Description by Aaron Rubin
Videos of Judeo-Roman Theater
Jews have been living in the Italian peninsula since perhaps as early as the 2nd century BCE, during the time of the Roman Republic. The earliest Jewish settlers were probably Greek-speaking, though with knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, as evidenced by surviving tombstones. Some Jewish communities, namely those in southern (Byzantine) territories, remained Greek-speaking for many centuries, but most adopted Latin, which evolved into Italian (and its regional varieties) by the late 1st millennium CE.
Any distinctive variety of Italian written or spoken by Jews can be called Judeo-Italian. However, there is no single variety of Judeo-Italian. Rather, there is a diverse array of Jewish dialects that can be divided into two main types. The first type, which can be called Literary Judeo-Italian, includes a relatively small, but not insignificant, corpus of Italian texts, both translations and original compositions, written in Hebrew characters, for the most part written between 1200 and 1700. Occasional Hebrew words in Italian script can also be found as early as the 10th century, as well as in a very few works from after 1700. The amount of literature in Judeo-Italian is far greater than in the other Judeo-Romance dialects, with the exception of Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo/Ladino). Literary Judeo-Italian itself is not homogenous: some texts are quite close, or even identical, to standard Italian (except for the use of the Hebrew alphabet), while others (a minority) exhibit a significant number of regional/dialectal features.
The second type of Judeo-Italian, which we can call Spoken Judeo-Italian, includes a variety of local dialects attested mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Names of language:
Judeo-Italian, with many sub-dialects (Judeo-Roman, Judeo-Venetian, Judeo-Florentine, Judeo-Livornese [also called Bagit(t)o], Judeo-Mantuan, Judeo-Piedmontese, and more). In some literature called Italkit or Italkian, but these terms are scholarly inventions that have not been widely accepted.
Territories where it was/is spoken:
Estimated # speakers:
Judeo-Roman is highly endangered, and other dialects are extinct.
Hebrew alphabet (10th-18th centuries); Roman/Italian alphabet (19th-20th centuries)
Bible translations, prayer books, glosses, glossaries and word-lists, poetry, plays, medical texts, grammatical works, sermons, letters, and more.
Romance branch of the Indo-European family
When dialects of this latter group have been written down, they have with few exceptions been done so using the Italian alphabet. These spoken Judeo-Italian dialects differ to varying degrees from the regional dialects of their non-Jewish neighbors. In some cases, they are distinguished only by some lexical items, while in other cases, they differ in pronunciation and morphology as well. There is no single spoken Judeo-Italian dialect, and rather one must speak of Judeo-Roman, Judeo-Piedmontese, Judeo-Florentine, Judeo-Venetian, Judeo-Livornese, etc. Because of the many political, demographic, and social changes that took place in the 20th century, most spoken Judeo-Italian varieties have become extinct. Only Judeo-Roman survives, but even this dialect has just a small number of elderly speakers.
Literary Judeo-Italian texts, essentially Italian texts in Hebrew characters, exist in a variety of genres, in both printed and manuscript form. There are biblical translations, prayer-books and haggadot, dictionaries and word-lists, original poems, sermons, letters, and a variety of other kinds of texts, both original compositions and translations. Some Judeo-Italian are quite long, while others consist simply of a few lines or even a few words. There are both translations and original compositions. These texts come from all over the Italian peninsula, as well as from the islands of Sicily and Corfu. The total number of extant texts in Judeo-Italian is somewhere between 100 and 200, though many of these are quite short.
Some of the oldest Judeo-Italian material comes not in the form of discrete texts, but rather as glosses within other texts. The oldest set of glosses comes from the marginal notes made by the scribe of the famous manuscript of the Mishnah known popularly as “Parma A”, held by the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (ms. Parm. 3173). The more than 150 Judeo-Italian glosses therein show evidence of the author’s Salentino dialect, from Otranto (Salento), in the far southeast of Italy. This manuscript, completed in 1072/73, contains not only the oldest complete copy of the Mishnah still extant, but also the oldest written evidence of the Salentino (Jewish and non-Jewish) dialect. A second set of early glosses comes from the Arukh of Nathan ben Yeḥiel of Rome, completed in 1101. In this work, the glosses come not in the form of marginal notes, but rather appear within the text itself. This Hebrew/Aramaic dictionary did not regularly provide Italian translations of Hebrew/Aramaic words, but occasionally the author saw fit to provide a gloss in Judeo-Italian (or in one of several other languages).
