Muslim Arabic were generally mutually intelligible, but in Baghdad, they were generally not.
Some scholars and observers have depicted Jewish languages as a phenomenon of the past. Recent research, however, has argued that contemporary Jews are continuing the Diaspora linguistic practices of previous eras by speaking Jewish varieties of their local languages. New Jewish languages are generally referred to with the name “Jewish X,” such as Jewish English, Jewish Latin American Spanish, and Jewish French, rather than the more archaic “Judeo X.” Some have argued that these new Jewish language varieties are not sufficiently different from their non-Jewish correlates to be considered separate languages. The same could be said for many Jewish language varieties of the past that are generally considered separate languages – in part because of their Hebrew-based writing systems. Whether or not particular Jewish communities are seen as speaking separate languages or just dialects of the local language, Jewish studies scholars can learn a great deal by including all Jewish communities – past and present – in the comparative study of Jewish languages.
Jews’ language has differed from that of their non-Jewish neighbors due to several factors. Their reverence for and maintenance of sacred texts – the Bible and rabbinic literature – in their original languages leads to Hebrew and Aramaic influences, especially words and a writing system. Jews’ historical migrations lead to influences from languages spoken in previous locations along their journey. They often have contact with various groups of non-Jews, leading to influences from their languages. In addition, they often maintain contact with Jews in other regions of their current territory or migrate within that territory, leading to influences from other regional dialects of their current language. And while their integration into the surrounding society is reflected in their use of local languages, their insularity leads to archaic linguistic features – sometimes local non-Jews change their language and Jews do not – and innovative linguistic features – sometimes Jews change their language and non-Jews do not.
Hebrew and Aramaic influences
The most common and salient distinctive feature is words from Hebrew and Aramaic. Throughout history, most Jewish communities have maintained a situation of diglossia (the stable communal use of two languages for different purposes), speaking various vernaculars while studying and praying in Hebrew and Aramaic. Therefore, it is not surprising that these languages would influences the spoken languages. Hebrew and Aramaic words are especially common when referring to concepts not found in the local non-Jewish language, such as religious rituals, holidays, and halachic (Jewish legal) constructs. Sometimes different languages refer to the same concept with different Hebrew or non-Hebrew words. For example, the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees, is called mooedeh ilanoot (holiday of the trees) in Judeo-Persian, khamishoser (fifteen) in Yiddish, mzade ’ilane (gift of the trees) in Hulaula, the Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialect in Sanandaj, Iran, and various forms of Tu Bishvat (fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat) in some other languages, such as tubizvat in Judeo-Italian and tubisbat in Judeo-Arabic and Haketia. Some languages use words not from Hebrew or Aramaic, such as fətḥ əl-`úd (blossoming of the dry tree) in Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, shbídi pherobá (seven species) in Judeo-Georgian, meva xūri (fruit eating) in Bukharian, and las frutas (the fruits) in Ladino.
Hebrew and Aramaic words are not limited to concepts distinctive to Jewish communities; they are also used for referents that do have non-Jewish correlates. Especially common are euphemisms for taboo concepts like body parts and death, such as rimonim (pomegranates, breasts) and beth axaim (house of life, cemetery) in Judeo Greek. Another common use of Hebrew/Aramaic words is for secretive language referring to non-Jews and their holidays and religious figures. The word arel, meaning uncircumcised, is used in many Jewish languages to refer to “non-Jew” in general or “Christian” in particular. And Muhammad is known as mashugga in several varieties of Judeo-Arabic and misiga in Judeo-Borujerdi – variants of the Hebrew word for “crazy,” which describes Muhammad in some medieval Hebrew texts. Hebrew and Aramaic words are even used for interjections and adverbs that have equivalents in the local non-Jewish language. Examples include bekitser (briefly, in sum) and teykef-umeyad (immediately) in Western Yiddish; afillu (even so) and vadday (of course) in Haketia; and aderaba (certainly) and mamash (to a high degree) in Jewish English.
