Description by Cyril Aslanov
Speech, signs, and cuisine: French Jews of Tunisian origin in the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville
Jewish French Happy New Year parody
The specific linguistic repertoire developed by French Jews in contemporary France cannot be considered a full-fledged Jewish language. Nonetheless, it appears as an ethnically marked blend of French that is not totally understandable by Gentiles or assimilated Jews. Four factors at least contribute to differentiating today’s Jewish French repertoire from mainstream French.
1) The presence of many Kulturwörter referring to the realia of Jewish religious tradition: e.g., sefer “Torah scroll” (pronounced sefér according to the rules of French phonetics); tefs, an abbreviation for tefillin “phylactery”; Talmud torah “Sunday Jewish school for the preparation toward bar-mitzvah” (often pronounced [talmyttorá] with a typically French realization of shuruq).
2) The maintenance of some words and phrasings borrowed from the traditional Judeo-Arabic dialects once spoken by North African Jews, the main component of today’s French Jewry: e.g., namshi kapara ‘alek/namut kapara ‘alek “I will pass the way as an expiatory sacrifice for your sake” (a typically Moroccan Judeo-Arabic expression); ‘awda! “once again!”, a pragmatic marker expressing impatience in response to a recurrent behavior; shkhanah “heat” (< average Maghrebian dialect skhanah), a typically Tunisian Judeo-Arabic word, as shown by the shift from [s] to [∫] (Aslanov 2016).
Names of language:
North African Jewish blend of French
Territories where it was/is spoken:
-originated: North Africa
-heyday: North Africa and France
-today: France and Israel
Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 200,000
- 2019: 200,000-300,000
Contemporary fiction, comics
variety of French; Gallo-Romance
3) The occasional borrowing of Yiddish words through various channels of influence:
i) the Ashkenazi (Jewish Alsatian; Eastern-European Jewish – mainly Polish) nucleus of Jewish French linguistic identity before the arrival of North African Jews in the 1950s-1960s, e.g., shul “synagogue,” yit “Jew,” bentsh “grace after meals.”
ii) the secondary Ashkenazization of North African Jews through the influence of ultra-orthodox circles (mainly Lubavitch and sometimes Lithuanian-inspired misnagdim) where some words in Yiddish or Ashkenazi Hebrew are used to refer to the particular way of life of Eastern-European ultra-orthodoxy (the equivalent of Yeshivish and Frumspeak; see Weiser 1995):, e.g., farbrengen “Chabad gathering”; lernen “to study Torah; Torah study”; glatt, abbreviation for “glatt-kosher”, designation of a higher standard of dietetic purity for meat; frum “pious” etc. Since the bulk of ultra-orthodox Jews in France are of North African origin, ultra-orthodox French Jews tend to readapt the terms in Ashkenazi Hebrew to the Sephardic/Israeli standard. Thus, nign “sacred melody” becomes nigun, rebe “rabbi” is reinterpreted as rabi, and khavruse/khevruse “companion of study” often becomes khavrutá.
4) the influence of Israeli Hebrew as a result of the intensive contact between French Jews and their relatives who settled in Israel or more generally because of the strong empathy of mainstream French Jewry for the State of Israel.
For a database of Jewish French words borrowed from Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Hebrew and other languages, see the Glossaire du français juif (Jewish French Lexicon).
The distinctiveness of the Jewish ethnolect in today’s multiethnic France is not only a matter of lexicon. It also involves some features connected to the hard core of the language (phonetic; prosodic; morphosyntactic; syntactic) that mainly go back to the North African background of the bulk of contemporary French Jewry. Those features are partly shared with North African Muslims, e.g., valence perturbation in the use of the complements in some verbal phrase like il m’a crié “he yelled at me” instead of the regular il a crié sur moi (Aslanov 2015). However, in contexts of Tunisian Jewish origin, a specific Jewish prosody makes the ethnic speech of Tunisian Jews very distinct from the French used by Tunisian Muslims (even after both groups - Jews and Muslims - left Tunisia for France). This difference in the French used by Muslims and Jews of Tunisian origin is probably the transposition from Arabic to French of a prosodic difference that existed in the Arabic dialects used in Tunisia before the language shift that caused Tunisian Jews to leave their ancestral Judeo-Arabic and to adopt a specific Tunisian Jewish blend of French.
French Jews of Algerian origin usually share a blend of French that was common to the whole European population of colonial Algeria (the so-called pieds-noirs, a category to which local Jews had been integrated as a result of the Crémieux Decree promulgated in 1870).
Moroccan Jews who settled in France after the independence of Morocco (1956) mostly try to avoid any specific identity marker in their French. The reason for their reluctance to demonstrate identity markers in French is a sociolinguistic one: among the 265,000 Jews who lived in Morocco around 1948, the most educated, for whom the knowledge of French was a boundary marker, chose to leave for France or Quebec, while the urban and rural Jewish proletariat largely emigrated to Israel. Avoiding any specific indication of Jewishness in French was a way of stressing the social difference separating Gallicized and well-educated Moroccan Jews from their poor coreligionists whose knowledge of French was often minimal.
To sum up, the specifically Jewish repertoire in the sociolinguistic horizon of today’s France can be described as a partial continuation of the Jewish linguistic identities that prevailed in French-ruled North Africa with a differential way of negotiating the relationship with ancestral Judeo-Arabic. While Moroccan Jews usually know Judeo-Arabic but avoid it, Tunisian and to a lesser extent Algerian Jews do not hesitate to intersperse remnants of Judeo-Arabic (or sometimes average North African Arabic dialects) in the blend of French they use in in-group situations. The major difference between the various blends of French once used by the Jews in colonial North Africa and their partial continuation in contemporary post-colonial France is the impact of Israeli Hebrew (what Michel Masson  called hébréotropisme), as well as the occasional influence of Ashkenazi (mostly East European) linguistic identity, especially in ultra-orthodox circles. Another important difference is the waning of distinctly Jewish features in language as a result of integration, assimilation, or transgenerational gap in the transmission of identity.
This description is based on research conducted with the support of the Russian Science Foundation (project no. 15-18-00062), Saint Petersburg State University.
For a description of medieval Judeo-French, click here.
Lecture: A course on Kabbalah by Michaël Sebban, a French Jewish novelist whose literary production sometimes echoes the Jewish repertoire in French
Comedy: Les carottes sont cuites, a Moroccan Jewish play in French by Gilbert Lévy (Paris, 1986)
Two shtiblekh (Ashkenazi on the left, Sephardic on the right) in the pletsl, the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish quarter of Paris in the Marais neighborhood
French Jewish soldiers (probably of Algerian origin) with the Jewish military chaplain during WWI
A scene from Le grand pardon, a cult movie by Alexandre Arcady about Algerian Jewish gangsters in France (1981)
To cite: Aslanov, Cyril. n.d. Jewish French. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/jewish-french. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.