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Eureka: Jewish linguistics
by Jay Gutman
2018-01-03 13:26:50
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I know it's a weird title. But what I want to discuss in this article is a few points on Jewish linguistics, that is on the languages that were spoken and written by Jews in the diaspora, how they evolved, and perhaps eventually disapeared.

jewlang01_400After the exile in 70 AD you had the Jews scattered around Europe and the Mediterranean. There were three areas with large Jewish populations up until the plagues in the 14th century in Europe. You had a large community in Germany, another big one in Spain, another sizeable one in North Africa. The three big communities were somehow interrelated. Jews from Germany would write a letter in Yiddish, the letter would be translated to Spanish, then the letter would be translated to Arabic and that's how the communities corresponded.

Why Yiddish, why Ladino, why Judeo-Arabic? Simple: if you look at the context of the time, literacy is really something that picked up in the 19th century and that became mainstream in the 20th century. But Judaism has had its written traditions for centuries. People spoke German, but often did not use the romanized system and writing was something for the elites. So naturally, German Jews wrote their letters in German, but rather than write them using the latin alphabet, chose the Hebrew alphabet instead. Same goes for the Jews of Spain who wrote letters in Spanish using the Hebrew alphabet and those of North Africa writing letters in Arabic using the Hebrew alphabet. This practice was common between the 7th and 15th centuries.

Now in 1370 the first bubonic plagues hit in North Africa and Western Europe. In 1492 the Jews of Spain were expelled. The bubonic plagues led German Jews to flee to Eastern Europe, to places like Poland, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, which were not hit hard by the plagues. Back then Eastern European societies were feudal societies with land owners and laborers, and the Jews were mainly craftsmen, making and selling clothes, shoes, jewelry, cutlery, plates and other crafts. Since Jews mainly lived in cities and in the margins of European feudal societies, the German Jews of Eastern Europe preserved German, still wrote it in Hebrew alphabet, and adopted a few Polish, Hungarian, Romanian or Russian words along with some Hebrew words. That's what made Yiddish unique, and familiar but difficult to understand for a native German.

Jews expelled from Spain moved to the Holland, Turkey, Jerusalem, North Africa and later the United States. Because North Africa had a  community that used Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish was not so prevalent and tended to die out. In Holland, Turkey and Jerusalem however Jews still communicated in Spanish well into the beginning of the 20th century.

Very important yet often forgotten historical fact: schools only became mandatory at the end of the 19th century in Europe and North Africa, and still only elementary school education was mandatory back then. So with the advent of schools and the school system, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic started competing with the local languages, usually French in North Africa, Dutch in Holland, Turkish in Turkey or European languages in Europe. Of course the tragedies of World War II further dealt a blow to the languages.

Jewish languages survived over the years for a number of factors: Jews were not part of the feudal societies they lived in and tended to live in the margins and work in the crafts. Jews always valued writing and the written language, and having written language and correspondances helped the languages survive.

Now I do see a few confused stares here and there so let me give an example to illustrate this. Imagine that Americans in South Korea were only allowed to teach English, were not part of the feudal society and were not technically allowed to marry South Koreans. English teachers would marry English teachers, living in districts where English teachers live, have children who would go to English schools and speak English at home, and the English language would survive for generations, although a few Korean words would be adopted here and there, which over the years would make that English variety difficult to understand for a native of the USA. Words like “chunner” meaning a thousand would be used and “manner” meaning ten thousand and words like “noon” would be adopted to describe the snow. Those would all be Korean words or hybrid words mixing English and Korean. You get the idea.

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