Exploring Language and Linguistics

Blog post written by Liz Morrish co-author of Exploring Language and Linguistics  

Exploring Language and Linguistics I Cambridge University PressWhen we contemplated producing a new introductory textbook in Linguistics, we wanted to offer students something different. Engagement and learning gain are hot topics in higher education circles at the moment, and we feel this book is ahead of the curve. Introductory textbooks can sometimes leave the curious student unsatisfied. They can open up a subject, and then leave the reader wondering where to go next. We decided that students should begin their experience of linguistics with high-quality chapters written by internationally-recognized experts in each of the different fields. The authors have been selected for their experience in writing for an introductory undergraduate audience, to present each sub-discipline of linguistics in an accessible manner. Universities should offer research-led teaching right from day one, and we wanted to capture that aspiration in this textbook.

We also wanted to make sure that students were as engaged by theoretical chapters as much as by chapters in applied linguistics. To ensure this, we have asked authors to structure their chapters around text-box summaries, and frequent exercises (yes, the answers are in the back of the book). There is also an interactive website to support the book, with even more exercises for students to confirm understanding and get feedback. In response to an excellent suggestion by a reviewer, we have also included a group exercise for each chapter.

We were aware that linguistics courses in the US tend to emphasize more structural approaches (phonology, syntax etc.), while those in the UK feature more applied and discourse analytical approaches. In the introductory module which we as editors have co-taught for many years, we have always treated these two approaches equally. We know that students need a thorough grounding in the levels of linguistic description and the tools of linguistic analysis before they are fully prepared to progress to more advanced courses and apply their learning to real-world settings.

To give some examples of how we offer students engaging and challenging exercises:

The phonetics chapter explains the articulation of consonants and vowels, and leads students to a group exercise in making sociophonetic observations. Students will be able to confirm their understanding in the sociolinguistics chapter where the group exercise asks them to make judgements drawing on concepts in phonology, grammar, lexis and discourse in investigating data from the archive of the British Library’s website Sounds Familiar? The language and ideology chapter introduces students to analytical techniques which uncover ideologies in texts, and their relationship to power structures. In the web exercise on language and the media, groups of students are invited to bring these concepts to an examination of a website of a news organisation and critically evaluate the meanings inherent in choices of language, attribution and even pictures as they affect the reading of stories.

It could be argued that the authors of the structural chapters have had a tougher challenge in engaging students, but this has been fully met with some excellent resources and exercises:

The syntax chapter invites students to solve problems by playing with word order in noun phrases; the pragmatics chapter presents data of children with pragmatic disorders so that students can use concepts such as presupposition to diagnose clinical problems; the semantics chapter requires students to question the basis of antonymy and contrast in the lexicon.

This book is fascinating and accessible. It will structure the learning of all students, and extend the conceptual abilities of the most able. We are definitely expecting to see great results in our own modules.

Find out more about this textbook written by Natalie Braber, Liz Morrish & Louise Cummings here

Explore the latest titles on the Virtual Linguistics Bookcase…

Cambridge University Press presents the Virtual Linguistics Bookcase tour. Click the bookcase below to take a virtual tour of some of our newest titles. When you find a product that you want to find out more about simply click the link provided to be taken to the Cambridge University website for more information and to buy.


Virtual Linguistics Bookcase


Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World

Post written by Jennifer Austin, María Blume & Liliana Sánchez authors of Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World.

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking WorldBilingualism, and how it affects language and cognitive development, is a topic of increasing relevance in an interconnected world. In Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World, we examine how the outcomes of bilingualism are shaped by factors at the individual level, such as age of acquisition and the amount and type of input, as well as societal support for the minority language in the form of dual-language education and similar initiatives. By analyzing previous research on the effects of these variables on bilingual speakers’ linguistic representations, as well as their minds and brains, we have attempted to provide a better understanding of some emerging conceptual views of the bilingual speaker. We also discuss how societal maintenance of bilingualism differs within the three multilingual communities which are the focus of this book: Peru, Spain and the United States. The status of Spanish varies between these regions; in Peru and the Spanish Basque Country, Spanish is a high-status, majority language, and in the United States, it is a minority language with varying degrees of prestige. While these three communities are linked by the common thread of bilingualism in Spanish, they provide diverse perspectives on the experience of being bilingual in distinct cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.

In the first chapter of the book, we examine how the concept of bilingualism has evolved from early definitions which included the expectation that bilinguals should behave like monolinguals, as in Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as the “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 55-56). Increasingly, contemporary theories of bilingualism view differences between bilinguals and monolinguals as expected and normal, rather than deficiencies on the part of the bilingual. In addition, we discuss how heritage speakers challenge previous expectations regarding bilingualism, namely that the first language acquired is always the dominant one (the “mother tongue”), as well as the language that is acquired in a “native-like” fashion.

