Karaim
Description by Isaac Mayer

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The Origins of Karaim

Karaim, traditionally known by its speakers as the Language of Qedar, is the Turkic language spoken by the Karaites of Eastern Europe, part of the Kipchak branch of the language family. The Karaite movement was first established in its modern form by ‘Anan ben David in eighth-century Babylonia, although its adherents trace it back to the Sadducees of the Second Commonwealth era. Unlike Rabbinic Jews, Karaites reject the legitimacy of the Mishnah and Gemara, following a form of Judaism that regards the written Bible as the only true authority in religion — the term “Karaim” literally means “readers.” While in most regions of the Jewish world Karaites were a minority, in Crimea they were the majority, and Karaite communities from Crimea spread to the north and west.

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Quick facts


Names of language:

Exonyms: Karaim, Judeo-Kipchak, Kareo-Kipchak, Karaite Judeo-Turkish

Endonyms: Leśon Kedar, Laśon Kedary, Sefat Kedar, Jiśmaely, Leśon Tatar.


Territories where it was/is spoken
Halych Karaim — Galicia (southwestern Ukraine)

Lutsk Karaim — Volhynia (northwestern Ukraine)

Troki Karaim — historical Lithuania (including lowland Poland and Belarus)

East Karaim — Crimean Peninsula

 

Estimated # speakers:
- 1897: 12,894
- 2022: Approximately 30 speakers of the Troki dialect, all other dialects extinct.

Vitality today:

Troki Karaim - critically endangered

All other dialects - extinct

Writing systems:

Hebrew (originally),

Cyrillic script (later)

Roman script/Polish orthography (currently)

Literature:

prayer books, poetry, Bible translations, mejuma

Language family/branch:

Turkic

Dialects

The Halych and Lutsk Karaim dialects, sometimes grouped together as Southwest Karaim, are first attested in the 17th century. The oldest works in the dialect are secular poems as well as some translations of psalms. At the beginning of the 20th century the linguist Jan Grzegorzewski did an enormous amount of work compiling and preserving poetry, folktales, and hymns from Southwest Karaim dialects. In the 1930s Aleksander Mardkowicz published eleven books and a newspaper in Southwest Karaim, but his work was cut short by the Holocaust, wherein the Lutsk community was completely destroyed and the Halych community suffered dramatically.

Troki Karaim, also known as Northwest Karaim, is attested back to the sixteenth century, with multiple poems by the ḥakham Yiṣḥaq ben Avraham Troki preserved to this day. At the end of the nineteenth century multiple prayers and translations were printed by the Lithuanian Karaite community, mostly in Hebrew script but some in Cyrillic. In the 1920s the Lithuanian Karaites adopted Roman script, using Polish orthography, which is still in use to this day. Today several families, a handful of elders, and some young learners, mostly in the town of Trakai (in Karaim pronounced Troki, whence the dialect name), continue to speak Troki Karaim.

Outside of East Karaim, which is somewhat poorly attested (some scholars go so far as to deny its status as a language distinct from Crimean Tatar), the Karaim dialects have been isolated from other Turkic languages for centuries, and have preserved archaic Kipchak forms while also incorporating terminology from local Slavic languages. While East Karaim was very close to Crimean Tatar (Shapira in 2003 going so far as to argue that it is functionally indistinguishable from Muslim and Christian dialects), the West Karaim dialects have been isolated from other Turkic languages since the fourteenth century, and preserve features archaic in the majority of the language family.

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Lexicon

One of the most prolific sources for Karaim text is scriptural translation, which often demonstrates substantial influence from Hebrew syntax. Some aspects of Karaim translations of Hebrew texts that show direct influence include the use of da as a calque for Hebrew ו־, regular use of definite articles, and genitive construct noun phrases. These forms are found both in scriptural translations and in colloquial spoken forms of the language. Translations from Hebrew, as well as heightened registers, also feature the use of ki as an imitation of Hebrew כִּי, as well as a consistent calque of the direct object אֶת as osoł. Slavic influence can be seen in the use of the adjectival suffix -ckiy, and the superlative prefix naj-, as well as palatalization as a phonological trait.

