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.

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. Can you help?

See our list of translators.

 

I have a question about a word or language. Whom should I 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.

 

What should I read to learn more about Jewish languages?
Here's an introductory bibliography.


 

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Editor: Sarah Bunin Benor      Last update: 2019-1-31