Some unsolved questions about the languages of the Jews

written by Professor Bernard Spolsky

It’s great to be relevant! A few weeks after my sociolinguistic history of the Jewish people was published, a Reuters story highlighted a dispute between the visiting Pope Francis and the Israeli Prime Minister over the language spoken by Jesus (Reuter, 28 May 2014). “Jesus spoke Hebrew”, Netanyahu stated.  “Aramaic”, responded the Pope. He almost certainly knew both Hebrew and Aramaic, and also Greek (and maybe a little Latin), I would have answered, as I did in one of the earliest studies that I published that marked my growing interest in the language of the Jews.

But this disagreement turns out to be only one the many examples of disputes that I found in my research.  There are, I learned, scholars who argue that Jews stopped speaking Hebrew soon after they returned from the first exile in Babylonia (say about 700 BCE), and others who find evidence that it was still spoken after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, as late as the second century of the Common Era. A nine hundred year spread seems a lot; however, seeing we have very little direct evidence of who spoke what, but must depend on much later written sources, we can understand the uncertainties of historical sociolinguistics.

As I carried out my studies, a number of similar major disagreements and doubts emerged. One concerned the origin of the Jewish variety that developed strongest claims to status as a language, Yiddish. There are continuing arguments (some almost violent) about the location where Jews (still reading and writing Hebrew but speaking another variety derived from a non-Jewish “co-territorial” language) started to speak Medieval German and made it their own by adding many words and phrases from Hebrew (or actually from the Hebrew and Aramaic that had become the regular language of religious expression and literacy). The classic theory by the major scholar, Max Weinreich, holds that Yiddish started when Jews speaking a French-based language moved into the Rhineland, and before the Crusades set up barriers between them and Christians that drove them into ghettos, picked up the local spoken German dialect. Another theory (and one that Weinreich recognizes in the footnotes which add a second volume to his monumental history of Yiddish) argues that Yiddish developed further east, in Regensburg in Swabia.  Others suggest it developed further east even: one theory holds that it was Jews living in Prague speaking a Slavic based variety who adopted it from the German-speaking Swabian farmers who moved in and populated the region in the 13th century. There are more extreme theories: one Israeli scholar has put forward the notion that it derives from a relexified version of the language of the Sorbians who he believed converted to Judaism, and others relate it to the mythical accounts of the conversion of the Khazars (but recent research has challenged any genetic evidence for the Khazarian hypothesis that Koestler proposed, and has cast serious doubt on the stories of the conversion itself, just as unlikely as the 13th century belief that the invading Mongols were Jews or one of the missing Ten Tribes).

“…the fact that Jewish children mainly attended schools in the local national languages suggests that even without the
subsequent Soviet banning of Yiddish culture and the Nazi extermination of millions of its speakers, Yiddish too would soon
have become an endangered language”.

There is no question that East European Jews developed Yiddish into their main spoken language (although there were many variants that are traced in the major Yiddish dialect atlas that is now appearing), although they continued to pray and write Hebrew. Only in the late 19th century did Yiddish literature start to appear, reaching a high point in the 20th century between the two wars. Here again, there is a quarrel, for in spite of the double standardization (one by YIVO in Warsaw and Vilna, and the second under Soviet imprimatur  in Moscow) and the associated burgeoning of secular Yiddish writing, the fact that Jewish children mainly attended schools in the local national languages suggests that even without the subsequent Soviet banning of Yiddish culture and the Nazi extermination of millions of its speakers, Yiddish too would soon have become an endangered language.

Jewish varieties developed elsewhere in the extensive Diaspora.  Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 took with them a language variety which developed in North Africa into Haketia and in the Balkans and Turkey into Ladino, which itself developed in time a strong literature. Ladino was replaced in Turkey first by French (when the Alliance Israélite Universelle set up schools for Jews) and then by Turkish (reformed and established by Kemal Ataturk). Jews in the Arab speaking world developed varieties of Judeo-Arabic, used in the Middle Ages to write philosophical and religious works (as second class citizens, Jews and Christians under Islam were forbidden to learn Classical Arabic); in North Africa, they switched to French after colonization, and by the time they were expelled from Arabic countries after the UN decision in 1947, they had little loyalty to Arabic and were easily persuaded to adopt local hegemonic languages, whether Hebrew in Israel or French in France.

And in the West, emancipation and even more the introduction of compulsory state education in the national language, worked against the continuation of Jewish varieties, most of which by now are spoken if at all by the elderly. But there remain some signs of life – Yiddish has been adopted as a spoken variety for boys in some Hasidic sects. And there have grown up postvernacular activities for many of the languages: local groups that learn and read Yiddish or Ladino, theatres that present plays in these two languages and in Judeo-Arabic, web-sites that teach and preserve a number of Jewish varieties; for supporters, the varieties have symbolic and not communicative relevance. And there are signs of the creation of new Jewish varieties, such as the Jewish English learned by newly-observant young Jews, incorporating the Yiddish and Hebrew words and grammar of the Haredim.

The study of Jewish language varieties is quite new, and it is made especially difficult because the historical evidence we have of spoken language is limited, and dependent often on much later written developments. But tracing their history, we can learn how the wandering Jew fared in different times and places, and how Hebrew remained and still remains the main force for identity.

Find out more about The Languages of the Jews and download an excerpt here.

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