When Hebrew words are used within other languages, they are integrated to varying degrees into the grammatical system of the primary language. Nouns generally use Hebrew plurals, such as sefarim for sefer (book, Torah, or any book of the Jewish religious canon) in many languages, but sometimes they use the plural system of the local language, such as mazamir for mizmor (song) in Judeo-Arabic. Verbs can be integrated directly, such as Judeo-Italian gannavi (she steals), from Hebrew ganav (steal), or they can be integrated using a helping verb, such as Juhuri monuħo birɛ (to die), which combines Hebrew menucha (rest) with Tat birɛ (to be). Many languages have instances of both systems.
In addition, the pronunciation of Hebrew words is influenced by the local language and by various historical Hebrew pronunciation traditions, such that even though Jews around the world use many common words, they pronounce them differently. Several historical Hebrew sounds, including those represented by ‘ayin (ע), waw (ו), teth (ט), and thaw (ת), differ significantly, as do gemination (consonant doubling), stress, and vowels. For example, the Hebrew word mo‘ed (holiday) is pronounced mo‘ēd in Judeo-Arabic, moqédi in Judeo-Georgian, mongéd or monyédde in Judeo-Italian, mwed in Ladino, and móyed in Yiddish. And the Hebrew word tallith (prayer shawl) is ṭəlׅlׅít or tallét in Judeo-Arabic and Jewish Neo-Aramaic, taléd or taléde in Judeo-Italian, talé in Ladino, and tális in Yiddish. Some Jewish languages include sounds not used by local non-Jews, especially in Hebrew-origin words, such as ḥet and ‘ayin in Bukharian and Jewish Neo-Aramaic and [x] in Jewish English (from Yiddish and Hebrew chet and chaf).
In some cases, Jews use a Hebrew word in combination with a non-Hebrew word that has the same meaning. Examples include helluf-hazir (pig, lit. pig-pig) in Judeo-Arabic from Sefrou, Morocco, mayim akhroynim vaser (hand washing after meal, lit. last water water), and boni mangasim tovim (good deeds, lit. good good deeds) in Judeo-Italian. Doubled phrases like these are sometimes used for emphasis, and sometimes they indicate that the Hebrew word has changed in meaning or use. They might also demonstrate some speakers’ low awareness that they are using Hebrew and non-Hebrew words with the same meaning.
From the 20th century onward, Hebrew has also influenced Jewish languages through an additional source: Modern Israeli Hebrew. We see this in the many languages spoken by immigrants to Israel, but we also see it in new Diaspora Jewish languages, like Jewish English and Jewish Latin American Spanish. For example, Jewish Swedish includes Modern Hebrew words like hadracha (leadership), dati (religious), and göra mangal (to make a barbecue). Modern Hebrew also provides pronunciation norms for contemporary Jewish languages, such as pronouncing ḥet as [x], which is higher in the throat than historical [ḥ], and deleting the shva-na between two initial consonants, as in psukim (verses) and brit (covenant) in Jewish English, rather than pesukim and berit.
The Hebrew/Aramaic texts of the Jewish tradition also influence spoken languages through translation, as many Jewish languages include direct translations of Hebrew phrases. In Egyptian Judeo-Arabic, translations of Hebrew texts mark the definite direct object with ilā to translate the Hebrew direct object marker את, e.g., כולנו עארפין אלה אל שריעה (all of us are learned in the Torah), a translation of כולנו יודעים את התורה from the Passover Haggadah (other varieties of Arabic would not include the underlined word). In some cases direct translations can also be found in spoken Jewish languages, such as the Jewish English phrases “may her memory be for a blessing” and “the world to come,” translations of Hebrew זכרונה לברכה and עולם הבא that sound odd in non-Jewish English.
