Description by Benjamin Hary
The Cairo Geniza, where many documents in Judeo-Arabic and other languages were stored for centuries, enabling subsequent analysis
A-Wa, a band that sets Yemenite Judeo-Arabic poetry to contemporary beats. Click on the image to watch a sample video.
Judeo-Arabic is an ethnolect (a linguistic entity with its own history and used by a distinct language community) which has been spoken and written in various forms by Jews throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Judeo-Arabic can be divided into five periods: Pre-Islamic Judeo-Arabic (pre-eighth century), Early Judeo-Arabic (eighth/ninth to tenth centuries), Classical Judeo-Arabic (tenth to fifteenth centuries), Later Judeo-Arabic (fifteenth to nineteenth centuries), and Modern Judeo-Arabic (twentieth century). Much of what we know about Classical Judeo-Arabic comes from documents found in the Cairo Geniza (see Hary 1997).
It is almost impossible to determine a precise date for the origin of Judeo-Arabic. There is some evidence that the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula used some sort of Arabic Jewish dialect even before the Islamic conquests (600s C.E.). Referred to as al-Yahūdiyya (Newby 1971; 1988:21-23; Gil 1984:206), this dialect was similar to the dominant Arabic dialect but included some Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, especially in the religious and cultural domains. Some of these loan words passed into the speech and writings of the Arabs, thus accounting for the Hebrew and Aramaic origins of certain Koranic words. There is no evidence that Pre-Islamic Judeo-Arabic produced any literature, especially if we examine the language of the Jewish poet as-Samaw’al bnu ‘Ādiyā’, which did not differ from that of his Arab contemporaries. His poetry is part of the canon of Arabic literature – not Jewish literature. In fact, if Arab sources had not reported that he was Jewish, we never would have known. On the other hand, there may have been some al-Yahūdiyya writings in Hebrew characters in the pre-Islamic period (Newby 1971:220).
After the great conquests of early Islam, the Jews in the newly conquered lands adopted the language of the conquerors and began to incorporate Arabic into their writings, slowly developing, at times, their own spoken dialect. In the following centuries, Jewish varieties of Arabic came to exist all around the Arabic-speaking world, from Iraq and Yemen in the East to Spain and Morocco in the West.
In the late fifteenth century, Judeo-Arabic underwent a dramatic change, as many Jews, especially in North Africa, began to associate less with Arabs and the Arabic language and culture (this was less the case in Yemen, where strong contact persisted for some time afterward. This indicates that Judeo-Arabic did not develop along exactly the same lines everywhere.). This cultural development was reflected both in the linguistic structure and in the literature. Written Judeo-Arabic at that time incorporated more dialectal elements, and more and more works appeared in Hebrew. This change is crucial in the division of Judeo-Arabic into Medieval and Late periods, as is represented in the following figure (see Hary (1995:74-77) for more details):
The dramatic change in Judeo-Arabic that occurred around the fifteenth century resulted in a shift in the nature of the continuuglossia, as explained below. (See Hary (1992:79-82) on Judeo-Arabic terminology.)
The Structure of (Modern) Judeo-Arabic
Like other Jewish languages, Judeo-Arabic has a base language (Arabic, influenced by Classical and post-Classical Arabic, as well as local dialects) and a large Hebrew and Aramaic component. This component is not restricted to the sphere of cultural-specific vocabulary, but is also found in the whole lexicon as well as in phonology, morphology, and syntax. A morphosyntactic example is the use of Arabic ila as a calque of the Hebrew direct object marker et (Hary 1991). Hebrew and Aramaic words are incorporated in various ways:
The insertion of a Hebrew or Aramaic word into a Judeo-Arabic phrase or sentence, as in: ליגי וקת אל משיח liyigi wa’t il-mašiaḥ 'so that the time of the Messiah arrives' (word in bold face is Hebrew)
A partial translation of a Hebrew name, בנאדר ברק bnādir braq 'Bnei Brak'
A Hebrew root that takes on an Arabic pattern, זכית zakēt 'I gained'
Orthography making the pronunciation of Hebrew words or names more similar to Arabic, including velarization: כרפׄץ karfaṣ 'Karpas' (greens for the Passover Seder); אליעטׄר eli‘eẓer 'Eliezer' and the change of the unvoiced uvular stop /q/ to a glottal stop /’/: משאה maš’e 'drink.'