Several of the longest compositions in Judeo-Italian are translations of biblical texts and prayer-books made in the 15th-17th centuries. The only extant complete translation of the Hebrew Bible is today divided between two libraries: the manuscripts of the Torah and Hagiographa reside in Oxford’s Bodleian Library (mss. Can. Or. 10 and Can. Or. 11), while that of the Prophets is in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (ms. L667 = ms. 2291). The language of this translation is essentially standard Italian, and so is of only minor linguistic value. Much more interesting is a translation of the Latter Prophets (missing Isaiah and part of Jeremiah), contained in a manuscript held by the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (ms. Parm. 3068). The language of this translation is in a uniquely Jewish dialect. In this same (or very similar) dialect were made several translations of the daily siddur (prayer-book), extant in several manuscripts (for example, British Library ms. Or. 2443), as well as in three printed editions (from 1506, 1538, and 1561).
The oldest known original work in Judeo-Italian, and perhaps the most widely known work of any kind in Judeo-Italian, is an elegy known as La ienti (or genti) de Zion ‘The People of Zion’. Intended for use during the Tisha be-Av holiday, the poem consists of 120 lines, each with four words, divided into rhyming tercets (that is, each set of three lines rhymes). Though the text itself dates to the 12th or 13th century, it survives only in two 14th-century manuscripts of maḥzorim (holiday prayer-books). The first of these once belonged to the Synagogue of Ferrara and was until recently part of the famous Valmadonna collection (Valmadonna ms. 10, fols 233r-234v); it is now privately owned. The second manuscript is held by the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (Parm. 2736, fols 165v-167v). The language of the poem is dialectal.
There are a number of Judeo-Italian poems celebrating the Purim holiday. The longest of these is a 700-line re-telling of the story of Esther, set in ottava rima (a well-known Italian rhyming pattern). It was written by Mordechai Dato in the mid-16th century. The Purim song known as Fate onore al bel Purim (‘Honor the beautiful Purim’), still known to Italian Jews in the 20th century, is extant in manuscript and was even printed several times under the Hebrew title Šir Naʾe bǝ-Hiddurim (e.g., Venice 1698). We find in this song good-humored lines like נוֹן אַבּיָיטֵי אַלקוּן סוֹספֵיטוֹ \ דִי אֵיסֵיר טֵינוּטִי שִכוֹרִים non abiate alcun sospeto / di eser tenuti šikorim ‘you shouldn’t have any misgiving about being considered drunk!’. (Much of the poem focuses on food and drink.)
As already noted, the language of many Judeo-Italian texts is comparable to other contemporary (non-Jewish) Italian texts of the same era. However, among those texts that contain a uniquely Jewish dialect, some of the distinct features of phonology and morphology include (but are not limited to):
Retention of l following b, f, k, and p, where standard Italian has [j]. Examples are clamare ‘to call’, suflare ‘to blow’, and plu ‘more’ (cf. Italian chiamare, soffiare, and più).
The reflection of Latin gn as n(n), where standard Italian has [ɲ], as in seno ‘sign’ and one ‘every, each’ (Italian segno and ogni).
The shift nd > n(n), as in manare ‘to send’, quano ‘when’, and the gerundive ending -ano (Italian mandare, quando, and -ando).
The shift ld > l(l), as in scalare ‘to warm’ (Italian scaldare).
The shift mb > m(m), as in omra (perhaps ommera) ‘shadow’ (Italian ombra).
The shift mp > np, as in senpre ‘always’, tenpo ‘time’, and canpo ‘field’ (Italian sempre, tempo, and campo).
The affrication of a sibilant after l, n, or r, as in šelṣi ‘I chose’, conṣolaṣione ‘comfort’, penṣero ‘thought’, and furṣa ‘maybe’ (Italian scelsi, consolazione, pensiero, and forse). (Here the Hebrew צ ṣ is the equivalent of z in standard Italian orthography.)
Lack of vowel breaking o > uo, as in bono ‘good’, core ‘heart’, and fuco (Italian buono, cuore, and fuoco), and i > ie, as in deče ‘ten’ and sede ‘s/he sits’ (Italian diece, siede).
