Description by Dan Shapira
Torat Mosheh, the earliest known Judeo-Persian text of the Pentateuch, 1319
Merchant’s letter, Dandan Uiliq, a trading center on the Silk Road in present-day Chinese Turkestan 8th century
A letter dealing with financial and family matters (Afghan Genizah collection at the National Library of Israel); 11th century
Judeo-Persian is the common name for both the literary and spoken forms of Jewish Iranian language varieties. In addition to Judeo-Persian from Persia/Iran, it frequently includes Judeo-Tadjik / Tajik / Tadzhik (otherwise known as Bukharan, Judeo-Bukharan, Bukhari, Bukharit) and sometimes also Judeo-Tat (Cuhuri / Juhuri / Dzhuhuri, the language of the Mountain Jews in Dagestan and Northern Azerbayjan, known in Israel under such misleading names as Kavkazit / Qawqazit, and even Dagestanit).
More precisely, Judeo-Persian refers to a literary form of New Persian specific to Jewish texts. It should be differentiated from spoken dialects current among the Jews. The best equivalents are Ladino, literary Judeo-Arabic, and Ivri-Taytsh, as opposed to Judezmo, spoken Judeo-Arabic, and Yiddish.
Brief excerpts of folk songs in the Gilaki dialect of the Caspian region by a Jew from Herat, Afghanistan
There has never been a variety of spoken JP common to all Persian Jews. The Jews spoke their local dialect, with some "Jewish" traits, just as their Muslim, Christian, or Zoroastrian neighbors spoke basically the same dialect, with their own communal, professional, or caste-based traits. These dialects varied from area to area. In some cases, they were dialects of Persian, but in other cases they were non-Persian Iranian (or other) dialects. In the pre-Mongol period such non-Persian dialects were sometimes used for writing, as is indicated by a literary document found in the Cairo Geniza (Shaked 1988). During the same period dialects of Persian were also written, as is indicated by the Tafsir of Ezekiel (Salemann 1900, Shaked 1986, Gindin 2000, forthcoming). Persian Muslims of the pre-Mongol period also used local dialects in written texts, such as in translations of the Qur'an (Ravaqi, Lazard 1978). For information about spoken Persian and Iranian dialects, see Judeo-Iranian.
Judeo-Persian attracts considerable interest by linguists and historians of Persian, for it preserves numerous archaic traits and words lost in New Persian. Like many other Jewish languages, the earliest examples we have of New Persian are written in Jewish characters.
For centuries, literary Judeo-Persian co-existed alongside vernaculars, exactly as was – and to some degree, still is – the case with Common (i.e., Muslim) New Persian. The result is diglossia, or even triglossia or quatroglossia and more. In the case of Jews, there can be: (a) a domestic vernacular, i.e., a dialect of New Persian or another spoken Iranian language; (b) a local form of spoken Persian Koine; (c) literary Judeo-Persian; to these can be added (d) standard Common New Persian; (e) Hebrew and Aramaic; and, in some cases, (f) another language current in the area, such as Pashto in Afghanistan, Uzbek in Buchara and Samarkand, Arabic in Western Iran, or Azeri in Northern Iran. As we can see, although written Judeo-Persian served as the main tool of literary expression, it was merely one of the linguistic layers used by Iranian Jewry.
Judeo-Persian should be treated as a variant of New Persian, which is the most important of the Iranian languages. This branch of the Indo-European language family includes the many varieties of Kurdish (Kurmanji / Kirmanci, Sorani, Gurāni, Zaza, etc.), Pushtu / Pashto / Pakhto in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ossetic in the Caucasus (Russia and Georgia), Beluji / Baluchi, and dozens of smaller languages in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and even Western China.
Three important points should be observed:
Persian is one of the most ancient languages with a long literary tradition, divided as follows: (a) Old Persian written in cuneiform and Aramaic characters, (b) Middle Persian written in alphabets of Aramaic origin (Manichean Middle Persian, Zoroastrian Middle Persian or Pahlavi / Pehlevi, Christian Middle Persian, and apparently Jewish Middle Persian (Shapira 2001)), and (c) New or Classical Persian written in Arabic, Jewish, Roman, or Cyrillic characters.
In the 20th century there are three written forms of New Persian used in three different countries: (a) Persian of Iran / Persian proper, (b) Dari or Farsi-Kabuli, one of two official languages of Afghanistan besides Pashto, and (c) Tajiki in formerly Soviet Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for which Cyrillic characters have been used and recently traditional Arabic characters have been reintroduced. The differences between these three variants are reminiscent of those between peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish, for example. There was – and still is – a correlation between the varieties of Judeo-Persian used in Iran proper and in Central Asia.