For a more comprehensive treatment of the Hebrew and Aramaic component see Avishur 1993, Bar-Asher 1998:147-320, Blau 1999, Chétrit 1991, Hary 1999, Maman 1999, and Toby 1993.
In addition, Judeo-Arabic contains hyper- and hypo-corrections (Hary 1992:62-69, 313-314), and the standardization of such features (ibid 67, 294-295). The linguistic characteristics of the various Judeo-Arabic dialects throughout its history can, with the exercise of proper care, be identified from Judeo-Arabic texts. By isolating the elements of Classical Arabic, hyper- and hypo-corrections, and the verbatim translation style of the šarḥ (see below), the Judeo-Arabist can point to dialectal elements that form colloquial Judeo-Arabic. This should be done by comparison to the modern dialects.
Like most other Jewish languages, written Judeo-Arabic generally uses Hebrew characters. Very frequently Jews adopted the spelling conventions of Talmudic orthography, employing the final forms of Hebrew letters and sometimes adapting existing consonants and/or symbols as vowel signs. Thus, the Hebrew script symbolizes the Jewish nature of the ethnolect community. It is not uncommon to use script as a religious identification for a language, as with the Arabic script of Persian and Urdu, for example, which symbolizes the Muslim nature of the language communities. The same way, the Cyrillic script of Serbian symbolizes the centrality of the Eastern Orthodox Church's presence in that language, whereas Croatian, which for the most part (until recent political developments) is the same language, uses the Latin alphabet, indicating the Roman Catholic background of its users.
Judeo-Arabic uses various traditions of orthography to transmit different political, cultural, and religious messages (Hary 1992:112-113), as can be seen in other Jewish languages. For example, Late Judeo-Arabic is written in a Hebraized orthography (Hary 1996b), helping to convey Jewish identity.
Jewish speakers have usually considered their varieties to be separate from the local languages, giving them special names such as illuḡa dyalna 'our language.' In Morocco, Jews call Moroccan Judeo-Arabic il‘arabiyya dyalna 'our Arabic' and general Moroccan Arabic il‘arabiyya dilmsilmīn 'Arabic of the Muslims.'
Indeed, spoken Judeo-Arabic is sometimes unintelligible to people outside the community (it is obvious that Jewish languages written in Hebrew script are unintelligible to most non-Jews). As discussed above, it contains elements of Classical Arabic, dialectal components, pseudo-corrections, and standardization of some features, as well as influences from Hebrew and Aramaic. For a discussion of a highly distinct ethnolect, see Blanc's (1964) description of Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic.
Some Jewish dialects of Arabic have features in common with dialects from other Arab regions that cannot be found in the local non-Jewish varieties of Arabic. For example, in Cairene Judeo-Arabic one may find the phenomenon of niktib/niktibu for 1st person sg./1st person pl. imperfect, which is typical to western Arabic dialects (Fischer and Jastrow 1980:63). This phenomenon is not usually expected in Egypt, but, probably due to Jewish migration from Morocco to Cairo, it is found in the speech of Cairene Jews. This phenomenon of migrated or displaced dialectalism is also apparent in other Jewish languages, such as Judeo-Italian. Local varieties around the country include dialect features of other regions, such as the Central Italian system of seven vowels and the Southern Italian form li donni 'the women' (while the standard is le donne). The combination of these two regional phenomena can only be found in Judeo-Italian, suggesting a synthesis of regional features due to Jewish migrations within Italy.
Judeo-Arabic has been written by Jews for Jewish readership usually on Jewish topics. However, there have also been translations of non-Jewish literature into Judeo-Arabic, often incorporating Jewish imagery. This can also be seen, for example, in Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish.
Jewish ethnolects around the world share an important literary genre: the verbatim translation of sacred and liturgical Hebrew/Aramaic texts (šarḥ in Judeo-Arabic, taytš in Yiddish, ladino in Judeo-Spanish, šar‘ in Jewish Neo-Aramaic, for example). The translations included the Bible, the Siddur (prayer book), the Passover Haggadah, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and more. The šarḥ tradition involves word-for-word translation into the Arabic lexicon, maintaining the syntax of the original Hebrew/Aramaic text (see Hary 2000 for a description of these and other features of the šarḥ).
A Continuum of Influence
The varieties of Literary Written Judeo-Arabic can be seen as existing along a continuum of influence (see Hary 1996a):
Literary Judeo-Arabic contains, among other elements, many colloquial features from the right end of the Arabic continuum (Dialectal Spoken Judeo-Arabic). The other extreme of the Arabic continuum (standard Arabic) is not found in full in Literary Judeo-Arabic, but it is a resource for style shifting, as many authors attempted to use it with mixed success. In other words, Judeo-Arabic authors only approached Standard Arabic. If they wrote too much in Standard Arabic, they would lose solidarity and such texts would not be considered Judeo-Arabic. On the other hand, Standard Arabic is still the anchor for the left side of the Judeo-Arabic continuum, as it is in constant contact with the ethnolect and influences its structure and development. An example of this influence can be seen in the pseudo-corrections of some Judeo-Arabic authors attempting to write in the more prestigious variety of Standard Arabic (Hary 1992:62-69).
Several Judeo-Arabic authors mastered Standard Arabic and wrote in it. When they did, their writings in Standard Arabic were not considered Judeo-Arabic. Maimonides (1135-1204) serves as a good example in the period of Classical Judeo-Arabic. He was certainly capable of writing in Standard Arabic, and indeed did so, but he was able to switch between that and the different varieties of Judeo-Arabic, thus adapting to his readership. As a result, some of his works, such as his medical writings, which were aimed at non-Jewish readers, are in Standard Arabic and cannot be considered part of Classical Judeo-Arabic. In other works, such as his letters to his co-religionists, he used varieties of Judeo-Arabic, and therefore they are in Literary Written Classical Judeo-Arabic.
Oded Amit sings an original song in Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic (see subtitled version of excerpt here)
Joseph "Yusuf" speaking Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic
Today, the ethnolect is approaching extinction, mostly due to the large emigration of Arab Jews, or Jews of Arab lands, in the late forties and fifties of the last century. Most of these Jews moved to Israel, where the Zionist Israeli pressure to drop Judeo-Arabic and adopt Hebrew was immense. Others immigrated to France, North America, and elsewhere, where they tended to assimilate to the local languages. Today there is still a sizeable Jewish community in Morocco but most of the Jewish speech community there uses French rather than Moroccan Judeo-Arabic. There are still speakers of Judeo-Arabic in Israel (and elsewhere) and a show in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic is broadcast on Israeli radio. However, the population of its users is aging, and its use as a native ethnolect will probably disappear in the near future. Even so, there is some postvernacular engagement, in particular with Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic. For example, some descendants of speakers take Judeo-Arabic courses, discuss and celebrate the language, and consume and produce new music, mostly in Muslim varieties of Arabic.
Several Israelis sing a famous Judeo-Arabic song from Iraq
Corpus of Judeo-Arabic Translations (šarḥ) of Religious and Secular Literature (as well as other corpora in other languages)
The Language of the Jews of Islam: The History and Politics of Judeo-Arabic. Lecture by Benjamin Hary, 2018.
Oxford and the Printing of Judeo-Arabic. Lecture by Brad Sabin Hill, 2017.
Facebook group regarding preservation of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic.
Virtual keyboard in Judeo-Arabic
Transliterator: Judeo-Arabic to Arabic
Online exhibit by Vanessa Paloma Elbaz including Moroccan Judeo-Arabic women's songs
To cite: Hary, Benjamin. n.d. Judeo-Arabic. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/judeo-arabic. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.