Jewish languages: Wikis


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A 16th century work by Elia Levita, showing (right to left) Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German translations.

Jewish languages are a set of languages and dialects that developed in various Jewish communities around the world, more notably in Europe, West Asia, and North 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. Often they were written in Hebrew letters, including the block letters used in Hebrew today and Rashi script. 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 descended. Among the most widely spoken Jewish languages to develop in the diaspora are Yiddish, which has been spoken by more Jews than any other language in history; Ladino, the language of much of Sephardic Jewry for five centuries; and the Judæo-Arabic group of languages which have been spoken in Arabic-speaking lands for nearly a millennium.

Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism (termed leshon ha-kodesh, "the holy tongue"), the language in which the Hebrew scriptures (Tanakh) were composed, and the daily speech of the Jewish people for centuries. By the fifth century BCE, Aramaic, a closely related tongue, joined Hebrew as the spoken language in Judea.[1] By the third century BCE, Jews of the diaspora were speaking Greek.

Hebrew was revived as a spoken language by Eliezer ben Yehuda, who arrived in Palestine in 1881. Modern Hebrew is now the official language of the State of Israel. It hadn't been used as a mother tongue since Tannaic times[1], i.e. since 200 CE. For over sixteen centuries Hebrew was used almost exclusively as a liturgical language, and as the language in which most books had been written on Judaism, with a few speaking only Hebrew on the Sabbath.[2] For centuries, Jews worldwide have spoken the local or dominant languages of the regions they migrated to, often developing distinctive dialectal forms or branching off as independent languages. Yiddish is the Judeo-German language developed by Ashkenazi Jews who migrated to Central Europe, and Ladino, also called Judezmo and Muestra Spanyol, is the Judeo-Spanish language developed by Sephardic Jews who lived in the Iberian peninsula. Due to many factors, including the impact of the Holocaust on European Jewry, the Jewish exodus from Arab lands, and widespread emigration from other Jewish communities around the world, ancient and distinct Jewish languages of several communities, including Gruzinic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Krymchak, Judeo-Malayalam and many others, have largely fallen out of use.

The three most commonly spoken languages among Jews today are English, modern Hebrew, and Russian, in that order. Some Romance languages, such as French and Spanish, are also widely used.[3] Overall, the language spoken by the largest number of Jews in history is Yiddish, followed closely by English and then Hebrew. This is due to the fact that Yiddish was spoken by the majority of the world's Jews for several centuries of high Jewish populations (13 million by 1939) and because the descendents of Yiddish speakers after the Holocaust split among speaking several different languages (Hebrew, English, Russian, etc) instead of switching to only one language.



The Aleppo Codex, a 10th century CE Hebrew Bible originating from the Middle East. The page shown is from the Book of Deuteronomy.

(uiji) 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, with a small amount of Biblical Aramaic, 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 (ktav ivrit), which continued to be used through the time of Solomon's Temple until changed to the new "Assyrian lettering" (ktav ashurit), the "square-script", 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 Koine Greek. To cater for their needs, the Bible had been translated into the Aramaic Targum and the Greek Septuagint. 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 continued to be the principal Jewish language. Most of the Talmud is written in Aramaic. Rashi wrote in Hebrew with references to the French language of his day. Later in the Middle Ages, most Jewish literary activity was carried out in Judeo-Arabic, which was 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.

An 11th century CE Tanakh with targum, an Aramaic translation alongside the Hebrew.

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 live in segregated communities. This segregation was partly enforced on them by the wider communities, and partly by choice in an endeavor to maintain their own culture. These sociological factors 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, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece; smaller groups in Europe spoke such languages as Judeo-Italian, Yevanic, or Karaim. The Jews of the Arab world spoke Judeo-Arabic varieties, while those of Iran spoke Dzhidi (Judeo-Persian); smaller groups spoke Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Tat or even, in Kurdistan, Judeo-Aramaic. The Beta Israel were abandoning their Kayla language for Amharic, while the Cochin Jews continued to speak Malayalam.

Contemporary trends

Signpost in Israel, showing directions in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

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 eradicated the vast majority of Yiddish- and German-speaking European Jews; and the Arab-Israeli conflict led many Jews to leave the Arab world for other countries (mainly Hebrew-speaking Israel and French-speaking 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 second 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, New Zealand, and some islands of the Caribbean, also have small Jewish communities which speak predominantly English.