Masculine singular definite article lo or lu (cf. Italian il, with lo only in very restricted environments), though some texts have the standard il.
A plural definite article li for both genders (cf. Italian m.pl. i, f.pl le).
Nouns and adjectives with a common plural suffix -i (Italian m.pl. i, f.pl -e), e.g., li casi ‘the houses’ (Italian le case).
Levelling of the suffix -o for masculine singular nouns/adjectives and -a for feminine singular nouns/adjectives, where some Italian nouns have -e for both genders; cf. munto ‘mountain’, maro ‘sea’, pano ‘bread’, not(t)a ‘night’, gran(n)o ‘big’ (Italian monte, mare, pane, notte, grande).
Many differences in conjugation of verbs. Typical is the first person sigular future suffix -aio (perhaps to be read -aggio), as in faraio ‘I will make’ (Italian farò). Both -aio and -aggio, either of which could be represented by Heberew א)י(י)ו)- , -(ʾ)y(y)w are known from some older Italian texts (and still used in some modern Italian dialects), but were replaced by -ò in literary Italian already by the 14th century. Also typical is the third person singular present tense suffix -ao for certain irregular verbs, e.g., fao ‘s/he does’, stao ‘s/he is’, and vao ‘s/he goes’ (cf. Italian fa, sta, and va). In the imperfect tense, where Italian has 1sg. -vo, 2sg. -vi, 3sg. -va Judeo-Italian texts typically have 1sg. -va, 2sg. -vo, 3sg. -vo. Where Italian has plural imperatives ending in -ate/-ete/-ite (depending on the verb class), Judeo-Italian texts typically have -iti.
Judeo-Italian texts also can include dialectal (non-standard vocabulary), as well as words borrowed (or derived) from Hebrew. In many cases, a borrowed Hebrew word is incorporated into the morphological system of Italian. For example, some texts use a verb maḥlare ‘to forgive’, obviously borrowed from Hebrew מחל, but with Italian morphology; cf. maḥla ‘forgive!’ and maḥlamento ‘forgiveness’, with Italian suffixes. Perhaps the most conspicuous lexical items in Literary Judeo-Italian are the words דוֹמֶדֶית Domedet (or דוֹמֶדֶידֿ Domedeḏ, both with some variation in the vowels) ‘Lord’ and דֵית Det ‘God’, used to translate Hebrew יהוה yhwh and אלהים ʾelohim (or אל ʾel), respectively. The longer form Domedet is generally considered to be a contracted form of Latin Dominus Deus ‘Lord God’, though various other etymologies for these curious words have been suggested.
Italy is home to a large number of regional language varieties. Some of these (e.g., Roman, Florentine, Livornese) are safely called dialects of Italian, while others (e.g., Sicilian, Venetian, Bolognese, Piedmontese) are recognized by most linguists as distinct languages. Regardless of what terms we use, all of these varieties are closely related. In most areas in which there was a well-established Jewish community in Italy, Jews developed their own local language variety, which sometimes varied considerably from the local non-Jewish variety. Although some of the older literary Judeo-Italian texts reflect features of some types of spoken Judeo-Italian, the many spoken dialects are generally unattested (in writing, that is) until the 19th or 20th centuries. Even then, spoken Jewish Italian dialects were hardly ever written down. Nearly all the texts that we find — not counting the descriptions of linguists — are poetic and theatrical.
Rome is home to the oldest and largest Jewish community in Italy, and the area of the former Jewish Ghetto is still the center of the community. Judeo-Roman is perhaps the only dialect of Judeo-Italian that is still spoken, albeit by a mostly elderly group. However, published material in Judeo-Roman did not exist until the 20th century. The first original works published in Judeo-Roman, and still the most significant, are the collections of poetry by Crescenzo del Monte from the early 20th century (republished in 2007). More recently, members of the community have written and performed a number of plays in Judeo-Roman, some of which can be viewed on YouTube.
Venice has also long been the home of an important Jewish community. In fact, there are (or were) different regional Jewish dialects within the greater Veneto region. But there have been only a few Judeo-Venetian works published, all poetic in nature. Venice controlled the Greek island of Corfu for many centuries, and a significant number of Judeo-Italian texts (mostly prayers and such) come from that island. These do exhibit dialectal features, but they fall into the category of Literary Judeo-Italian.