Secular sources for Karaim include works by poets like Simon Kobecki, Jehošafat Kaplanovski, Šelumiel Lopato, and Zenon Firkovič, as well as family home journals known as mejuma. These books, somewhat akin to a collage, would be compiled together by families over generations, and passed down from parent to child. They can feature a wide variety of texts, from financial documents to personal prayers to songs and poetry. 

Outside of religious terminology, very little of the Karaim lexicon derived from Hebrew. In some cases, Hebrew plurals are borrowed as singular forms and pluralized using the Turkic -lar suffix — such as otijot (“letter”, from Hebrew אותיות otiot “letters”) pluralized as otijotłar. One of the most commonly used non-religious words of Hebrew origin in Karaim is raša, meaning “malicious” and derived from the Hebrew רשע raša’ meaning “evil.”

Orthographically, different dialects of Karaim used slightly different methods to write their language in Hebrew, but some aspects are common throughout. 

  • The vowels אַ and אָ are used indistinctly for a, and אֵי and אֶי are used for e.

  • The vowels אִי, אוֹ, and אוּ all have both rounded and unrounded forms, following the rules of Turkic vowel harmony.

  • The letter ק marks both /k/ and /x/, etymologically indistinct sounds in Karaim.

  • The letter צ was pronounced like /t͡ʃ/, rather than /ts/ — with the exception of the Halych dialects, which merged in the opposite direction.

In the 1930s, the secular pan-Turkicist Seraja Szapszał was put in place as the head of the Karaite community of the Soviet Union, aided by his ties with the Stalinist regime. Near the end of the decade, he began to enforce a dejudaization program among the Karaite communities of the region, removing Hebrew influence and mandating the teaching of a falsified version of history that claimed the Karaites to be pagan descendants of the Khazars. When the Nazis came, Szapszał successfully convinced them that the Karaites of Eastern Europe were not really Jews, and thus received an exemption from their extermination campaign — at the cost of publicly disavowing their Jewish identity.

 

 

 

 

Modern Karaim has been almost completely purged of Hebrew vocabulary, to the point where even the holidays have been renamed — what was once referred to as Hag Hamaćot (Passover) is now called Tymbyl Chydžy (flatbread week). Some have suggested that it is artificial to refer to modern spoken Karaim as a Jewish language at all, due to the Turkicization forced upon it. But despite the Hebrew being removed from their language, the Karaim of Eastern Europe never forgot their Jewishness. And even if the lexicon has been de-Judaized, the syntactic and morphological influence that Hebrew has had on Karaim remains. And though no community is entirely unified in its self-perception, today both the Lithuanian and Polish Karaite organizations openly affirm their Jewish heritage.

In recent years the Crimean Karaim community has largely shifted to speaking Russian, partially because of widespread assimilation and partially on account of the dangerous political situation for non-Russian speakers in Crimea. The Karaim communities in Lithuania and Poland, though, have greatly increased their efforts to preserve and revive their ancestral language in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 1979, the journal Awazymyz has been published by the Karaim of Poland, featuring newly written works in the Karaim language. Despite the loss of the native Lutsk Karaim-speaking community, younger learners have made an extraordinary effort to preserve as much as they can and to create something new. The Lithuanian Karaim community is in the process of developing an extracurricular “Sunday school” program to teach younger members of the community about the language and heritage of the Troki community. 

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Dictionaries and Language Guide

  • Csató, É. and Natha, D. 2006. The Karaim Multi Dictionary (Karaim-Russian). Online.

  • Firkovičius, M. 1996. Mień karajče ürianiam. [I learn Karaim.] Vilnius: Danelius.

  • Kobeckaitė, H. 2011. Rozmówki polsko-karaimsko-litewskie [A Polish-Karaim-Lithuanian phrasebook]. Wrocław: Bitik.

  • Mardkowicz, A. 1935. Karaj sez-bitigi. Słownik karaimski. Karaimisches wörterbuch. [Karaim dictionary.] Drukarnia Richtera. Lutsk.

To cite: Mayer, Isaac. n.d. Karaim. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/karaim. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.