In Iran, Persian is the main tool of education and written expression, though less than half of the population speak it at home and many dialects, Iranian and Turkic as well as Semitic, still exist. As the history of Judeo-Persian reflects the history of Common Persian, there is no single spoken Judeo-Persian comparable to Yiddish or some other Jewish languages. This may be understood against the background of the high status of New Persian.
19th-century manuscript of a poem by Imrani, a Judeo-Persian poet from Isfahan, 15th-16th centuries
Linguistic Features of Written Judeo-Persian
Judeo-Persian texts can be divided into two periods: before the Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century and afterwards. Like in the Common Persian literary tradition, the Mongol onslaught was a period of serious cultural and linguistic change. Judeo-Persian texts dating from before the Mongol invasion exhibit considerable dialect variety; in the post-Mongol period all this changed. Since the invasion, the lingua franca of the Jews has been a colloquial form of Classical Persian / New Persian / Common New Persian (CNP). For writing the Jews used the same language as their Muslim compatriots, with minor differences (fewer Arabic words, some Hebrew and Aramaic words, Hebrew characters). The spelling was sometimes phonetic, due to the lack of Muslim education. These lapses in orthography are important for determining the historical Persian pronunciations.
The literature before the Mongol invasion comes mainly from geniza finds made in the 19th century and during archeological excavations. In the 14th-17th centuries Judeo-Persian literature flourished. In Bukhara the peak was in the 17th-19th centuries, with renewed activity in Jerusalem in the late 19th - early 20th century.
As a Jewish language, written Judeo-Persian belongs to the same type as written Judeo-Arabic of the Classical period, as it uses CNP as a model, is written in Hebrew characters, and includes some Hebrew loanwords (but not as many as in Yiddish). The presence of Aramaic loanwords is significant, probably going back to the earliest stages of Judeo-Persian. There are many Iranian archaisms that have been lost in other varieties of Persian, but generally, the lexical composition is that of the CNP, with a smaller percentage of the "educated" Arabic elements.
Phonologically, medieval Judeo-Persian texts demonstrate, due to peculiarities of orthography which do not always follow the CNP models, the same traits as modern spoken CNP. The syntax of the translations from Hebrew mostly follows the Hebrew models, closely resembling Ladino and other calque languages in this respect. One of the most interesting facts about Judeo-Persian literature is that it includes many Muslim-Persian literary works, especially poetry, transcribed into Hebrew characters. Original Judeo-Persian poetry, especially rewriting of Biblical books and Mishnaic tractates, is another distinctive mark of medieval Judeo-Persian literary production.
Non-literary Persian and Other Iranian Languages
Literary Judeo-Persian is now extinct; some literary activities are carried on in Israel in Judeo-Bukharan and, to a much lesser extent, in Judeo-Tat; Iranian Jews in Israel and the USA use standard New Persian (as well as Hebrew and English) for their literary production.
However, spoken varieties of Persian and other Iranian languages are still common among Jews:
New Persian (Iran, Israel, USA, Europe, and elsewhere). This is standard New Persian of Iran, esp. as spoken by the younger and more educated; many elder speakers in Israel still use local vernacular forms of New Persian, not necessarily specifically Jewish.
Local dialects of Persian (of Iran), especially by elder and less educated immigrants in Israel; the distinction between dialects of New Persian and local vernacular forms of New Persian is frequently blurred.
Non-Persian Iranian languages of Iran, mostly in their specifically Jewish varieties, such as Yazdi, etc., but also Kurdish; these are spoken by elderly immigrants in Israel and seem to be withering in Iran, due to the spread of education and the mass media.
Judeo-Tadzhik, or Judeo-Bukharan, which is spoken mostly by recent immigrants from the FSU in Israel, USA, and Europe; it is interesting to observe that in Israel this language is currently being replaced not only by Hebrew, but also by Russian.
Judeo-Tat, spoken both in its standard Dagestani variant, and in dialects of Northern Azerbayjan; the language is spoken in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian Federation, and in Kuba in Northern Azerbayjan; new thriving centers have recently appeared in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Israel (esp. Or Yehuda), and elsewhere; in Israel, as well as in Russia and Azerbayjan, the younger speakers prefer Russian. In fact, after the break-up of the USSR and emigration to Israel, Judeo-Tat in Israel has also begun to be replaced by Russian. This interesting phenomenon may have some bearing for Jewish sociolinguistics.
Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library)