The Jewish community of Livorno is much younger than those of Rome and Venice, dating only to the late 16th century, though it quickly became one of the most important in Italy. Most of the Jewish population was Spanish or Portuguese in origin, and those languages remained dominant in the community until the 18th century. The Judeo-Livornese dialect of Italian that eventually developed, often called ‘Bagito’ or ‘Bagitto’, retained the influence of its speakers’ Spanish and Portuguese roots. The major figure of Judeo-Livornese literature is Guido Bedarida (1900-1962), who published several plays and dialogues between 1924 and 1950. Bedarida also published a collection of 180 sonnets in 1956, through which he recounted the history of the Jews of Livorno.
Several Jewish dialects existed in the region of Emiglia-Romagna, including in the towns of Modena (Judeo-Modenese), Ferrara (Judeo-Ferraran), Reggio Emilia (Judeo-Reggiano), and Mantua (Judeo-Mantuan), of which the last is the best described. With the exception of some poems — most notably those of the Mantuan Jewish doctor named Annibale Gallico (1876-1935), most of whose poems were published only in 2014 — there exist almost no texts in these dialects.
Other Jewish Italian dialects in which we have either published material or scholarly studies include Judeo-Piedmontese (especially from the city of Turin), Judeo-Florentine, and Judeo-Pitigliano (from Tuscany). Judeo-Piedmontese has received some wider attention thanks to the fact that there is a partial chapter devoted to the language in Primo Levi’s highly acclaimed book The Periodic Table (1975).
As one would expect, the various spoken Judeo-Italian dialects exhibit different features of pronunciation compared to their non-Jewish counterparts. Sometimes differences can be rather minor, resulting in what a layperson might simply call a difference of accent. For example, the number ‘eleven’ in Judeo-Mantuan is undes, while non-Jewish locals use the form ündas (with a rounded front vowel ü, comparable to German ü or French u). (Note that both of these forms differ from standard Italian undici.) However, the Jewish spoken varieties were not simply different accents, since there are also many differences in grammar and vocabulary. For example, while the default form of the masculine dingular definite article ‘the’ in the local dialect of Roman (Romangolo) is er, in Judeo-Roman it is o or lo. The masculine pronoun ‘he’ in the dialect of Rome is lui, while in Judeo-Roman it is esso. In Mantuan, ‘they pass’ is lor i pasa (masculine) or lor lé pasa (feminine), while in Judeo-Mantuan it is lor pásen for both genders. (Note that besides the gender distinction in Mantuan, we also find different suffixes on the verb.)
All spoken Judeo-Italian dialects are characterized by the use of words derived from Hebrew. Much of the Hebrew lexical component is common to the dialects (with phonetic variation), no doubt due to the continuing contact between the various communities, though individual dialects sometimes adopted slightly different pronunciations. Of particular interest are those words that have been incorporated into the morphological system of Italian. For example, we find verbs like ahlare or achlare ‘to eat’ (< Hebrew אכל ʾaḵal ‘eat’), dabberare or dabrare ‘to speak’ (< Hebrew דבר dabber ‘speak’). Sometimes new words were derived from Hebrew roots, as in malmazal(lo) ‘unlucky’ (< Italian mal- ‘bad’ + Hebrew מזל mazzal ‘luck’) and scigazzello ‘little boy’ (< Hebrew שקץ šeqeṣ ‘abomination; non-Jewish man’). In some cases Hebrew words were used with a change in meaning. For example, the word macom (< Hebrew מקום maqom ‘place’) is used in several Judeo-Italian dialects as a euphemism for ‘toilet’.
One of the most typical Judeo-Italian words, found in all Judeo-Italian dialects is negro, which actually comes from Spanish negro ‘black’. The Judeo-Italian adjective, no doubt introduced by Sephardic Jews, and still prevalent among Italian Jews today, is used to mean ‘miserable’, ‘ugly’, ‘good for nothing’, and other such pejorative descriptions.
Video Links of Judeo-Roman Theatre
Pur’ io riderio… si ’o matto ’un fosse ’o mio (‘I would laugh too… if the crazy one weren’t mine’), performed in 1984: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R76icQQMLIU
O fijo di nisciuno: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeDzpCG854k
A stimanata bianca “A Macca”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PatSue4ZFWM
To cite: Rubin, Aaron. n.d. Judeo-Italian. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/judeo-italian. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.