The excellent bulbul, a gentleman and a scholar, sent me an e-mail saying:

I thought this might interest you and your readership – the first issue of the Journal of Jewish Languages is out. As was to be expected, there’s some great stuff in it, including a report on the last speakers of Judeo-Malayalam. And if that isn’t reason enough to check it out, here’s one more: the entire first issue is free. I never thought I’d see the day – a publication by Brill, free. But there it is.

I echo his amazement on all counts, and welcome this new publication. The first issue includes “A Maghrebian Sharḥ to the Hafṭara for the Minḥa Service on the Day of Atonement” by Moshe Bar-Asher, “Voices Yet to Be Heard: On Listening to the Last Speakers of Jewish Malayalam” by Ophira Gamliel, reviews of Tatjana Soldat-Jaffe’s Twenty-First Century Yiddishism (by Peltz Rakhmiel) and Kirsten Fudeman’s Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Communities (by George Jochnowitz), “A New Venue for Research on Jewish Languages” by Sarah Bunin Benor and Ofra Tirosh-Becker, “Reapplying the Language Tree Model to the History of Yiddish” by Alexander Beider, and “Writing More and Less ‘Jewishly’ in Judezmo and Yiddish” by David M. Bunis. Enjoy!


  1. Delightful. I’ll have to have a closer read. Contributor Moshe Bar-Asher is chairman of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Sounds awesome.

  3. Okay, I’ve read the whole issue now, and the key to it is a sentence in the editorial saying that by Jewish languages they mean ‘languages spoken by Jews’. Thus, the way that anglophone Jews in America speak English today, or the way that russophone Soviet Jews spoke Russian in 1970, count as Jewish languages in this sense, although they are not separate languages in the way that Yiddish and Ladino/Djudezmo are. In the words of the Beider article, these are “Jews’ American English” and “Jews’ Russian”: jargons rather than separate languages, but jargons that share something with separate languages that are specifically Jewish.
    The purpose of the Beider article is to reconcile the historic disagreements about Yiddish between the “Germanist” Stammbaum model and the “Yiddishist” relexification model of the origin of Yiddish. Beider rightly says that the relexification model, whereby Yiddish starts to exist as soon as Jews begin to speak German, and Yiddish itself is a language of mixed origins, doesn’t meet the standards for historical linguistics theories. Unquestionably Yiddish and Modern High German are the descendants of Middle (or Early Modern) High German. Yiddish is not, as Wexler would have it, a relexification of Judaeo-Sorbian or some other Judaeo-Slavic language, nor of Judaeo-French as Weinreich thought, with German vocabulary. No relexification is so thorough, nor is the morphosyntax of Yiddish anything but a normal descendant of MHG/ENHG morphosyntax.
    (Beider takes some trouble to show how the use of the name German for both the ancestral language and one, but not both, of the daughter languages tends to confuse people, though we are stuck with it. The simple act of using the name Old East Slavic for the ancestor of modern Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian instead of Old Russian has apparently quieted a host of nationalist ambitions and fears.)
    However, by a mere reinterpretation of terms, the “Yiddishist” view can be made to say something very interesting, not about the genetic descent of the Yiddish language, but about the language shifts of Ashkenazi Jews. (Of course, those of us who know the Skolem-Loewenheim theorem are not surprised by this.) Rather than saying that Yiddish descends from Judaeo-French, we can say that in Jews who spoke Jews’ French began to speak Jews’ German, an ethnolect of Old High German, retaining from the substrate language a number of words of French, Aramaic, and Hebrew origin. It was not until some centuries later that Jews’ German separated sufficiently from the German of non-Jews to be called a separate language, Yiddish, which then divided into Western and Eastern Yiddish. Almost all speakers of Western Yiddish then shifted languages again, to a new version of Jews’ German, based on NHG this time. So the line from Jews’ French to Jews’ German (I) to Western Yiddish to Jews’ German (II), although in no way a genetic line of descent, does represent a reality, namely a sequence of substrates each of which leaves a layer of vocabulary in the languages which follow it.
    Lastly, a word on writing more vs. less Jewishly in Yiddish and Ladino. As you might expect, “more Jewish” writing involves more Hebraisms and Aramaisms, as well as the use of characteristically Jewish turns of phrase and patterns of thought. This article has many excellent examples of contrasts in style: more-Jewish vs. less-Jewish translations into Yiddish from Hebrew, for example. In particular, an anecdote about Sabbatai Zevi is given in both Yiddish and Ladino versions, with styles ranging from extremely traditional to extremely European-modern. Even if you don’t read the languages, the Hebraisms are underlined so that you can tell how densely they are found in a given passage.
    However, the prototypically most-Jewish kind of writing, translations of sacred texts (mostly for the benefit of traditional Jewish women, who did not learn Hebrew or Aramaic as a rule), are lexically unusual: such translations tend to avoid Hebraisms, even ones that are a normal part of the Yiddish or Ladino vocabulary, presumably on the theory that if you are translating a Hebrew word by a Hebraism, you aren’t really translating it at all. This would be like avoiding all words of Latin/Romance origin when translating Latin or French into English, which of course anglophones don’t do.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    This would be like avoiding all words of Latin/Romance origin when translating Latin or French into English, which of course anglophones don’t do.