In the second chapter, we discuss recent research showing that the two languages of a bilingual are highly interconnected at the lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. We also review evidence that the continual interaction between the languages of a bilingual has important repercussions for cognitive development in bilingual children beginning early in infancy. These include enhanced executive function skills stemming from bilinguals’ need to monitor and inhibit one of their languages, as well as enhanced literacy abilities for bilingual children acquiring same-script languages. Bilingualism also produces neuroanatomical changes in multilingual speakers, including enhanced subcortical auditory processing and increased grey matter density in the inferior parietal cortex, an effect that is modulated by language proficiency and age of acquisition. Finally in the second chapter we presented evidence regarding the factors that affect L1 and L2 attrition in bilinguals, including age of second language immersion, availability and type of input, and proficiency levels in each language.

The third chapter examines several theories which have been proposed to account for lexical and syntactic development in bilingual children and adults. While early theoretical accounts assumed that lexical and syntactic development occurred separately, more recent approaches have proposed that their acquisition is interconnected, a theoretical linguistic advance which finds empirical support in the studies of the bilingual lexicon by cognitive psychologists. In this chapter we also present research findings that have allowed the field of bilingualism to move from initial debates on unitary versus binary systems of representation to a more nuanced view of the development of the bilingual lexicon and syntax that involves the interplay of different language subcomponents.

The overall picture that emerges from this book is thatthe cognitive and linguistic effectsof bilingualism illustrate just how complex the representation and processing of language are in the human mind in ways that go beyond accounts based solely on the study of monolinguals.

To find out more about this new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Metonymy in a Nutshell

MetonymyPost written by Jeannette Littlemore, author of Metonymy

Metonymy is a kind of shorthand that people use all the time but don’t always think about that much, which is a shame because, when used well, metonymy can have significant persuasive powers and when used badly, can lead to severe misunderstandings. In a nutshell, metonymy is a process whereby one entity is used to refer to another. For example, in the UK we use the term ‘Number 10’ to refer to the Government, whereas in the USA it’s ‘the White House’; and in South Korea, it’s the ‘Blue House’. All of these examples involve a metonymic relationship in which a place stands for an institution. However, this is not the only kind of metonymic relationship. There are many others. The word ‘Hoover’ can be used metonymically to mean vacuum cleaner, via a producer for product relationship, or we might say that we ‘need a drink’, to refer specifically to alcoholic drink, which would evoke a whole for part metonymic relationship. We might say that we need ‘some muscle’, when what we need is a strong person to help us move some furniture, thus evoking a defining property for category metonymic relationship, and so on and so forth.

Unlike metaphor, which usually involves a comparison between two unrelated entities, metonymy is a process whereby one thing is used to refer to something else, to which it is closely related or even forms part of. The best way to illustrate this is with an authentic example such as the following from the ‘Bank of English’ (BofE) corpus:

Do you want me to pencil you in for the time being?

In this example, ‘pencil you in’ is used metonymically to mean ‘make a provisional appointment’. The secretary offers to write the appointment in pencil rather than pen so that the customer can make last minute changes if necessary. ‘Pencil in’ thus stands metonymically for what one might do with a pencil (i.e. write something down which can subsequently be erased).

This example is typical of the way in which metonymy is used in everyday language as a kind of communicative shorthand, allowing people to use their shared knowledge of the world to communicate with fewer words than they would otherwise need. In this particular example, metonymy serves a mainly referential purpose, but it can be used for a wide variety of communicative functions, such as relationship-building, humour, irony and euphemism.

Metonymic meanings can be very subtle and easily missed, especially in communication between people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds.

In my new book with Cambridge University Press, Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication, I explore and discuss its relationship with metaphor. I then move on to discuss the various models that have been proposed within Cognitive Linguistics to explain how metonymy operates, and highlight the benefits of each. In the book, I outline some of the key functions that metonymy performs in various forms of expression (language, gesture, art, film, dance and music), whilst maintaining a key focus on metonymy as a first and foremost cognitive process, which leave sits traces in these various forms of expression. After having briefly discussed difficulties in identifying metonymy, I examine the extant research into the neuro-linguistic processing of metonymy. Finally, I look at variations and similarities in the ways in which metonymy manifests itself across these different modes of expression and across different languages and cultures. The book is illustrated throughout with real-world examples of metonymy in different forms of expression.

Find out more on Jeannette Littlemore’s book Metonymy, published by Cambridge University Press.

The Acquisition of Syntactic Structure: Animacy and Thematic Alignment

The Acquisition of Syntactic StructurePost written by author Misha Becker discussing her recently published book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘.

Young children are fascinated by animals and captivated when inanimate things are made to come alive. Is there some way their understanding of the difference between “alive” and “not alive” can help them learn language?

