Some unsolved questions about the languages of the Jews

Image
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.

The Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs

Fig. 1

Middle Egyptian, written by Proffessor James Allen, introduces the reader to the writing system of ancient Egypt and the language of hieroglyphic texts. It explores the most important aspects of ancient Egyptian history, society, religion, literature, and language. Grammar lessons and cultural essays allows users not only to read hieroglyphic texts but also to understand them, providing the foundation for understanding texts on monuments and reading great works of ancient Egyptian literature. This third edition is revised and reorganized, particularly in its approach to the verbal system, based on recent advances in understanding the language. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).

1. Language and Writing

1.1 Family
Egyptian is the ancient and original language of Egypt. It belongs to the language family known as Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic and is related to both of that family’s branches: North African languages such as Berber and Beja, and Asiatic languages such as Arabic, Ethiopic, and Hebrew. Within Afro-Asiatic, Egyptian is unique. It has features that are common to both branches, although it is closer to the African side of the family.

1.2 History

Egyptian first appeared in writing shortly before 3200 BC and remained a living language until the eleventh century AD1. Beginning with the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641, Arabic gradually replaced Egyptian as the dominant language in Egypt. Today, the language of Egypt is Arabic. Egyptian is a dead language, like Latin, which can only be studied in writing, though it is still spoken in the rituals of the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Church. Throughout its long lifetime, Egyptian underwent tremendous changes. Scholars classify its history into two phases and five major stages:

Earlier Egyptian

1) Old Egyptian is the first stage of the language. Although Egyptian writing is first attested before 3200 BC, these early inscriptions (called Archaic Egyptian) consist only of names and labels. Old Egyptian proper is dated from approximately 2700 BC, when the first extensive texts appeared, until about 2100 BC.

2) Middle Egyptian (or Classical Egyptian) is closely related to Old Egyptian. First attested around 2100 BC, it survived as a spoken language for some five hundred years but remained the standard hieroglyphic language for the rest of ancient Egyptian history. Middle Egyptian is the phase of the language discussed in this book.

Later Egyptian

3)Late Egyptian began to replace Middle Egyptian as the spoken language after 1600 BC, and it remained in use until about 600 BC. Though descended from Old and Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian differed substantially from the earlier phases, particularly in grammar. Traces of Late Egyptian can be found in texts earlier than 1600 BC, but it did not appear as a full written language until after 1300 BC.

4) Demotic developed out of Late Egyptian. It first appeared around 650 BC and survived until the fifth century AD.

5) Coptic is the name given to the final stage of ancient Egyptian, which is closely related to Demotic. It appeared at the end of the first century AD and was spoken for nearly a thousand years thereafter. The last known texts written by native speakers of Coptic date to the eleventh century AD.

1.3 Dialects
Egyptian also had several dialects. These regional differences in speech and writing are best attested in Coptic, which had five major dialects. They can only be partly detected in the writing of earlier phases of Egyptian, but they undoubtedly existed then as well: a letter from about 1200 BC complains that a correspondent’s language is as incomprehensible as that of a northern Egyptian speaking with an Egyptian from the south. The southern dialect of Coptic, known as Saidic, was the classical form; the northern one, called Bohairic, is the dialect used in Coptic Church services today.

1.4 Hieroglyphs
The basic writing system of ancient Egyptian consisted of about five hundred common signs, known as hieroglyphs. The term “hieroglyph” comes from two Greek words meaning “sacred carvings,” which are a translation, in turn, of the Egyptians’ own name for their writing system, “the god’s speech.” Each sign in this system is a hieroglyph, and the system as a whole is called hieroglyphic (not “hieroglyphics”).

Unlike Mesopotamian cuneiform or Chinese, whose beginnings can be traced over several hundred years, hieroglyphic writing seems to appear in Egypt suddenly, around 3250 BC, as a complete system. Scholars are divided in their opinions about its origins. Some suggest that the earlier, developmental stages of hieroglyphic were written on perishable materials, such as wood, and simply have not survived. Others argue that the system could have been invented all at once by an unknown genius. Although it was once thought that the idea of writing came to Egypt from Mesopotamia, recent discoveries indicate that writing arose independently in Egypt.

People since the ancient Greeks have tried to understand this system as a mystical encoding of secret wisdom, but hieroglyphic is no more mysterious than any other system that has been used to record language. Basically, hieroglyphic is nothing more than the way the ancient Egyptians wrote their language . To read hieroglyphic, therefore, you have to learn the Egyptian language.

[1]  Some scholars prefer BCE and CE rather than BC and AD. Because both conventions use the same benchmark (see Essay 9), however, this book retains the older system.

look inside

 

 

Read the full excerpt from Middle Egyptian, An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, here.