Textual influence in writing
Hebrew/Aramaic texts have historically provided a writing system for many Jewish languages. Most Jewish languages that arose in the Middle Ages have been written in Hebrew/Aramaic characters. Here is an example from a Judeo-Italian prayerbook from the early 16th century:
דוֹמְידֵית פוֹרְטֵיצְי אַלוֹ פוֹפוֹלוֹ סוּאוֹ דָרהַ דוֹמְידֵית בְינִידִיצְירָה לוֹ פוֹפוֹלוֹ סוּאוֹ אְין פָאצֵי
Domedet fortezze allo popolo suo darà Domedet benedicerà lo popolo suo en pace
This is a translation of the Hebrew excerpt from Psalms 29:11: “ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן ה׳ יבְרֵָך אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשּׁלוֹם” (May the Lord grant strength to His people; may the Lord bless His people with peace). Vowels are represented not only by the diacritic markings (nikkud), but also by the Hebrew characters waw, yod, ’alef, and hey. Eastern Yiddish uses a similar system, but ayin represents the [e] sound, and various combinations of consonants are used for sounds that do not exist in Hebrew, such as זש for [zh] (like the final consonant in garage or je in French). Here is an example from 20th-century Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin, with those letters underlined, as well as the double vov to represent [v]:
איך בין אַ צירקוס דאַמע
Ikh bin a tsirkus dame
I am a circus lady
און טאַנץ צווישן קינזשאַלן
Un tants tsvishn kinzhaln
And dance between daggers
Throughout history, Judeo-Arabic was written in different writing systems, reflecting to various degrees the Arabic writing system, the Hebrew writing system, or the actual pronunciation. In some cases, diacritics are added to Hebrew letters, based on similar diacritics in Arabic, such as צ֗ for ض [ḍ], קֿ for ق [q], and פ֗ for ف [f]. Some longstanding Jewish languages, such as Judeo-Georgian and Jewish Malayalam, were historically written in the local alphabets, not Hebrew letters. Languages that Jews have acquired during modern times, such as Jewish English, Jewish Hungarian, and Jewish Russian, are generally written in their local alphabets due to more universal education and literacy.
Other contact languages
In addition to Hebrew and Aramaic, some Jewish languages exhibit influences from other historical Jewish languages, reflecting more recent migration patterns. In Ladino, the word for “to read Torah” is meldar, an influence from an ancient language spoken by the ancestors of Ladino speakers: (Judeo-)Greek meletaō or (Judeo-)Latin meletare. The Ladino word for “Sunday” is alhad, from al-ḥadd, from the (Judeo-)Arabic spoken in the Iberian peninsula before Spanish was the dominant language, enabling Jews to avoid calling Sunday domingo (Lord). For similar reasons of intentional distinction, the Yiddish word bentsh (bless) comes from a Romance language spoken by the ancestors of some Yiddish speakers – likely (Judeo-)Italian benedice – as Jews wanted to avoid the German word segenen, which means “bless” but also “make the sign” (of the cross). Contemporary languages that are closer to the generation of mass migration exhibit much more influence from ancestral Jewish languages. For example, Jewish English has many words and grammatical influences from Yiddish, and Jewish French has many words from North African Judeo-Arabic.
Ancestral languages also influence Jewish languages through the Hebrew/Aramaic component, including which words are used, how they are pronounced, and how they are integrated into the grammatical structure of the new language. This is particularly evident in contemporary languages. Jewish English includes many Hebrew words that are influenced by Yiddish, the language spoken by a large percentage of Jewish immigrants to English-speaking countries. Examples include shaleshudes (third meal of Shabbat, from shalosh seudot, three meals), taleysim (prayer shawls), and pasken (render a halachic decision). These Hebrew-origin words are influenced in their pronunciation, morphology, and meanings by their parallel forms in Yiddish. One word, sheygets (non-Jewish male, from Hebrew sheqeṣ – abomination), reflects influence from Judeo-French: the consonant in the middle of the Hebrew word sheqeṣ changed from [k] to [g] in line with similar changes in medieval French. The word was maintained by German-speaking Jews and was passed down through Eastern Yiddish to Jewish English.
