Jewish languages

From Academic Kids

Template:Jewish language Jewish languages are a set of languages that developed in various Jewish communities, in Europe, southern and south-western Asia, and northern Africa. The usual course of development for these languages was through the addition of Hebrew words and phrases, used to express uniquely Jewish concepts and concerns, to the local vernacular. Due to the insular nature of many Jewish communities, many Jewish languages retain vocabulary and linguistic structures long after they have been lost or changed in later forms of the language from which they are descended.



The oldest and most treasured books of the Jewish people have been the Torah and Tanakh (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) written almost entirely in Biblical Hebrew and widely used by Jews during their history. Jews zealously studied these detailed Hebrew texts, observed the commandments formulated in them, based their prayers on them, and spoke its language. Jews maintained a belief that Hebrew was God's "language" as well (as it was the language God uses in the Torah itself), hence its name "lashon hakodesh" ("Holy language" or "tongue").

The earliest surviving Hebrew inscription, the Gezer Calendar, dates from the 10th century BCE; it was written in the so-called Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which continued to be used through the time of Solomon's Temple until changed to the new "Assyrian lettering" (ktav ashurit) by Ezra the Scribe following the Babylonian Exile. During this time there were also changes in the language, as it developed towards Mishnaic Hebrew. Until then, most Jews had spoken Hebrew in Israel and Judea, however, by the destruction of the Second Temple, most had already shifted to speaking Aramaic, with a significant number in the large diaspora speaking Greek. As Jews emigrated to far-flung countries, and as the languages of the countries they were in changed, they often adopted the local languages, and thus came to speak a great variety of languages. During the early Middle Ages, Aramaic was the principal Jewish language. The Targum and most of the Talmud is written in Aramaic; later in the Middle Ages, most Jewish literary activity was carried out in Judo-Arabic: Arabic written in the Hebrew alphabet; this is the language Maimonides wrote in. Hebrew itself remained in vigorous use for religious and official uses such as for all religious events, Responsa, for writing Torah scrolls, and along with Aramaic, retained a position of importance for the writing of marriage contracts and other literary purposes.

As time passed, these Jewish dialects often became so different from the parent languages as to constitute new languages, typically with a heavy influx of Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords and other innovations within the language. Thus were formed a variety of languages specific to the Jewish community; perhaps the most notable of these are Yiddish in Europe (mainly from German) and Ladino (from Spanish), originally in al-Andalus but spreading to other locations, mainly around the Mediterranean, due to the 1492 expulsion of practicing Jews from Spain and the persecution by the Inquisition of the conversos.

Jews in the diaspora have tended to form segregated communities, in part due to ostracisation and persecution by the surrounding communities, and in part due to a desire to maintain their own culture. This sociological factor contributed to the formation of dialects that often developed and diverged to form separate languages.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Yiddish was the main language of Jews in Eastern Europe (thus making it the language spoken by the majority of Jews in the world), while Ladino was widespread in the Maghreb, Greece, and Turkey; smaller groups in Europe spoke such languages as Italkian, Yevanic, or Karaim. The Jews of the Arab world spoke Judo-Arabic varieties, while those of Iran spoke Dzhidi (Judo-Persian); smaller groups spoke Judo-Berber, Judo-Tat or even, in Kurdistan, Judo-Aramaic. The Beta Israel were abandoning their Kayla language for Amharic, while the Cochin Jews continued to speak Malayalam.

Contemporary Trends

This broad picture was substantially modified by major historical shifts beginning in the late nineteenth century. The immigration of millions of European Jews to North America caused a dramatic increase in the number of Jewish English-speakers; colonialism in the Maghreb led most of its Jews to shift to French or Spanish; Zionism revived Hebrew as a spoken language, giving it a substantially increased vocabulary and a simplified sound system; the Holocaust tragically and massively eradicated the vast majority of Yiddish-speaking European Jews; and the Arab-Israeli conflict led many Jews to leave the Arab world for other countries (mainly Israel and France), whose languages they largely adopted.

Jews today speak a large variety of languages, typically adopting the languages of their countries of residence. The largest single language spoken by Jews is English: The largest Jewish population in the world is in the United States, and there are also large, substantial communities in Canada (a majority of Canadian Jews speak English, not French), the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. Ireland and New Zealand also have small English-speaking Jewish communities.

English is closely followed by Modern Hebrew, the spoken language in Israel, and by Israeli emigrants who live in other countries. Hebrew is the language of daily life in Israel, though a substantial proportion of the country's citizens are immigrants who speak it as their second language.

After English and Hebrew, the next largest language spoken by large populations of Jews is Russian, with perhaps two million speakers from the former Soviet Union, a majority of whom now live in Israel. Approximately 1.5 million Israelis speak Russian fluently.

French, Spanish, and Portugese constitute the final "tier" of languages spoken by major Jewish populations. French is spoken by hundreds of thousands of Jews in France and Quebec, most of them immigrants from North Africa who originally spoke Arabic. Spanish and Portugese are spoken by large Jewish communities in Central and South America. A substantial number of current immigrants to Israel speak French or Spanish as their mother tongue.

Yiddish continues to be spoken by older generations of Jews, as well is in Haredi communities. Although the number of older speakers is continually growing smaller, there is revived interest in Yiddish in academia and the arts.

Thus Yiddish, once the language of the majority of the world's Jews, continues to be spoken, as are nearly all the languages discussed in the preceeding section. However, some of these languages, (notably Judo-Aramaic) are considered to be gravely endangered.

List of Jewish Languages

Afro-Asiatic languages

Indo-European languages




Alphabetical list

External Links

de:Jdische Sprachen he:שפות יהודיות ja:ユダヤ諸語 ru:Еврейские языки tokipona:toki pi jan Juta


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