The Jewish people have been multilingual for most of their history, mainly because of their geographical diversity. Therefore, the Jewish languages are a variety of dialects and languages created by the Jewish communities in the diaspora. Hebrew is the original Jewish language; it was replaced by Aramaic as the main vernacular as a result of the Babylonian exile. The Jewish people have adopted not only the various languages spoken in their homelands but also adopted a good number of Jewish hybrid languages. In this regard, Jewish languages comprise of a syncretism of native Judeo-Aramaic and Hebrew languages together with other dialects spoken by the local non-Jewish population.
History Of Jewish Language Development
Towards the end of the Bronze age, the Hebrew language was not differentiated from other Semitic languages like Amarna, Canaanite, and Ugaritic, however, during the iron age 1200–540 BCE there was some noticeable difference. The Hebrew as a separate language is believed to have developed around Canaan, an area that lies between the Mediterranean Sea and River Jordan, in the Second Millennium BCE. Even though the main reason for the decline of the Hebrew language is not completely understood, the Babylonian exile is believed to have played a big role in hastening the process in 587 B.C.E. together with Palestine’s continued foreign rulership after the Second Restoration of the Temple period. The rest of the Jewish hybrid languages have been in existence for over two millennia, leaving linguists confused as to whether they should be considered as Creole languages, dialects, or unique languages. The most common Jewish hybrid languages include Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino. Here are some of the Jewish languages.
Dating back to 10th century B.C.E., Hebrew is part of the North Semitic language group spoken by more than 9 million people all over the world. Since the language is native to the nation of Israel, it is historically considered to be the language of the Israelites and their ancestors. Hebrew is also the Bible’s language, the main language spoken in modern-day Israel, and the principal language of Jewish liturgy. Hebrew is a great example of a successfully revived language that was dead, and the only living Canaanite language left.
Aramaic is a group of languages or a language that rose to prominence during the rabbinic era, sometime between 901 and 605 BC. Aramaic languages belong to the Northwest Semitic group which also comprises of Phoenician and Hebrew, which are part of the Canaanite languages. Aramaic is plausibly the second most significant Jewish language after Hebrew, and is known as Judeo-Aramaic. The language’s widespread and diverse use and long history has resulted in many dialects, of which most have become extinct. The Jewish Kurds mainly speak Judeo-Aramaic as important Jewish texts such as the Kaddish is written in the language.
Dating back to the 9th century, Yiddish is the Ashkenazi Jews’ historical language which came from Central Europe. The language provided an extensive Germanic based vernacular mixed with elements borrowed from Aramaic and Hebrew languages, as well as traces of Romance and Slavic languages. More Jews have spoken the Yiddish language compared to the other Jewish languages. Before the Holocaust, there were more than 10 million Yiddish speakers. In fact, an estimated 85% of the Jews who died as a result of the gas chambers during the Nazi regime were Yiddish speakers. As a result of the genocide, there was a massive decline in the use of the language. Assimilation caused a further decrease in the use of the Yiddish language by both survivors and speakers from other nations following the Second World War. However, the number of Yiddish speakers is currently increasing in global Hasidic communities.
The Judeo-Arabic language is a variant of the dialects spoken by Jews who formerly lived or still live in the Arab states. There are a good number of significant Jewish works that were originally written in the language which includes several religious writings by Judah Halevi and Maimonides. The main reason why such works were written in Judeo-Arabic and not Hebrew or Aramaic is because it was the primary everyday language of the authors.
Also known as Judeo-Spanish, Ladino is the Jewish language derived from Old Spanish; this Romance language was originally used in Italy, Netherlands, France, the UK, Morocco, and former territories of the Ottoman Empire. The Ladino language also declined as a result of the Holocaust where the Nazi regime decimated a large number of communities that spoke Judeo-Spanish. At present, Ladino is used by the Sephardic minorities found in over 30 countries, but a large percentage of the speakers are found in Israel. Despite the Judeo-Spanish language lacking an official status in any country, it is recognized as not only a Jewish language but also a minority language in Herzegovina, Turkey, Israel, Bosnia, and France.
Status Of The Jewish Languages
Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, and Ladino languages are among the most widely spoken Jewish languages that were developed in the diaspora. A good number of distinct and ancient Jewish languages such as Judeo-Malayalam, Judeo-Arabic, Krymchak, Judeo-Berber, and Judeo-Georgian have greatly fallen out of use as a result of the massacre of European Jews, the assimilation of Israeli policies during its early days, and the Jewish exodus from Arab states, as well as other factors. Several Jewish languages including Yiddish have greatly contributed to the development of vocabulary for co-territorial languages such as French and English which are non-Jewish.
Languages such as Spanish, English, Greek, French, Arabic, and German have been transcribed using the Hebrew alphabet. Despite the practice being uncommon, it is believed to have occurred over the last 2000 years. Throughout the world, Jews spoke the dominant or local languages of the places they migrated to for centuries thus branching off as independent languages or developing distinct dialectal forms of the languages. The development of such languages often happened through the addition of Hebrew phrases or words to uniquely express Jewish concerns and concepts.
The Jewish Languages Today
Everywhere that the Jews have lived, throughout the entire world, they have either written or/and spoken differently from non-Jews around them. Jewish languages differ from one another by as much as a highly variant grammar or by as little as a few embedded Hebrew words. Linguists have devoted a great deal of time and resources to carry out extensive research on several Jewish languages including Judeo-Arabic, Jewish English, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, and Judeo- Italian. During the 1850s, Yiddish was the most spoken Jewish language since it had the largest number of speakers, but today the most common languages spoken among Jews are English, Russian and modern Hebrew.
What are the Jewish languages?
The Jewish languages are a variety of dialects and languages. Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, and Ladino languages are among the most widely spoken Jewish languages. Hebrew is the original Jewish language.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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