Other languages spoken nearby also provide influences. Yiddish and Ladino (post-coterritorial languages) include words and grammatical features from the new coterritoral languages: Polish, Belarusian, Hungarian, and others in the case of Yiddish; and Turkish, Greek, Serbo-Croatian, and others in the case of Ottoman Ladino. Many Jewish languages were spoken in multilingual regions, and their lexicons in particular reflect that contact. Juhuri, for example, includes words from Turkic languages like Azeri and Kumyk, as well as Persian, Arabic, and, more recently, Russian. Jewish Neo-Aramaic includes structural influences from local Azeri Turkish and Kurdish, such as in word order and pronunciation. In one area of the Kurdish region, the word “they” is diyey among Christians but dohun among Jews, and what Christians pronounce as [th] (both unvoiced and voiced, as in “think” and “this”) becomes [l] among Jews – both influences from other regional languages found among Jews but not among Christians.
International languages of prestige also influence Jewish languages. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Alliance Israélite Universelle and other organizations established schools throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, including Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Iran, where the language of instruction was either French or Italian. These new situations of language contact resulted in lexical influences from French and Italian in local Jewish languages, like Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Median, and Judeo-Persian.
Another feature common in many Jewish languages is migrated regionalisms: dialectal features from one region used in a different region, where the same language is spoken in both regions. Migrated regionalisms reflect two trends: historical migrations of Jews from one region to another within a given language territory and past and present contact between Jewish communities. Examples include a plural article from Southern Italy used in Judeo-Italian in Central and Northern Italy, a verb form from Morocco and a plural from Baghdad found in Cairo Judeo-Arabic, and New York pronunciations like “orange” as “ahrange” used in Jewish English in other parts of the United States. Another instance of this phenomenon is Jewish varieties of Neo-Aramaic in towns around Kurdistan resembling each other more than the language of nearby non-Jews.
Another way that Jews distinguish their language is by preserving archaic features that local non-Jews have stopped using. An example is Jewish Malayalam (and its Muslim correlate), which retains the dative case marker -ikkǝ even though it disappeared in Christian and Hindu Malayalam in the 15th century. Cairo Judeo-Arabic uses the verbal pattern fuʿul, while the standard Egyptian dialect replaced it with fiʿil. In Yefren, Libya, the historical Arabic [q] sound (like a [k] but lower in the throat) is retained in most words, while local Muslims have changed that sound to [g]. Archaisms are especially common in post-coterritorial languages. Some dialects of Ladino, for example, retain the Latin-origin [f] at the beginning of words, as in fazer (to do/make), while Spanish around the world changed that sound to [h], as in hacer. Although archaic features are common, it is a misnomer to say that Jews preserve older forms of the language. It is clear from the multilingual influences discussed above that Jews’ language is not an exact replica of earlier non-Jewish language. In addition, Jews distinguish their languages in other ways, thereby creating not only archaisms, but also innovations.
Jews’ language can differ from that of their non-Jewish neighbors (or the non-Jewish neighbors of their ancestors in the case of post-coterritorial languages) in various ways beyond the features discussed above. These differences can be quite minor, or they can be as major as a completely different system of pronunciation and grammar. Judeo-Georgian has few structural differences from Georgian, but some words are used in distinctive ways, and intonation patterns differ. For instance, the Georgian word jamaati means “a mass gathering,” but in Judeo-Georgian it also refers to “a minyan.” And in Kutaisi, a city in western Georgia, Jews and non-Jews can often guess who is Jewish based on their intonation (the pitch patterns of their speech) in questions. Yiddish has many more structural differences from German, such as in word order, case, and pronunciation – innovations not attributable to language contact or archaism. An example of independent innovation in Ladino is the switching of the sounds [rd] to [dr], e.g., vedre, compared to Spanish verde (green).
