and other Judeo-Romance varieties from the South of France
Description by Peter Nahon
Map showing linguistic areas in France and major historic Jewish communities of the South. Dialects of the Occitan family are in shades of red.
Jewish life in the south of France has persisted for hundreds of years, since the age of Antiquity. Over all this time, Jews have spoken, wherever they settled, a form of the local Romance vernacular that developed there from Latin. These dialects, usually referred to by the generic name of Occitan, exhibit considerable territorial variation, which was mirrored in the languages used by the Jews of that region.
Names of language:
Judeo-Provençal; Judeo-Gascon; Judeo-Occitan (hyperonym for both these dialects);
Dabérage, Le sahacod (names used by speakers for the French dialects of Judeo-Provençal substrate)
Territories where it was/is spoken:
Estimated # speakers:
-2022: none (Judeo-Provençal and Judeo-Gascon) ; ~50-100 (Southern Jewish French)
Originally Hebrew, later Latin letters
Liturgy, theatrical plays, poetry, glosses, marginalia
During the Middle Ages, Jewish communities thrived in most of the south of France, and the documents left by them reflect Jewish varieties of several dialects. From the end of the 14th century, however, successive edicts of expulsion were proclaimed, ultimately leaving only three main areas where the Jews could still dwell:
1. Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin area, an enclave ruled by the Pope within the French region of Provence;
2. Bordeaux, Bayonne and its hinterland, in Gascony, where Iberian ‘New Christians’ were allowed to settle during the 16th century and formed new Jewish communities;
3. the city of Nice, under Savoyard rule.
The 18th-century synagogue of Cavaillon, Provence (photo P. Nahon, 2016).
A scene from Harcanot et Barcanot, a 19th-century Judeo-Provençal comedy that takes place in the late 18th century, from Peter Nahon's 2021 critical edition and analysis
Medieval Judeo-Occitan (including Judeo-Provençal)
During the Middle Ages, the linguistic behavior of the Jews in Southern France mirrored that of the Jews in Northern France: the Hebrew language was used almost systematically for writing, and the Romance vernaculars used in speech left only scant written traces. These testimonies of medieval Judeo-Occitan, mostly from the Provençal area, are always written in Hebrew letters, and include:
a large number of glosses interspersed in Hebrew works. These are chiefly technical and scientific texts, religious literature, and grammatical treatises, ranging from the 12th to the 15th century. Vernacular words are inserted to translate and explain difficult Hebrew words or to express concepts for which a Hebrew word was not known. One important source set of glosses has been studied and published by Kogel (2014; see also 2009). The study of these sources is still embryonic and many have not yet been edited; those which have, appear to come mainly from the Languedocien and Provençal dialectal areas.
account books of Jewish merchants, usually written in Hebrew with many vernacular words (at least two examples are known; one has been published by Schwab 1909 and the other by Olszowy-Schlanger 2014)
two relatively long rearrangements of the biblical story of Esther, both written in Provence presumably in the 14th century: the Roman d’Esther by Crescas Caslari (JTS library, ms. 3740; edited by Meyer and Neubauer 1892, and Silberstein 1973); the Ma’ase Esther (Rome, Casanatense ms. 3140, see Baricci 2014)
a daily prayer book in Hebrew with a calque translation into Provençal from the 15th century (Leeds University Library, ms. Roth 32; see Lazar, 1970). It was probably copied for a woman, as can be deduced from the unique and famous blessing it contains:
בְּנדִּיגֿ טוּ שַנט בְּנְדְֿיט נוֹשְטְרְי דִּייב רְיי דַּלשֵגְּלְי קְי פִֿיש מִי פְֿינַה
Bendich tu sant benezet nostre diou rei dal segle que fis mi fena
‘Blessed art Thou, holy blessed one, our God, king of the universe, who made me a woman’.