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 million Israelis speak Russian fluently.

Signs in English and transliterated English (in Yiddish orthography) in the predominantly Hasidic area of Kiryas Joel, New York.

French, Spanish, Portuguese and Yiddish 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 Maghrebi Arabic or Ladino; however, most of them had already switched language before leaving North Africa. Spanish and Portuguese are spoken by large Jewish communities in Central and South America; Buenos Aires has a large Jewish community. 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 as by four to six hundred thousand individuals in Haredi communities. Although the number of older speakers is continually decreasing, there is revived interest in Yiddish in academia and the arts; and the populations of Yiddish-speaking Hasidic communities are growing, especially among younger generations.

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 preceding section. However, some of these languages, notably Judeo-Aramaic and Ladino, are considered to be gravely endangered.


Radio Broadcasts

Kol Israel (Israel's public service broadcaster) has long maintained daily short news and features programming in many Jewish languages and dialects. For domestic audiences it broadcast in Iraqi Jewish Arabic (Yahud) on its Arabic network. While producing: Yiddish, Ladino, Moroccan Jewish Arabic (Mughrabi or Marocayit), Bukharian (Central Asian Dialect) and Judeo-Tat for both to domestic and overseas shortwave audiences in relevant areas. In addition, for over two decades from the late 1970s a daily 30 minute shortwave transmission was made to Yemen in Yemenite Jewish Arabic.

Radio Exterior de España the Spanish International Public broadcaster provides programming in Ladino, which they refer to as Sefardi[4].

In the United States there are some local radio programs in Yiddish as there are also in Birobidjan in Russia.


The Hebrew alphabet has also been used to transcribe a number of languages including Arabic, English, French, Spanish[citation needed] (as opposed to Ladino), German (as distinct from Yiddish) and Greek. While not common, such practice has occurred intermittently over the last two thousand years, and probably was part of the basis of such languages as Ladino and Yiddish.

Conversely, Ladino, formerly written in Rashi script, since the 1920's is usually written in Turkey in the Latin alphabet with a spelling similar to that of Turkish, and has been occasionally printed in the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets[5]. Soviet authorities tried to promote the Cyrillic alphabet for Yiddish in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.[citation needed]

Also, some Yiddish-speakers have adopted the use of the Latin alphabet, in place of the Hebrew alphabet. This is predominantly to enable communications over the internet, without the need for special Hebrew keyboards.

List of Jewish languages

Jewish Culture
Visual Arts
Visual Arts list
Yiddish Ladino
Hebrew Israeli
American English
Philosophy list
Performance Arts
Music Dance
Israeli Cinema Yiddish Theatre
Jewish Israeli
Sephardi Ashkenazi
Humour Languages
Symbols Clothing

Afro-Asiatic languages

Indo-European languages




Alphabetical list


  1. ^ a b Grintz, Jehoshua M. "Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple." Journal of Biblical Literature. March, 1960.
  2. ^ Parfitt, T. V. "The Use of Hebrew in Palestine 1800–1822." Journal of Semitic Studies , 1972.
  3. ^ "Jewish Languages". Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. Retrieved 2008-07-03. 
  4. ^ REE programs in Ladino
  5. ^ Verba Hispanica X: Los problemas del estudio de la lengua sefardí, Katja Smid, Ljubljana, pages 113-124: Es interesante el hecho que en Bulgaria se imprimieron unas pocas publicaciones en alfabeto cirílico búlgaro y en Grecia en alfabeto griego. [...] Nezirović (1992: 128) anota que también en Bosnia se ha encontrado un documento en que la lengua sefardí está escrita en alfabeto cirilico. The Nezirović reference is: Nezirović, M., Jevrejsko-Spanjolska knjitévnost. Institut za knjifevnost, Svjeálost, Sarajevo, 1992. This inscription shows the influence of Spanish orthography: more correctly, in Ladino orthography it would have been written: "Es interesante el echo ke en Bulgaria se imprimieron unas pokas publikasiones en alfabeto siriliko bulgaro y en Gresia en alfabeto griego ...

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