The distinctive linguistic features used by Jews vary based on several sociopolitical factors. A major factor is to what extent Jews are integrated socially, economically, and educationally with their non-Jewish neighbors or are restricted to certain professions, residential areas, and schools. This can affect whether Jews maintain a language, as in post-coterritorial languages like Ladino and Yiddish, or learn the new local language soon after a migration. It can also influence whether Jews use archaic and innovative features. Influences from other languages and regional variants spoken by Jews can correlate with how much time has elapsed since Jews’ migration from a different language territory and by how much contact they maintain with other Jewish communities. And the extent to which Jews study and recite sacred texts plays a role in Hebrew/Aramaic influences and writing systems.
Linguistic distinctness can also change over time. Research suggests that when Jews migrate to a new country or language area, they tend to acquire that language to a large extent, and then over time the community’s language often becomes more and more distinct from the local non-Jewish language. We see this trend playing out in Jewish English today. Younger Jews are more likely than older Jews to use some influences from Yiddish, such as the word by meaning “at,” rather than just “near.” This trend is especially common in Orthodox communities.
Age is not the only variable that correlates with language use. Those who have more contact with their non-Jewish neighbors tend to speak more similarly to them. Those who spend more time studying rabbinic literature tend to use more Hebrew and Aramaic words. Gender and socioeconomic status can play a major role in these differences, as boys and those with more means have been given more intensive Jewish education. Therefore, scholars studying historical periods should not assume that all community members spoke the same way that elite men wrote in the texts that have survived. Other differences are also important. Jews of particular ancestral origins might maintain elements of their ancestral languages that do not spread to the rest of the community.
Finally, individual Jews vary linguistically, depending on their setting, topic, and, especially, audience. When speaking to another Jew about a Jewish-specific topic in a Jewish communal context, they will likely use more distinctive Jewish features. They might not be aware of or able to modulate all features that distinguish them from non-Jews, but they likely code switch to some extent.
Non-Jews’ use of Jewish language
Although the linguistic features above generally distinguish Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors, these features have sometimes spread beyond the Jewish community. This has been especially common in professions dominated by Jews, such as goldsmiths in Egypt, furriers in Italy, and horse and cattle dealers in Switzerland and Germany. Jews in these professions began using Hebrew and Aramaic words with each other as a way of keeping their negotiations secret, and their language developed into a broader professional jargon, used by their Christian and Muslim colleagues. In Alexandria, Egypt, Jewish goldsmiths used Hebrew words like ganneb (thief, from ganav) and enaymak (look out, from enayim – eyes), and these words became part of the broader goldsmiths’ jargon, including among Muslim and Christian practitioners.
Beyond professions, Jewish-origin words have sometimes become part of the broader language. Judeo-Greek words of Hebrew origin, such as emeth (truth), and pasal (fool, originally “unacceptable”) became part of colloquial Greek, especially in Ioannina, where the Judeo-Greek-speaking Jewish community was centered. In the Netherlands today, the Dutch population uses Hebrew-origin words that entered Dutch through Western Yiddish: They refer to prison as bayis (from Hebrew bayit – house) and Amsterdam as mokum (from Hebrew makom alef – place A – because Amsterdam starts with A or alef). This trend continues in the United States today, where Yiddish-origin words like klutz and chutzpah have spread to the broader population.
In addition to select words diffusing beyond Jewish communities, there is also historical evidence of select non-Jews speaking Jewish languages. Some Muslims in Iran could speak Jewish varieties of Iranian languages, and, in parts of Eastern Europe, some Christian nannies who worked for Jewish families picked up Yiddish and even taught Jewish children Hebrew prayers. Studying instances like these sheds light on the diversity of relations between Jews and non-Jews and the sometimes porous boundaries between communities.
