Inaugural Lecture: A Journey through the World of Jewish Languages

Professor Lily Kahn’s inaugural lecture, “A Journey through the World of Jewish languages” was a fascinating tour of the history of Jewish languages from all corners of the world.

Lily’s interest in languages spans many areas, such as Greenlandic, Northern Sami and Maltese, the morphology, syntax and cultural context of languages.

Her interest in the cultural context of languages is well-suited to exploring Jewish languages, which are wonderful examples of how lively, ever-changing and culturally shaped languages are.

First, she defined what makes a language specifically “Jewish”, and how such languages came to be. A Jewish language is any language variety (that is language or dialect) that is written in the Hebrew alphabet and whose core vocabulary derives from Hebrew. Most often, these languages also have distinct phonology (pronunciation) and grammar when compared to their non-Jewish counterparts.

Biblical Hebrew was the 1st language spoken by Jews; during the Babylonian Exile, however, they moved to speaking Aramaic, making this the 1st Diaspora Jewish language. After the Babylonian Exile, known as the 2nd Temple Period, further languages began to be spoken by Jewish populations, such as Greek in the Byzantine Empire, Old Persian in the Persian Empire, and later on Latin in the Roman Empire. Thereafter, when Aramaic was replaced by Arabic as the lingua franca of the Near East, Arabic too was used by Jews in these areas.

Today’s Diaspora languages are extremely diverse and not limited to a specific language tree; Jewish language varieties exist of Indo-European (e.g. English, German), Semitic (e.g. Hebrew, Arabic), Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Caucasian and Dravidian origin.

Why then is it worth studying these languages? Is it of any use for humanity in general, or only interesting for those concerned with Jewish history and culture? There are so many reasons for learning about and researching Jewish languages; for example, Judeo-French is hugely important for understanding medieval French, and the development of Vulgar Latin into modern French. This is because Judeo-French was written in the Hebrew script and historical spellings aren’t present, so we gain a better idea of what medieval French in fact sounded like. That is something very rare when studying “dead” languages.

These languages are also important case studies for linguists wishing to explore socio-linguistic and culturally shaped aspects of languages. Jewish languages provide us with vast amounts of information on the effect language contact, ethnicity, and religion have on languages. Of course, these special language varieties are hugely important in understanding Jewish history, i.e. their everyday lives as well as their migration.

Jewish languages have many characteristics in common. Religious vocabulary is mostly derived from Hebrew, whilst non-religious every day words such as danger will be for example derived from French. Adjectives often are also Hebrew, such as “gadòl” to mean big in Judeo-Italian. They can also be mixed, such as Ladino “trefano” luckless, where “trefa-“ is Hebrew, and “-ano” a Spanish complement. In Yiddish, this mixture can also be the other way round. “Dokter” doctor has a Hebrew rather than Germanic plural, “doktoyrim”.

Other common characteristics include semantic shift. This is when a word undergoes a slight change in meaning. In Yiddish, the Hebrew word “takhshet” means brat, though originally in Hebrew it meant jewel. In Judeo-Italian, “giavèsce”, to annoy, has a root from Hebrew meaning to dry. This shift of meaning comes from the fact thatin Italian, “seccare”, to dry, has the added meaning of to annoy.

Another characteristic is that these languages contain many elements from more than 2 languages, due to heavy language contact. For example, Ladino, is a Romance language with a large component of Hebrew, but also of Turkish and Greek. This reflects the history of Ladino speakers, who lived in Spain and then later in the Ottoman Empire.

Next, Lily moved on to look at specific Jewish languages. This gave us a glimpse into how each of these, though they may have many features in common, have their own fascinating histories, characteristics and literature.

Judeo-Greek was amongst the earliest diaspora languages, being adopted in the 4th century BCE in Egypt. These speakers wrote the Septuagint. An example of this language was a Sicilian Purim poem from the 1300s, which is a great source for Medieval Greek phonology.

Judeo-French was spoken by Jews in medieval France. The Elegy of Troyes from 1288 is a text concerning the blood libel which took place against the Jews of Troy. This source is valuable for Jewish history, as well as for French historical linguistics.

Jewish Malayalam is a Dravidian language found in Kerala, India, since the 11th century CE. It is not known as “Judeo-Malayalam” as it is not written in Hebrew, but Malayalam script, so does not fit the definition of a Jewish language. It nevertheless has a distinct grammar and vocabulary compared to Malayalam, and has a rich oral literature tradition. This includes folk and wedding songs, such as the so-called “Parrot songs” where a Parrot is addressed or the addressor and gives insight into Jewish life in Kerala.

Esperanto is a famous constructed language created in 1887 by L. L. Zamenhof, a Russian Jew and Yiddish speaker. Though Esperanto is a mixture of Germanic, Romance and Greek, it is in fact influenced by Jewish languages and idiom. It is also part of the era’s interest in languages, and the thought from which Hebrew became re-vernacularised.

Lily’s lecture gave a great insight of the world of Jewish languages so that all attendees could discover something new. Thank you for the tour and congratulations again on your new position!


Watch the recording of Lily’s lecture:

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