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Jewish Languages


The linguistic history of the Jews accurately mirrors their dispersion over the world. The prehistory of the Hebrews took place in the Aramaic sphere, and the impact of that tongue on the first "Jewish" language, Hebrew, was so strong that it has been called a fusion of Canaanite and Aramaic. The lifespan of Hebrew covers roughly the period of the political independence of those speaking it. It does not, however, coincide with the era in which they inhabited Ereẓ Israel because, some centuries before the Christian era, Hebrew had started giving way to Aramaic, which had been spreading over wide areas of western Asia, including Palestine. Different branches developed which had their parallels in Judeo-Aramaic (i.e., the Jewish forms of Aramaic). Both language groups survived until the seventh century C.E. Two branches, however, are still alive – in far developed forms – the larger one in a few small communities in Kurdistan, Christian as well as Jewish. The language of the Jews there is known as Jabali.

Long before the end of the Second Temple period the Greek Koinē had been adopted by the Jews of the Hellenistic world – in the Balkans, Cyprus, southern Italy (Graecia Magna), the Black Sea region, and Egypt. The other great language of European classical antiquity, Latin, played a certain role in Jewish linguistic history. However, Blondheim's theory according to which the Judeo-Romance languages sprang from a common Judeo-Latin stock proved to be farfetched. The Jewish communities of Late Antiquity were Greek-speaking even after they settled in Rome and in the western provinces of the Empire. The crystallization of a specifically Jewish counterpart of the various Romance vulgars goes back to a far later period. Moreover not every scholar of Jewish languages would add the determiner "Judeo-" to the Romance languages spoken by Medieval Jews in the Romance country. The Old French used by Rashi in 11th-century France and the Old Spanish used by Iberian Jews before the expulsion do not seem to have differed from the languages of the Christian surroundings. Indeed, the use of Hebrew letters in order to commit the Romance vernaculars to writ does not constitute a sufficient criterion to consider a Jewish variety of Romance vulgar (la'az) a full-fledged Judeo-Language.

To the east of the Romance territory, Germanic has given rise to only one Jewish language: *Yiddish. This originated among Romance-speaking Jews who either immigrated to a German-speaking region or else inhabited a Romance area that had been taken over by a Germanic tribe. Nothing is known about the Jews in Germany between Roman times and the Carolingian period, so that Jewish history there effectively begins in the ninth century C.E. It is thought that *Yiddish did not evolve as a separate language before the 13th century, that is, at the stage of Middle German. The process of koineization that led to the crystallization of Proto-Yiddish is bound up with the beginning of the emigration of the German Jews eastwards, following the growing hostility of the Gentile surroundings. The components of this koiné are not always easy to identify. Several theories compete. The first one sees Rhineland as the cradle of Yiddish. The second one associates the nucleus of Yiddish with Central dialects like Thuringian or East-Franconian. Besides, some features from such Southern dialects as Bavarian are recognizable in the koiné on which Yiddish is based.

A small element of Romance origin still survives in present-day Yiddish. But the most important external influence exerted upon Yiddish was that of the Slavic languages. When Yiddish- or Proto-Yiddish- speaking Jews still lived in Germany, they may have been in contact with Czech. Later on, after their migration to Eastern Central and Eastern Europe, Polish played a crucial role in the process of Slavization of Yiddish. Before WW II, Yiddish-speaking Jews comprised three-quarters of the entire Jewish people.

In the seventh century C.E. an important language change took place in the Orient. When the Arabs conquered much of western Asia, their new religion, Islam, was adopted by the inhabitants of wide areas in that region, and, with it, the Arabic language and alphabet. The Jews, too, adopted Arabic, although they did not abandon their religion and their alphabet. Their tongue, Judeo-Arabic, was like Arabic spoken over far too wide an area to remain uniform. Its most divergent branches are the Maghrebi ones of northwestern Africa, parallels to the local dialects of the Muslims (see *Judeo-Arabic/Judeo-Berber).

However, not all the areas that embraced Islam adopted Arabic. The most important exception was Persia, although here the Arabic alphabet was taken over, many Persian scholars and poets writing in Arabic and the Persian language itself being strongly influenced by that tongue. Thus, in the Iranian lands the Jews developed a Jewish variety of Farsi usually called *Judeo-Persian; in Central Asia, the Jews of Uzbekistan developed a Jewish variety of Tadjik; in Daghestan, the Dagh Churfut ("Mountain Jews") speak *Judeo-Tatic, an archaic variety of Farsi enriched with Hebrew words. In the southern Caucasus, in Georgia, we come across a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European Jewish language, Judeo-Georgian, which hardly differs from the Georgian spoken by the non-Jewish surrounding. To the west, there arose another language of neither Semitic nor Indo-European stock: Crimchak, spoken by the Crimean Jews and belonging to the Turkic language family (see *Krimchaks).