It shall be noted that almost all these texts either gloss, translate, or paraphrase Hebrew materials: as a result, they are almost devoid of Hebrew loanwords that may have been part of the spoken Jewish varieties of Occitan at that time.
After Jews were expelled from France (1394) and Provence (1501), those who kept residing in the pontifical enclave of Avignon and its neighboring area, Comtat Venaissin (Carpentras, Cavaillon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue), maintained the same diglossic situation as during the Middle Ages: Hebrew was used as the dominant written language, while the local dialect, Provençal, was used in speech. Due to the ubiquitous use of Hebrew, the vernacular has left only a few textual traces whose interpretation almost always raises issues. They can be divided into two main categories: (1) texts written by Jews in varieties of Provençal in Hebrew letters; (2) texts purporting deliberately to represent the Jewish dialect, either composed by Christians for satirical purposes or, in at least one instance, by Jews.
Texts Written by Jews in Varieties of Provençal in Hebrew Letters
The first category includes several texts, almost all of a literary nature and written in Hebrew letters. The longest one is a theatrical play in verse, La Reine Esther, composed by Mardochée Astruc at the end of the 17th century and known from one manuscript and a later printed edition from 1774 (see Courouau 2018). Judeo-Provençal in Hebrew letters served, at the same period, to compose paraliturgical songs in bilingual verse, where Hebrew and Provençal verses alternate. Known as Obros, these songs seem to have been composed during the 17th century, though they are mostly known from 18th-century manuscripts. The only critical edition of these texts (Lazar 1963), though useful, is not comprehensive and lacks translations. These texts are of relatively little interest to reconstructing the actual linguistic features of the spoken vernacular: their authors avoided colloquial features, and seem to imitate the literary style used in non-Jewish writings. Moreover, the Hebrew orthography often obliterates part of the special phonetic features of the Jewish dialect. Other Provençal texts in Hebrew letters, ranging from single words to sentences, can be found in Hebrew manuscripts: many of them concern ritual practices (such as the 18th-century instructions discussed here).
Caption: the first stanza of an Obro, Bodleian Ms Oppenheimer add. 8°50, f°12r
Eftaḥ śefatai be-rina (Let me open my lips in joy)
Cantaren deman a dina (Tomorrow we will sing during dinner)
Irʾat Adonai le-maʿana (The fear of God is our share)
Qu’aco es lou bon mestre (As he is the good lord)
ve-odeh na le-el elom [sic for elyon] (And let me praise God the most high)
dessu tanbourin e i vioulon (on tambourines and violins)
Texts Purportedly Representing the Jewish Dialect
The texts of the second category, written in Latin letters, can help to know more accurately the linguistic nature of the Jews’ vernacular, as they typically attempt to portray it with satirical intentions. These sources include several Christmas carols and theatrical plays with Jewish characters, mock rabbinical sermons that were apparently performed by Christian jesters at fairs (at least four exist, though only two have been published; see Viguier 1989), and sundry other texts of lesser importance. The most important source of information about the spoken language is the comedy Harcanot et Barcanot, written by Israël Bédarrides around 1825 (critical edition by Nahon 2021).
These sources, all intended as a written record of the Jews’ spoken language, compete to show that the vernacular of the Jews of the area was a form of the local Provençal dialect that differed from the Christians’ dialect through two sets of salient features: phonetic specificities proper to the Jewish variety, and a large set of words used only by Jews.
