Judeo-Greek

Description by Julia Krivoruchko

Traditional Judeo-Greek Purim song

Judeo-Greek is a cover term for linguistic varieties of Greek used by Jews since antiquity until today. These varieties differed considerably as to their distinctness from the surrounding forms of Greek, their impact on other varieties of Greek, their interference with neighboring languages and the scripts used.

The history of Judeo-Greek falls into several distinct periods: Hellenistic, Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern, and Post-Modern. This periodization is based on socio-linguistic rather than purely linguistic criteria and reflects crucially different historical settings in which Greek-speaking Jews had to operate. The watersheds of Judeo-Greek history are: the creation of Hellenistic empires and Rome, territorial shrinking and the fall of Byzantium, growth of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the independent Greek state, decimation of Greek-speaking Jews during the Holocaust, and recovery of some communities in the post-modern period.   

Quick facts


Names of language:

Judaeo-Greek, Yevanitika, Yavanitika, Yevanic, Romaniote, יוונית-יהודית

Territories where it was/is spoken:

originated: Macedonian Empire, Seleucid Empire

heyday: Roman Empire; Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire

Today: Greece, Israel, USA?
 

Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 10,000 - 15,000
- 2019: about 4,000
 

Vitality:

Vibrant
 

Writing systems:

Hebrew script; Greek script


Literature:

Biblical translations; poetry

 

Language family/branch:

Indo-European; Hellenic

History

Like many other peoples of the Hellenistic world, Jews were well acquainted with the Greek language and used it as a lingua franca, a language of culture and a means of everyday communication throughout the Mediterranean. Ancient Judeo-Greek is reflected in epigraphic sources, Bible translations, such as the Septuagint (LXX) and Aquila, and literary works, such as Josephus Flavius, Eupolemus, etc. Ancient Judeo-Greek of biblical translations was by far the most influential form of the ethnolect, since the canonized LXX exercised a profound effect on the nascent religiolect of Greek Christianity.

​Jews continued to use Greek throughout late antiquity and the early Byzantine period. However, it is unclear to what degree the knowledge of the Greek alphabet was preserved. Most language relics that survived from this historical stage, admittedly scarce, are written in Hebrew script and originate from the Cairo Genizah. They appear typically as glosses to the authoritative Hebrew texts (Scripture and Mishna). Occasional admixture of Judeo-Greek can be found inside the texts of a more quotidian nature (private documents, instructions for the Passover meal).

 

The first centuries of Ottoman rule were, on the contrary, rich in extensive and coherent texts. There were biblical translations covering entire books, and short lyrical and para-liturgical poems. Some of these texts have been transmitted orally or in writing up to the Second World War. Pride of place in this period belongs to the Constantinople Pentateuch (1547), the largest Judeo-Greek text in Hebrew script.

With the arrival of Italian- and Spanish-speaking Jews to the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth century, Judeo-Greek began to influence the languages of immigrant communities. Exchange of lexical material occurred in both directions.

 

Since the creation of the independent Greek state in 1830, organized teaching of the Greek language to Jewish schoolchildren became increasingly common, and it soon resulted in the spread of Greek literacy and switching to the Greek alphabet as the main system of writing Judeo-Greek.

 

Although the Holocaust decimated the Romaniote communities, a few speakers of Judeo-Greek varieties remained alive. The survivors intermarried with the descendants of Sephardic communities, Jews from other countries and local Greeks. Many Judeo-Spanish speakers in Greek territories abandoned their language in favour of Greek, occasionally incorporating Jewish features. The area where Judeo-Greek is now spoken is limited almost exclusively to Greece.  

Linguistic features and current status

As a rule, different varieties of Judeo-Greek were mutually intelligible with linguistic varieties spoken by the surrounding population.

 

Judeo-Greek in its current form deviates from Standard Modern Greek only minimally: it includes the vocabulary of religious observances and traditional forms of communal life, often originating from Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-English or Israeli Hebrew rather than from earlier forms of Judeo-Greek.

Selected Bibliography

Texts

  • De Lange, N. R. M. 1996. Greek Jewish Texts from Cairo Genizah. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

  • Hesseling, D. C. 1897. Les cinq livres de la loi (Le Pentateuque). Leiden, Leipzig: Von Doesburgh, Harrasowitz.

  • Matsas, J. 1953. Γιαννιώτικα Εβραϊκά Τραγούδια. Ioannina: Ipeirotiki Estia.

  • Matsas, I. 1971-1981. השירה היהודית ביוונית [Jewish Poetry in Greek]. Sefunot: Annual for Research on the Jewish Communities in the East 15: 235-365.

  • Sznol, S. 1996/97. הפטרה "נחמו" (ישעיהו מ 1-26) בתרגום ליוונית-יהודית [Haftara "Nehamu" (Isaiah 40, 1-26) in the Judeo-Greek Translation]. Beit Mikra 42: 332-342.

 

 

Sociolinguistics and History

  • De Lange, N. R. M. 1991. The Classical Tradition in Byzantium. In D. Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), A Traditional Quest: Essays in Honour of Louis Jacobs. Sheffield: JSOT Press. 86-101.

  • De Lange, N. R. M. 2000. Hebrews, Greeks or Roman? Jewish Culture and Identity in Byzantium. In D. C. Smythe (ed.), Strangers to Themselves: The Byzantine Outsider. Aldershot: Ashgate. 105-118.

  • Krivoruchko, J. G. 2011. Code-Switching in Medieval Judeo-Greek Texts from Cairo Genizah. In M. Janse, B. D. Joseph, P. Pavlou, A. Ralli and S. Armosti (eds), Μελέτες για τις Νεοελληνικές Διαλέκτους και τη Γλωσσολογική Θεωρία. Studies in Modern Greek Dialects and Linguistic Theory. Nicosia, Research Center of Kykkos Monastery: 279–291.

  • Krivoruchko, J. G. 2011. Judeo-Greek in the Era of Globalization. Language & Communication 31: 119–129.

  • Krivoruchko, J. G. 2014. Medieval and modern Judeo-Greek texts as sources of linguistic data. In J. K. Aitken and J. C. Paget (eds.), The Jewish-Greek tradition in antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 152-170.

  • Krivoruchko, J. G. 2016. Judeo-Greek. In L. Kahn and A. Rubin (eds.), Handbook of Jewish Languages. Leiden, Brill: 194–225. [with bibliography and more detail]

  • Vlaxou, E., G. Kotzoglou and X. Papadopoulou (2016). Γεβανική: μια πρόσφατη καταγραφή. Μελέτες για την ελληνική γλώσσα 36: 51-63.

  • Wexler, P. 1985. Recovering the Dialects and Sociology of Judeo-Greek in Non-Hellenic Europe. In J. A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish languages. Leiden: Brill. 227-240.

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