Naming Jewish languages
Each Jewish language has been referred to in multiple ways by various people and at various times. A common appellation has been variants of the word “Jew,” “Jewish,” or “Judaism,” such as Juhuri, Yiddish, Al-Yahudiyya (Judeo-Arabic), Judezmo (Ladino), and Hulaula (Jewish Neo-Aramaic, from Y’hudautha). Words meaning “our language” have also been common, such as Lishana Deni and Lishanet Noshan for Jewish Neo-Aramaic and Zuhun Imu for Juhuri. Rabbinic literature in Hebrew often referred to Jewish languages as La’az, meaning “foreign language,” to contrast them with Hebrew. Many languages were also referred to with a variant of the name of their non-Jewish correlate, such as Taytsh for Yiddish (German) and Spanyol for Ladino (Spanish). We also find hyphenated versions, equivalent to Judeo-X or Jewish X, such as Yiddish-Taytsh (Jewish German) and modern academic appellations for most languages in English, Hebrew, and other languages of scholarship. Taken together, these language names suggest that insiders and outsiders have viewed Jewish languages as distinctly Jewish, related to their non-Jewish correlate, and a combination of the two.
Determining what is and is not a Jewish language: Language vs. dialect
Many scholars and commentators have debated whether to consider certain linguistic entities spoken by Jews to be standalone languages or merely dialects of a non-Jewish language. How does one distinguish between the two? Some 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 this method is complicated by the fact that speakers of language A may say they understand language B, but speakers of language B may say they cannot understand language A. Political autonomy and writing systems also play a role in distinguishing between languages and dialects. The oft-cited quip, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” points to the role of power in these designations. But if political autonomy alone were the criterion, no Jewish language varieties except Hebrew (ancient and modern) would be considered a language. The fact that many historical Jewish languages were written in Hebrew letters leads some to consider them separate languages, but this does not take into account that some languages differed from their non-Jewish correlates only by the writing system and a few other minor features. Because of these complications, many scholars consider the language-dialect question unanswerable and instead focus on speakers’ and outsiders’ discourses about how to classify the language varieties. A more productive question is to what extent various Jewish language varieties have differed from their non-Jewish versions and how those differences have correlated with historical factors. The same question can be asked on a more micro-level about individual Jews and individual conversations or even utterances by individuals.
Throughout history, Jewish ways of speaking have often been subject to negative commentary and even ridicule, as non-Jews who spoke similar languages perceived them as corrupted. These critiques stem from the language differences described above, but they also reflect Jews’ low status, as marginalized groups’ language is generally stigmatized. A 16th-century observer criticized Yiddish as “mutilated” German, focusing on differences in pronunciation (such as Yiddish un vs. German und, meaning “and”) and the integration of Hebrew words. Later, even assimilated German Jews who spoke German fluently were accused of mauscheln or jüdeln, derogatory terms for “speaking like a Jew.” Non-Jewish writers sometimes portrayed Jewish language in negative, often comedic, ways in plays and other literature. For instance, from the 17th to 20th centuries, every year at Carnival in Carpentras, France, a Catholic priest would dress up as a rabbi and recite a mock Jewish sermon, including many distinctive linguistic features of Judeo-Provençal. Jews sometimes internalized and perpetuated these negative ideologies and encouraged their co-religionists to learn the standard or more widespread versions of their languages. However, in modern times, many Jewish communities have embraced their distinctive language. Influenced by other European language movements of the 19th century, activists worked to standardize and raise the status of Yiddish, parallel to and intersecting with the work to revernacularize Jews’ oldest language, Hebrew, and to create and spread a new universal language, Esperanto. And descendants of speakers of other Jewish languages have adopted nostalgic stances toward these languages, raising their status from stigmatized “jargons” to communal symbols of unity and ethnic pride.