In this book I explain a well-known puzzle in linguistic theory by arguing just that. Children expect the sentence subject (often the “do-er” of an action) to be animate, alive. So when they encounter a sentence where the subject is the rock or the house they are led to revise their understanding of the sentence to create a more complex underlying structure. This is what helps them understand the difference between a sentence like The house is easy to see, where the house is the thing being seen, and The girl is eager to see, where the girl is (or will be) doing the seeing. If you didn’t know the meaning of easy or eager, as very young children will not, how would you interpret these sentences? Imagine you hear a sentence like The girl/house is daxy to see. Does it matter whether the subject is girl or house in your guess about what daxy means, and in your interpretation of the seeing event?

I came to the idea for this book when I noticed how strongly adult speakers were influenced by animacy when I tried to make them think of certain abstract structures. When presented with “The girl ____ to be tall” people were more likely to write a verb like want or claim in the blank, but presented with “The mountain ____ to be tall” they were more likely to write seem or appear. Yet the underlying structure of the sentence differs, depending on whether the sentence contains want/claim or seem/appear. In linguistic parliance, the subject of seem/appear is “derived”–it doesn’t really belong, thematically, to the verb, and in this sense the structure is more abstract and complex. It occurred to me that if adults were so strongly influenced by animate vs. inanimate subjects, then children might be as well.

This book describes numerous studies with children showing how the fundamental distinction between alive and not-alive interacts with their understanding of language and the world around them. But it also examines other facets of the animacy distinction with regard to language: how languages around the world place restrictions on animate and inanimate sentence subjects, how adults use animacy in their understanding of sentence structure, how and when babies first begin to represent the concept of animacy, and how computational models can be developed to simulate the use of a distinction like animacy in language learning. The final chapter of the book address the timeless question of where this understanding comes from–is the concept of animacy innate or learned, or both?

Find out more on Misha Becker’s new book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘. published by Cambridge University Press.

The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.

The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy

The Rise of Writing, Deborah BrandtPost written by author Deborah Brandt discussing her recently published book The Rise of Writing 

The belief that writing ability is a subsidiary of reading ability runs deep in society and schooling. You can only write as well as you can read. The best way to learn how to write is to read, read, and read some more. Commonplaces like these are easy to find in the advice of teachers and often well-known authors as well. Reading is considered the fundamental skill, the prior skill, the formative skill, the gateway to writing. At minimum, reading is thought to teach the techniques of textuality, the vocabulary, diction, spelling, punctuation, and syntax that any aspiring writer must master. Even more profound, reading is thought to shape character and intellect and provide the wisdom and worldliness that make one worthy to write. In every way reading is treated as the well from which writing springs. We need only try to reverse the commonplace advice to appreciate the superior position that reading holds. How many would readily agree that you can only read as well as you can write? Or that the best way to learn how to read is to write, write, and write some more? Writing has never attained the same formative and morally wholesome status as reading. Indeed, writing unmoored from the instructiveness of reading is often considered solipsistic and socially dangerous.

But in the wider society and over the last fifty years or more, writing has ascended as the main basis of many people’s daily literacy experiences and the main platform for their literacy development. Millions of working adults now spend four hours or more each day (sometimes, a lot more) with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences, writing so much, in fact, that they have little time or appetite for reading. In the so-called information economy writing has become a dominant form of labor and production. As a result, writing is eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence.   Spurred on especially by digital technologies, writing is crowding out reading and subordinating reading to its needs. The rise of writing over reading represents a new chapter—and a new challenge– in the history of mass literacy, a challenge especially for the school, which from its founding has been much more organized around a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few.

But now writers are becoming many. What are some of the changes that we need to pay attention to? Increasingly, people read from inside acts of writing, as they respond to others; research, edit or review other people’s writing; or search for styles or approaches to use in their own writing.  “Reading to write” in school has usually meant using reading to stimulate ideas or generate content, but in the wider world reading to write actually stands for a broader, more diverse, more diffused, more sustained and more comprehensive set of practices. Increasingly, how and why we write conditions how and why we read. Relatedly, we write among other people who also write. Learning to write along with other people who write (rather than from authors who address us abstractly) is a new aspect of mass literacy development. Audiences are made up not merely (or mostly) of receptive readers but also responsive writers; increasingly people write to catalyze or anticipate other people’s writing and people read with the aim of writing back.