The languages of the Karaites form a group of their own; Karay in Lithuania and Poland; and Chaltay in the Crimea. Both of the latter go back to a common origin (in the Turkic family), but diverged widely.

The inroads of secularization in the 19th and 20th centuries have affected all the Jewish languages. Since statistics are not available, we do not know to what extent the number of speakers in each group has decreased.


New languages have perpetually come into being in the course of history. The causes are common to all linguistic development: migration, involving separation from the original language territory; divergence, through the growth of different political centers; and intermingling of populations, through conquest or pacific interpenetration. Of these causes only one has played a role in Jewish linguistic history – migration, i.e., the dispersion of the Jews over Asia and Europe during the centuries around the beginning of the Christian era. However, once the dispersion had, in the main, been completed, migration only rarely accounted for linguistic evolution, as in the development of East Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish. Language is a function of group life. The Jewish group is a creation of the Jewish religion, and that this is true of the past is beyond doubt. Hence the Jewish languages are creations of the group-forming factor of religion. This basic cause is reflected in features common to all of them: (1) they contain an element of Hebrew and Aramaic; (2) they are written in the Hebrew alphabet; and (3) the origin of their respective spelling systems is talmudic orthography.


The correct designation for the various linguistic structures of the Jews is Jewish languages. All other names make no sense in modern linguistic scholarship; the terms "dialects," "jargons," "mixed languages," "corrupted languages," "Creolized languages," "Judeo-…," etc. are to be rejected for the following reasons. Jewish languages are not jargons, because a jargon is the restricted vocabulary used by those engaged in a particular occupation, but does not form the general vehicle of communication among its members. The Jewish languages are not more mixed than many other tongues, ranging from English and German to Persian and Turkish. They are not corruptions, because they obviously fulfill their function. The individuals within the Jewish groups in question communicate with each other through the medium of the particular language. When a linguistic structure fulfills this function, it is not "corrupted." There is much less justification for calling these Jewish tongues "Creolized" languages than there would be for classifying French or Spanish as "Creolized Latin."

The Hebrew and Aramaic Elements

In the Jewish languages, Hebrew and Aramaic elements form part of an uninterrupted development in speech and writing: they represent the present linguistic stage of a continuous process, previous stages of which crystallized into the languages of the Bible, Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, liturgy, etc. In other words, they are connected with the sphere of religion, Judaism. This does not mean that the words in question are exclusively religious terms. Only a small minority can be so described. Moreover, these elements are to be found not only in the vocabularies of the Jewish languages, but also in their morphology and syntax, which cannot have any connection with religion.


The Hebrew script is not included as part of the Hebrew and Aramaic elements, because language and script are independent of each other. Thus the script constitutes evidence of its own for the religious basis of the Jewish languages. It is a fact that the alphabet in which a language is written is, broadly speaking, decided by the religion of those speaking it. Maltese, for example, materially an Arabic language, is written in Latin characters because the Maltese are a Christian people belonging to the Western (Roman Catholic) Church. The same is true of the Croats, who, therefore, use the Latin alphabet for Croatian; while Serbian, for all practical purposes the exact same language, is written in the Cyrillic characters employed by the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches of Europe (apart from the Greek). The Arabic alphabet is used by the most heterogeneous languages and language-families (Persian, Urdu, Kurdish, Ottoman Turkish, Chagatay, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili, Malayalam, Haussa, Nubian, Fula, etc.), because those speaking them are Muslims. Cases where the religious factor has not been the historical cause for the use of a script appear to be very rare.


H. Loewe, Die Sprachen der Juden (1911); S.A. Birnbaum, in: Essays Presented to Dr. J.H. Hertz (1943), 51–67; Idem, in: Slavonic and East European Review, 29 (1951), 42–443. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.H. Paper (ed.), Jewish Languages, Themes and Variations (Proceedings of Regional Conferences of the Association for Jewish Studies Held at The University of Michigan and New York University in MarchApril 1975) (1978); J.A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages (1985); S. Morag, M. Bar Asher, and M. Meyer Modena (eds.), Vena Hebraica in Judæorum Linguis. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Jewish Languages (Milan, October 2326, 1995) (1999).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.