Phonetic features include devoicing of [d͡ʒ] in all its occurrences, leading to the neutralization of the opposition between /d͡ʒ/ and /t͡ʃ/. This may be the result of the influence of Languedoc dialects due to internal migrations of the Jews in Southern France (Nahon 2021, 56-62). Lexical particularisms include a vast repertoire of Hebrew loanwords, pseudo-Hebraisms, Judeo-Provençal words coined with Romance morphemes on Hebrew stems, and various migrated dialectalisms unknown in coterritorial standard Provençal. Several of the Hebrew loanwords used in Judeo-Provençal are unknown in other Jewish languages, while many of them have cognates in Judeo-Italian varieties and Western Yiddish. Their phonetic forms reflect the highly specific pronunciation of Hebrew used by Provençal Jews. Some of its salient features include: syllable-ending בֿ and גֿ > [u̯]; שׂ, תֿ , צ ,ס > [f]; consonantal י > [ʧ]; intervocalic ח > ∅. Thus, we find bef déras ‘place of study’ < Heb. בית דרש beth deraš; mahof ‘money’ < Heb. מעות maʿoth; ganaou ‘thief’ < Heb. גנב ganab; chaïd ‘only’ < Heb. יחיד yaḥid, etc. All the features observed in these texts are confirmed by the many Judeo-Provençal words retained in the French variety spoken today by descendants of Provençal Jews, a major source of information to reconstruct Judeo-Provençal (see below, §4).
A Judeo-Provençal version of the Passover table song Ḥad Gadya was orally transmitted in some families until the mid-20th century. There exist two recorded versions of it: one by Armand Lunel and the other by Eliane Amado Levi-Valensi. The version by Lunel (published by Jochnowitz 1985), as pointed out by Strich (2015, 527) is entirely dependent on a printed version of the 19th century and shows that Lunel had little understanding of the Judeo-Provençal text. The version by Amado is more valuable as a linguistic document, as it relies upon genuine oral tradition.
Other Modern Judeo-Occitan dialects: Judeo-Gascon and Judeo-Niçard
The dialects of Gascony, in south-western France, form, within southern Gallo-Romance, a distinct linguistic sub-group, the status of which, in relation to Occitan dialects, is still a matter of discussion. A few Jewish communities thrived there during the Middle Ages, but they faded away during British rule and the Hundred Years’ War. During the 16th century, the region again became a place of Jewish settlement: New Christians (‘Marranos’) from Spain and Portugal began to emigrate in large numbers: first to Bordeaux, where they were granted privileges as merchants in 1552, and then to Bayonne and a few small towns of the hinterland (Peyrehorade, Bidache, La Bastide-Clairence).
Jewish immigrants gradually assimilated to their linguistic environment and adopted the local Gascon dialects as their mother tongue, while keeping Hebrew as a liturgical language and Spanish as the main vehicle for administrative writings, religious literature, and other ‘high linguistic functions. During the 18th century, they were joined by Jewish immigrants from Avignon and Italy, who contributed to the linguistic diversity of these communities. This peculiar context led to the formation of a specific Jewish variety of Gascon, including many borrowings, mostly from Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, and Judeo-Provençal, as well as superficial interferences with French. Internal migrations between the communities accounted for dialect mixing: for instance, the Jewish dialect from Bayonne differed from the dialect of the Bayonne Christians by several phonetic features that match those of the variety spoken in Peyrehorade, in the hinterland (Nahon 2017), such as the derounding of [œ] to [e].
Judeo-Gascon is known through an array of texts from the 19th and 20th centuries, which include poetry, private correspondence, paraliturgical songs for Purim, and satirical dialogues (all edited in Nahon 2018). In Bordeaux, it went extinct probably at the beginning of the 20th century, while in Bayonne it still had several dozens of speakers after the Second World War. Most surviving texts come from Bayonne; thus, it is difficult to assess how much the Bordeaux variety differed.
The coastal city of Nice was under the rule of the house of Savoy until it was annexed to France in 1860. It was home to a Jewish community made up of descendants of local Jews and early immigrants from Provence, Piedmont, and other Mediterranean communities. While using Hebrew and Italian as their written languages, they all spoke a variety of the local Romance dialect, Niçard. Judeo-Niçard differed from standard Niçard through a high influx of original Hebrew loanwords and phonetic features. It is attested in a few documents, mostly from the 19th century. They have been surveyed and analyzed by Nahon (2020). This variety is now extinct.
