Jewish Language Consortium

Rationale

The Jewish Language Consortium is intended to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the work of several organizations, helping us all achieve our collective mission: to document, educate about, and revitalize Jewish languages.

 

This mission is crucial and time-sensitive. Among the many longstanding Jewish languages, only Yiddish is still transmitted from parent to child. Languages like Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Kashani, and Judeo-Malayalam are critically endangered, as they are spoken primarily by Jews over 80, and few young people learn them. Researching and raising awareness about these languages will help to preserve the languages and will offer another entry point for individuals to engage with Jewish communities, past and present.

 

Organizations

Steps

Five mutually reinforcing steps are necessary to achieve our mission:

1. Research

Document all Jewish language varieties, with urgent attention to those that are endangered. Several organizations and many individuals have been working on this for decades. Scholars have interviewed native speakers of many Jewish languages and documented this work in academic books and articles. Shlomo Morag’s research group at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem collected materials in several languages, and initiatives like The (Yiddish) Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazi Jewry and the University of Cambridge’s North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project have documented particular languages. This work continues today. The Endangered Language Alliance (New York), Mother Tongue (Israel), and Wikitongues (worldwide) are creating audio and video recordings of native speakers speaking their languages. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (worldwide), which creates online dictionaries with audio and video recordings of each entry, is working on digital dictionaries in multiple Jewish languages, with a Hebrew language interface available for searching and sorting. Scholars at several universities, including University College London Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Languages, are researching Jewish languages. This entails collecting spoken data, analyzing the phonology, morphosyntax, lexicon, prosody, and discourse of these languages, and sharing their findings at conferences and in journals. This spoken legacy joins the rich written record of Jewish languages from antiquity to the present. Museums, libraries, and archives around the world hold collections of inscriptions, manuscripts (including genizah fragments), periodicals, and printed books in dozens of Jewish languages. And many scholars have analyzed parts of this corpus, using various disciplinary lenses, including history, literature, and linguistics.

After all of this research and collecting, Yiddish and Ladino have been heavily documented and analyzed, but other Jewish languages - especially those from the Middle East and North Africa - have been much less researched and have few resources available for their potential revitalization. The modern Jewish languages of Iran, such as Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Shirazi, have barely been documented, and there is not yet enough of a record for future generations to study them. Our Consortium will determine the most pressing needs for documentation and will work together to accomplish that urgent work.

2. Accessibility

Make the documentation accessible to the public and more useful for scholars. The many recordings and documents that have been collected are currently scattered in libraries and individual collections around the world, mostly not available online. Few of the audiovisual materials have the transcriptions and translations necessary for scholars and students to learn from them, and their length and depth varies. And many of the manuscripts and printed materials have not yet been processed in ways that enable automated searching and linguistic analysis. The Consortium will make materials in Jewish languages more accessible in several ways. First, we will collectively come up with elicitation protocols to encourage researchers to document many aspects of languages, including their grammatical structure and cultural and historical elements like holiday observance and relations with non-Jews. Second, the Consortium will come up with protocols for metadata to ensure that recordings are stored with sufficient data about the speaker, the interviewer, etc. Third, we will gather these recordings into a central repository (in addition to maintaining their existing presence on the organizations’ websites). Search Engine Optimization will allow internet users to find these cultural treasures more easily. Eventually, pending funding, this repository will be converted to a massive online multilingual corpus, connected to a dictionary database and, where applicable, to the initial recordings, to enable advanced searches, linguistic analysis, and pedagogical use. 

3. Awareness

Raise awareness about the linguistic diversity of Jews around the world. Currently, most Jews know of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. Few have heard of other languages Jews have spoken throughout history, such as Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Greek, and Bukharian. The cultural and linguistic treasures of our multi-layered heritage cannot be used if people are not aware of them. The Jewish Language Project raises awareness about Jewish languages through their website, social media posts, online events, short videos, and articles in the Jewish press. They plan to expand this work by creating curricular resources for Jewish educational institutions, especially day schools, religious schools, and summer camps. The Consortium will further broaden the reach and impact of this work, partnering with other organizations to raise awareness about the linguistic diversity of the Jewish people. 

4. Education

Create educational materials for anyone who wants to study a Jewish language. Several educational initiatives offer classes and materials for studying Yiddish and Ladino, but there are few educational resources for languages like Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Malayalam. Some text books for language learning are available only in print and therefore inaccessible for many. The Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages is addressing this problem by offering free online courses and platforms for individualized learning. In addition, there are basic online dictionaries for some Jewish languages, but none are comprehensive, and most languages have no online dictionary. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages is addressing this by creating free, mobile-friendly digital dictionaries for Yiddish and Jewish Neo-Aramaic. The Consortium will work together to expand these resources, starting with Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Shirazi, and Judeo-Hamadani. Eventually we will create dictionaries for all documented Jewish languages, drawing from the written and spoken documentation in our combined archive. This task is especially time-sensitive because the last native speakers of many of these languages are elderly and will soon be unavailable to record entries. We will also digitize existing dictionaries and textbooks (with the publishers’ permission), creating more opportunities for online learning, and we will make these resources accessible and findable to internet users anywhere in the world. Another plan is to offer incentives for language apprenticeships, where young people will spend time with elders, speaking the target language.

5. Engagement

Create opportunities for individuals to engage with Jewish languages in new ways. The number of people who seriously study endangered Jewish languages will be limited by time and motivation. But language study is not the only way to engage with our fascinating and diverse linguistic heritage. Jewish communities can reclaim and revitalize languages through ethnolinguistic infusion: incorporating words, music, film, theater, and art into communal activities. The Consortium has begun to do this in several ways. The Jewish Language Project has shared words and phrases through their Jewish Lexicon websites: collaborative databases of words from Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, etc., that Jews use within English, Latin American Spanish, French, and other languages. Mother Tongue has recorded many songs, and the Jewish Language Project has commissioned musicians to record songs in Bukharian, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Hamadani, Ladino, and Yiddish. Both old and new recordings will be included in the Consortium’s joint archive, and all groups will work together to share the music and related cultural content more widely.

In addition, we will collaborate with museums that focus on Jews and on language to share this historic heritage and produce cultural programming that can benefit people around the world. Another important source of partnership will be organizations that celebrate and educate about Jewish cultural diversity and about particular Jewish ancestral groups. Although language is not necessarily their main focus, it plays a major role in their programs and artistic products. Finally, we will work with musicians, filmmakers, and artists to create new works that incorporate elements of Jewish languages and disseminate our work to wider audiences of all ages. Together, all of these partners can share our cultural heritage more widely and offer more opportunities for individuals to engage with Jewish languages.