Jewish language shift, endangerment, and postvernacularity
Throughout the centuries, some Jewish languages became obsolete, e.g., Judeo-French and Judeo-Catalan, as Jews emigrated or shifted to more prestigious languages. The 19th and 20th centuries saw major shifts in Jews’ language use due to Jews’ emancipation and enlightenment, as well as governments instating nationalist policies that required official languages for education. Jews in Italy, Greece, and Iran, for example, learned standard Italian, Greek, and Persian, gradually reducing the distinctive features of their longstanding Jewish language varieties. Another major factor in language shift during this period was massive waves of immigration, sparked by persecution and economic factors. When Jews moved from Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to the Americas, Israel, Western Europe, and elsewhere, they felt economic and social pressure to learn the new local languages – English, French, Swedish, etc. As in previous centuries, Jews spoke these languages with Hebrew words and other distinctive features, but in most cases they did not write them with Hebrew letters because of more widespread literacy. In Israel, language policies required immigrants to learn Modern Hebrew, and Diaspora languages were stigmatized and disincentivized. The Holocaust also led to language changes, as millions of speakers of Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Greek were murdered.
Today, most longstanding Jewish languages are endangered, spoken primarily by the elderly and not transmitted from parent to child. The major exception is Yiddish, which is vibrant in Hasidic communities around the world. In addition, young people in one town, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, Azerbaijan, still speak Juhuri, but all also speak other languages. The endangerment of most longstanding Jewish languages has led to some “postvernacular engagement” – people interacting with and celebrating a language even when they have limited speaking ability. Jews in Rome attend theatrical performances in Judeo-Italian, and Jews in several countries sing and listen to songs in Ladino, for instance. Israeli Jews of various ages participate in nostalgic, metalinguistic activities surrounding their ancestral Yiddish, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Jewish Malayalam, including singalongs, lectures and conversations about the languages, and sometimes even language classes.
Within Jewish studies, the subfield of Jewish linguistic studies can be very illuminating. Research findings are of interest not only to linguists but also to historians, sociologists, literary scholars, and others. By analyzing how Jewish communities in various eras and locations have spoken and written, we can gain a better understanding of everyday Jewish life, relations between Jews and non-Jews, historical migration patterns, and Jews’ continuing engagement with sacred texts. The genesis and maintenance of distinctive linguistic features could be due to internal factors, such as Jews wanting some degree of separation from non-Jews and maintaining their own educational systems, and/or it could be due to external factors, such as residential and professional restrictions that limit Jews’ access to the surrounding language. Analyzing these distinctive features and comparing them across communities can shed light on these internal and external historical forces.
In addition, linguistic research can spotlight communities that have been largely neglected within Jewish studies more broadly. For example, recent research on Judeo-Hamadani, Judeo-Kashani, and other Jewish Median languages has brought new attention to the diversity of Iranian Jews, a group that has been featured very little in Jewish studies research and teaching. By focusing on language, we can gain a better understanding of the commonalities and the diversity of the Jewish people, past and present.
Benor, Sarah Bunin, ed. 2002-present. “Jewish Language Website.” Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project.
Edzard, Lutz, and Ofra Tirosh-Becker, eds. 2021. Jewish Languages: Text Specimens, Grammatical, Lexical, and Cultural Sketches. In Porta Linguarum Orientalium series. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Fishman, Joshua A., ed. 1985. Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Hary, Benjamin, and Sarah Bunin Benor, eds. 2018. Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Kahn, Lily, and Aaron Rubin, eds. 2015. Handbook of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill.
Rubin, Aaron D., and Lily Kahn. 2021. Jewish Languages from A to Z. London: Routledge.
Shandler, Jeffrey. 2005. Adventures in Yiddishland. University of California Press.
Spolsky, Bernard. 2014. The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Weinreich, Max. 2008. History of the Yiddish Language. 2 vols. Edited by Paul Glasser. Translated by Shlomo Noble and Joshua A. Fishman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Wexler, Paul. 1981. “Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework.” Language 57.1: 99–149.
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?
The Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages teaches Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic, Classical Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Turkish, Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish. In addition, several institutions teach Yiddish and Ladino. 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: