Judeo-French
Description by Marc Kiwitt & Julia Zwink

During the Middle Ages, the Jewish communities of Northern France - the territory of the langue d'oïl - developed an extensive Old French textual tradition written in Hebrew script, which is known as Judeo-French. Other designations for Judeo-French include Zarphatic (S. A. Birnbaum) and Western Loez (M. Weinreich). The Judeo-French texts are independent of Christian Old French literature both in their content and in their distinct writing system, which adapts the Hebrew script and the Tiberian system of pointing to the phonological characteristics of the Old French language.

The history of the Judeo-French literary tradition begins in the late 10th century with Biblical and Talmudic glosses; its most famous author is Rashi of Troyes, who was active in the 11th century (cf. below). The production of Judeo-French texts ends in the 14th century, after persecutions and repeated expulsions had virtually ended the Jewish presence in the French homeland. But Jews continued to write French in their exile: the latest known French text in Hebrew transcription - a recipe - dates from 1470 (Fudeman 2010).

The Judeo-French texts can roughly be divided into four groups:

  • Glosses: At first, isolated Old French glosses appeared in commentaries to the Bible and the Talmud. The first ones known are from the end of the 10th century, attributed to Gershom of Metz (Brandin 1901). From the 11th and 12th century onward, such Old French glosses - called le'azim - were common in the entire rabbinical literature of Northern France. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac of Troyes (1040-1105), better known by the acronym Rashi, is the most famous author of glosses (Darmesteter 1909; Darmesteter and Blondheim 1929); his method of transcribing French by means of Hebrew letters had a lasting impact on subsequent authors of Judeo-French.

Quick facts


Names of language:

Judeo-French, Zarphatic, Western Loez
 

Territories where it was/is spoken:

 France
 

Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 0
- 2019: 0

 

Vitality:

This is a medieval language variety; contemporary Jews speak/write Jewish French, which has much in common with Judeo-French but is also distinct.
 

Writing systems:

Hebrew, Latin letters


Literature:

Poetry, prose, wedding songs

 

Language family/branch:

Gallo-Romance

  • Glossaries of religious terms: From the beginning of the 13th century – with the greatest activity in the 14th century –, the Old French glosses to the Bible were compiled into extensive biblical glossaries. Arranged in columns, they represent a precursor to bilingual dictionaries: a Hebrew word or an entire phrase is translated into Old French. Whereas the older glosses had not been vocalized and had lacked diacritical marks, the glossaries adopted the Tiberian system of pointing, partly adapting it to the peculiarities of the Old French language, e.g., by differentiating between the vowels [u] and [y] and by introducing additional signs and digraphs for affricates, palatalized consonants and the unrounded central vowel. We know about at least ten major glossaries with up to 30,000 French glosses and ten shorter ones. The two most famous and voluminous glossaries are the Champenois Glossary of Basle (Banitt 1972) and the Glossary of Leipzig (written in Norman French; Banitt 1995-2005).​ 

  • Poetic texts:  From the 13th century onwards, Judeo-French literature was no longer limited to the understanding of the Bible and the Talmud, but it now encompassed diverse domains. They comprise religious (literary) texts like the famous Vitry Maḥzor (ca. 1200), a compendium of prayers, liturgical poems (piyyutim), and ritual instructions for the course of the year. Several texts treat the pogrom of 1288, like the Elegy of Troyes, which was edited by many scholars, e.g., Kiwitt (2003). Another interesting genre is the wedding song with alternating Old French and Hebrew stanzas; two songs have been edited, e.g., by Fudeman (2006b; 2010).

  • Technical texts: Finally, technical texts were written: they deal with medicine, astrology, and commerce. This secular literature generally adopted the graphemic system of the biblical glossaries, occasionally simplifying parts of it. The longest known Judeo-French text (with almost 800 pages) is among the technical texts; the  medical work "fevres," which treats fever diseases according to the doctrine of the Schola Medica Salernitana, is written in the Champenois or Lotharingian dialect (partially edited by, e.g., Kiwitt 2001; Zwink 2017). The astrological work of Abraham ibn Ezra was translated into Old French at the end of the 13th century by Hagin le Juif, but is written down in the Latin alphabet (Levy 1973). From the economic domain, there are two extant account registers, which originate from Franche-Comté (Loeb 1884). 

Some scholars regard Judeo-French as an Old French social dialect different from its Christian counterparts (e.g. D. Blondheim; R. Levy), or even as a separate Judeo-Romance language (e.g., M. Weinreich; S. A. Birnbaum). Aslanov and Kukenheim admit slight differences on the phonological and morphological level and some more substantial differences on the lexical level, but do not go so far as to assume a distinct linguistic system. Nevertheless, most linguists (Banitt, Darmesteter, Fudeman, Kiwitt, Möhren, Zwink, etc.) seem to agree that the language of the Jews of medieval France did not differ significantly from Old French. According to this view, the main particularity of Judeo-French lies in its distinct writing system. Judeo-French texts allow, however, new insights into their autarchic literary tradition as well as into Old French phonology, due to their independence from writing conventions adopted by Christian authors. Furthermore, French texts written by Jews are mostly related to a popular register and are supposed to reflect the spoken language in an immediate, authentic way - erudite and scholarly texts, in contrast, were written in Hebrew.

Indeed, the dialectal features in which Judeo-French texts differ from standard Old French are equally common in Christian texts that were written in the same regions as the respective Jewish texts. Thus, Judeo-French shares the regional distribution of Old French. In particular, manuscripts written in Champenois, Lotharingian, Burgundian and Norman have been preserved.

Hebrew loanwords are surprisingly rare in the Judeo-French texts. Most Hebrew elements occur within Bible quotations entirely in Hebrew and are not morphologically or syntactically integrated into the French text. Occasionally, the word perush "explanation" is used to introduce a French explanation of a foreign term, e.g. ce sont les maladies qui sont de cholera nigra, perush cole noire "these are the illnesses [caused] by cholera nigra, i.e. black bile" (Judeo-French medical treatise f. 84v., edited in Kiwitt 2001, 70). Morphological integration of Hebrew and French elements is only attested in a few isolated cases like Zäh ha-cure mi-carteine mi-Thesaurus Pauperum, Otsar ha-'Aniyyim "This is the cure of quartan fever from the Thesaurus Pauperum, the Treasury of the Poor" (Judeo-French medical treatise f. 245v. / 86).

So far, no linguistic features have been shown to differentiate Judeo-French as a whole from the Christian varieties of Old French. It is probable, however, that the vocabulary of Judeo-French comprised additional registers pertaining to realities specific to Jewish culture and religion. The written form , 'God' (<Latin deus, cf. Levy 1964: 122), e.g., seems to be restricted to Judeo-French and might hint at a phonetic realization different from the usual Old French Deu, Dieu, etc. Another example of a lexical item limited to Judeo-French might be the name of the bird herupe, 'hoopoe,' from a Hebrew-Old French glossary of unclean animal names. The noun is not attested in texts in Latin script, where the hoopoe is called hup(p)e (cf. Bos et al. 2009; Fudeman 2010: 48). In addition, certain patterns of derivational morphology might also be specific to Judeo-French - for instance, the nominal suffixes -eté and -at appear especially productive in certain Judeo-French texts (cf. M. Kiwitt 2001, 53-56). The precise nature and scope of these linguistic phenomena have yet to be investigated.

For a description of contemporary Jewish French, click here.

To cite: Kiwitt, Mark, and Julia. Zwink. n.d. Judeo-French. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/judeo-french. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.