Further, in an information society, writing is consequential. The kind of writing done by everyday people turns the wheels of finance, law, health care, government, commerce. As the power and consequence of writing courses through the consciousness of everyday people, their acts of writing are often sites of intellectual, moral, and civic reflection- but not necessarily in the same ways as acts of reading. Reading is an internalizing process. That is why the effects of literacy have been sought mostly on the inside: in the formation of character or the quality of inner life or intellectual growth.  But writing is a relentlessly externalizing process. Because writing unleashes language into the world, it engages people’s sense of power and responsibility.  It can be expected to bring more wear and tear, potentially more trouble. Writing risks social exposure, blame, even, in some cases, retaliation. It requires a level of courage and ethical conviction rarely cultivated in school-based literacy and rarely measured in standard assessments of writing ability.

We are at a critical crossroad in the history of mass literacy in which relationships between writing and reading are undergoing profound change. Writing is overtaking reading as the skill of critical consequence. Until only recently writing was a minor strain in the history of mass literacy, playing second fiddle to reading. But it is surging into prominence, bringing with it a cultural history, a set of cognitive dispositions, and a developmental arc that stand in contrast to reading. As an educational community, we have been slow to incorporate these shifting relationships into the questions we ask and the perspectives that we take. That writing remains so under-studied and under-articulated in comparison to reading is perhaps our greatest challenge.

To find out more about Deborah Brandt’s new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics

In this insightful talk John C Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London, discusses his latest book with Cambridge University Press, ‘Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics’, along with his research interests and, of course, his acclaimed phonetics blog (the content of which has helped to populate this new book).

Please click on the image to watch the video:

John C Wells author interview

Metaphor: What does figurative mean?

Random pile of colourful plastic letters
Figurative Language, written by Barbara Dancygier and Eve Sweetser, is a lively, comprehensive and practical book which offers a new, integrated and linguistically sound understanding of what figurative language is. The following extract is taken from the Introduction.

Thinking about figurative language requires first of all that we identify some such entity – that we distinguish figurative language from non-figurative or literal language. And this is a more complex task than one might think. To begin with, there appears to be a circular reasoning loop involved in many speakers’ assessments: on the one hand they feel that figurative language is special or artistic, and on the other hand they feel that the fact of something’s being an everyday usage is in itself evidence that the usage is not figurative. Metaphor, rather than other areas of figurative language, has been the primary subject of this debate. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) recount the story of a class taught by Lakoff at Berkeley in the 1970s in which he gave the class a description of an argument and asked them to find the metaphors. He expected that they would recognize phrases such as shoot down someone else’s argument, bring out the heavy artillery, or blow below the belt as evidence of metaphoric treatment of argument as War or Combat. Some class members, however, protested, saying, But this is the normal, ordinary way to talk about arguing. That is, because these usages are conventional rather than novel, and everyday rather than artistic, they cannot be metaphoric. However, there are many reasons to question this view, and to separate the parameters of conventionality and everyday usage from the distinction between literal and figurative. One of these is historical change in meaning: historical linguists have long recognized that some meaning change is metaphoric or metonymic. For example, around the world, words meaning ‘see’ have come to mean ‘know’ or ‘understand.’ Indeed, in some cases that past meaning is lost: English wit comes from the Indo-European root for vision, but has only the meaning of intellectual ability in modern English. But in other cases, such as the see in I see what you mean, metaphoric meanings in the domain of Cognition exist alongside the original literal Vision uses. This knowing is seeing metaphor is extremely productive: transparent, opaque, illuminate, and shed light on are among the many English locutions which are ambiguous between literal visual senses and metaphoric intellectual ones. Do we want to say that because these are conventional usages, they are not metaphoric? In that case, we would have to separate them completely from less entrenched uses which show the same metaphoric meaning relationship: if someone says they have examined a candidate’s record with a magnifying glass, we probably don’t want to say that there should be a dictionary entry for magnifying glass listing this usage. Still less would we want to make a new dictionary entry if someone said they had gone over the data with an electron microscope. As has been widely argued, starting with Lakoff and Johnson, the most plausible hypothesis here is that while wit is no longer metaphoric, transparent and shed light on are metaphoric – and that it is precisely the habitual use of conventional instances of the knowing is seeing metaphor which helps motivate innovative uses.

It is thus possible for metaphor or metonymy to motivate conventional extensions of word meanings – and figurative links which are pervasively used in this way shape the vocabularies of the relevant languages. At a first approximation, then, we might say that figurative means that a usage is motivated by a metaphoric or metonymic relationship to some other usage, a usage which might be labelled literal. And literal does not mean ‘everyday, normal usage’ but ‘a meaning which is not dependent on a figurative extension from another meaning.’ We will be talking about the nature of those relationships in more detail soon, but of course metaphor and metonymy are not the only motivations for figurative usage. In this context, we might say that polysemy – the relationship between multiple related conventional meanings of a single word – is often figurative in nature. English see continues to manifest simultaneously meanings related to physical vision and ones related to cognition or knowledge: Can you see the street signs? coexists with Do you see what I mean?.

Read the full excerpt here or find out more about Figurative Language here.

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.