Description by Isaac Mayer
Krymchak was the Turkish language spoken by the Rabbinate community of the Crimean Peninsula. The language was known within the community as Tatar Tili or Čagaday, historically as Čaltay or Turqi, and by outsiders and scholars as Qırımčaq, Judeo-Rabbinic Turkic, or Rabbinic Judeo-Crimean Tatar. While in much of the world the Jewish community is predominantly Rabbinate Jews (Jews who accept the legitimacy of the Mishnah and Talmud), the community of Crimea is deeply divided between Rabbinate and Karaite Jews, with Rabbinic Jews often being the minority.
The Rabbinic community in Crimea dates back to the 11th century or so, founded by Byzantine Jews fleeing the crusades, and expanding greatly in the 15th and 16th centuries with Sephardic influx. The age of Krymchak as a distinct language, though, is under some dispute. What is certain is that the term “Krymchak” dates to no earlier than the nineteenth century, after the Russian conquest of Crimea, and was first used to distinguish the Crimean Rabbinate community from its Ashkenazi neighbors.
The majority of written Krymchak texts fall into a few categories: some older liturgical texts (like this Haggadah published in 1904) and religious poetry, and family journals known as jönk or džönk, which held a miscellaneous selection of texts, stories, and personal accounts, and would be passed down from father to eldest son.
Written texts in Krymchak are quite similar to local Crimean Tatar dialects with regard to their usage of Arabic and Persian lemmas and their general phonology, but they are distinguished through Hebrew syntactic and lexical influence. Hebrew loanwords are almost exclusively in the religious sphere, and generally follow Turkic declension norms. The term סדריו (his tractates of Mishnah) is translated as סדרלרי — seder-ler-i. Uniquely to Krymchak, these assimilated forms sometimes preserve Hebrew final letters and treat the suffixes as separate postpositions — for instance, the Hebrew word חֲכָמִים “sages” is translated as חָכָם לָר haham lar.
Names of language:
Endonyms: Tatar Tili, Čaltay
Exonyms: Krymchak, Qırımčaq, Rabbinic Judeo-Crimean Tatar, Judeo-Rabbinic Turkic
Historical Names: Čagaday/Chagatai, Turqi
Territories where it was/is spoken:
15th century: centered in Kaffa (now Feodosia, Crimea)
18th century: in Qarasubazar (now Bilohirsk, Crimea)
Estimated # speakers:
- 1940: 8,000
- 2022: Fewer than 200 semi-speakers, all over eighty
Cyrillic script (later)
prayer books, poetry, jönk (family journals)
Song in Krymchak
Image of a Krymchak Family
Karaite and Rabbinic Jews used a common Hebrew writing system, largely based on Byzantine practice with some Ashkenazi influence. The letter ט was almost exclusively used to mark /t/, even in words of Hebrew origin spelled with a ת. In both Turkic and Hebrew words the letter צ was exclusively pronounced /t͡ʃ/ (so “Krymchak” was קרימצאק). The letter ק could stand for /q/, /k/, or /x/, and the sound /f/ (only found in borrowed words) was not distinguished from /p/. The sounds /γ/, /ʤ/, and /ŋ/ were all generally written as a גׄ with a mark above, with different individual scribes using different practices. The Cyrillic orthography developed by Rebi and Ačkinazi in the 1990s largely uses the same orthography as Russian, but with six additional letters: гь /γ/, къ /q/, нъ /ŋ/, ö /ø/, ÿ /y/, and чъ /ʤ/, and without the letters ё, ю, я, or ъ.
Following is a brief text example, from a Krymchak adaptation of the Targum Song of Songs, chosen for its distinctly Rabbinate content. Notice the use of Turkish declension and pluralization on nouns of Hebrew origin, a rare feature among Jewish languages.
Translation: And its six orders of Mishnah with the girsa of the Gemara
Unfortunately, the story of Krymchak went through a similar trauma to many European Jewish languages. During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Nazis murdered two-thirds of the Rabbinate community of Crimea. The Karaite community convinced the invaders that they were of Turkic rather than Jewish ethnicity (a fictional claim) and largely managed to avoid the camps, with some cases of Karaites going so far as turning Rabbinates over to the Nazis. The mass slaughter of the Nazi era (commemorated on 11 December every year), combined with Stalin’s policies of “detatarization” and Soviet-era oppression, have all but destroyed the Krymchak language. Today there are approximately 1500 descendants of the Krymchak community remaining, more than half in Israel, but less than 200 elderly members have even a basic grasp of the language.
In 1989, a communal organization known as "Kyrymchakhlar," the Cultural and Educational Society of Krymchaks in the Crimean Republic, was founded in Simferopol. It has published a substantial amount on the popular science, literature, and heritage of the Krymchak people. Unfortunately, most of its work is only accessible in Ukrainian or Russian, and since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 their state funding was removed and local information has slowed to a halt. Even so, regardless of the political troubles in the region, the existence of the Kyrymchakhlar society shows that there are still Krymchaks passionate about preserving their unique cultural and linguistic heritage. You can read more about the Kyrymchakhlar society here.