Afterlife as Jewish French Varieties
During the 19th century, the use of French – until then little-known among Occitan-speaking populations of the south – began to spread at a faster pace, due to the strengthening of French national identity after the Revolution. Jews and Christians both gradually abandoned their dialects and switched to French. However, the Jewish communities retained, within their newly acquired French language, a selection of special features, mostly lexical, from their former Jewish lects.
Two main Jewish Southern French varieties developed: one in Gascony, with Judeo-Gascon substrate, and the other in Provence, with Judeo-Provençal substrate. They are extant in various documents, from the first half of the 19th century up to our day, and each of these varieties still has several dozens of speakers among the descendants of those communities. A few word lists and partial descriptions of them were sporadically written (e.g. for Provence, the works of Hirschler and some remarks in the works of Armand Lunel; for Gascony, the works of Léon, Cirot, Lévi and Bar-Asher). Extensive fieldwork has been conducted since 2014 to provide comprehensive descriptions of these dialects (Nahon 2018; Nahon 2020). As most of their linguistic features are continuations of the former Judeo-Occitan dialects they superseded, they provide important clues to reconstruct their linguistic description, including phonetic data and attestations of many words unattested in earlier written sources.
The variety from Provence, known among its speakers as dabérage (from Hebrew דבר 'to speak’ with a Romance suffix) and le sahacod (from Hebrew לשון הקודש; 'language of the sacred'; i.e. 'Hebrew’, with deglutination of le, reinterpreted as the French masculine article; see Nahon 2021:106), is a form of southern regional French that embeds a repertoire of a few hundreds of words used only by descendants of Provençal Jews, among which the vast majority are Hebrew loan words that transited through Judeo-Provençal. It can be illustrated with the example below (from Nahon, 2020):
La issa elle est bééma il faut pas lui dabérer
DEF.F.SG wife (Heb.אִשָׁה) she be.3SG brute (Heb.בְּהֵמָה) need.PR3SG not PRON.3SG.F.DAT speak(Heb. דבר)
Translation: This woman is stupid, one should not talk to her
The variety from Gascony differs from co-territorial regional French through a few morphological and syntactical features, and about 850 words used solely by Jews, which include loanwords from various languages that transited through Judeo-Gascon, and many internal word formations.
Example 1. Le caillette, il a gagné beaucoup de magnot à faire des rhargoures ‘that dirty man, he earned a lot of money with his scams’; caillette is borrowed from Gascon calhet ‘dirty’, magnot from Hebrew מעות 'money’ and rhargoure is an internal word formation based on Judeo-Provençal rhargà ‘to fraud, to harm’ (itself from Hebrew הרג 'to kill') with the noun-making suffix -oure, borrowed from Ibero-Romance -ura.
Example 2. C’est une rharpa de manger du pouerque devant quelqu’un, ‘it is a shame to eat pork in front of somebody’ with rharpa borrowed from Hebrew חרפה ‘disgrace’ and pouerque from Spanish puerco ‘pig’.
The Pseudo-Glottonym 'Shuadit'
Several publications nowadays refer to the language of the Jews of Provence using the name ‘shuadit’. This pseudo-glottonym was invented by Zosa Szajkowski (1948) on the basis of a misreading and naive misinterpretation of one word in an 1803 satirical text, Lou pès enleva (Anrès 1857). The word he actually misread in the manuscripts was spelled chuadi, a spelling that represents a phonetic realization *[ʧy.adˈi], according to the orthographic system used throughout the text. The exact meaning of this word is unclear; it has been suggested that it is a Provençal borrowed form of French choisi ‘chosen’. That ghost word, first popularized by Szajkowski’s 1948 book, was uncritically adopted by Max Weinreich and other linguists to designate Judeo-Provençal, against all historical reason. The use of this word or its variants as a language name, based on a dubious mistake, should be avoided.
To cite: Nahon, Peter. n.d. Judeo-Provençal. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/judeo-provencal. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.