    It was, however, how I was taught to translate Latin into German.
    You’ll find the word gleichsam 1) in 18th-century literature, 2) as the translation of quasi which is a fairly common loan, and 3) in not many other places.

  5. John,
    Jewish languages they mean ‘languages spoken by Jews’
    More or less, yes. But, going a bit deeper, there is also a distinction made between co-territorial languages (such as Jewish English, Jewish Russian, Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Arabic) and post-migration languages (like Yiddish or Ladino). And then there’s Aramaic which, as Moshe Bar Asher argued in his keynote at the recent conference dedicated to Jewish language, stands apart as THE Jewish language.
    such translations tend to avoid Hebraisms
    Not always. In some Jewish language, there is a special way of translating sacred writings – in Judeo-Arabic it’s called šarḥ, in Yiddish tajtš – which basically translates the original word for word. Those types of translation would often use the original Hebrew word, especially if it’s a term central to the text. One example, a North African (possibly Libyan) Judeo-Arabic šarḥ of Qohelet, translates the Hebrew הֲבֵל (vanity) as הְבֵיל. Interestingly enough, another version (from Morocco) uses the native התוף.
    translations of sacred texts (mostly for the benefit of traditional Jewish women, who did not learn Hebrew or Aramaic as a rule)
    This is the traditional view of the role of translations in Jewish communities (based on the Yiddish-speaking ones and works like Tsene urene which is, sensu stricto, not a translation) and, like many traditional views, it may not be entirely correct, at least in some communities. First, it assumes that the men learned Hebrew and Aramaic well enough not to need a translation, which is simply unrealistic under the best of conditions and certainly wasn’t true in, say, North Africa or Iran. Second, it ignores the fact that in some communities, written translations were simply an extension of a previously existing oral tradition. So for example North African šarḥ is simply a written version of the common practice to read the sacred scripture line by line and each line in the original was immediately followed by a translation, first of the entire sentence and then word for word. Once written down, such translations were used especially as study aids.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    If Aramaic is *the* Jewish language, how come the conference was in English? But maybe I don’t understand the claim. It’s certainly not the most distinctively Jewish language (in terms of never having meaningful Gentile constituencies).

  7. David Marjanović says:

    And then there’s Aramaic which, as Moshe Bar Asher argued in his keynote at the recent conference dedicated to Jewish language, stands apart as THE Jewish language.

    I can’t find that in the abstracts. Could you explain it?

  8. Since keynotes are generally invitations to speak about whatever the speaker cares to, they are often not provided to conference organizers, and unless someone transcribes them after the fact, they remain a black hole in general knowledge.
    Still, I suppose if your name is Bar-Asher you are going to see Aramaic as the Jewish language, eh?

  9. J.W., David,
    that’s how he put it, the handout (which I’m happy to scan as soon as I get back home, i.e. Sunday) speaks of a special position of Aramaic within Jewish languages. The whole idea, expressed already by Joshua Blau, if I’m not mistaken, is that with Hebrew being the default, Aramaic is not only the first language that the Jewish communities took as their own, but also the one where they were most thorough about it. So much so, in fact, that it is one of the two sacred languages – think Targum Onkelos, Talmud, prayers etc. Additionally, Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan – and thus by extension their Aramaic – served as inspiration for generations of those who sought to adapt the Jewish sacred scriptures into their vernacular. Moshe Bar-Asher wrote extensively on the influece of Onkelos on North African šarḥ.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    bulbul: I wonder if that’s clearer in hindsight as Greek-speaking (and -reading) Jews became over time a much smaller percentage of world Jewry than they perhaps had been in the days when the Septuagint was generated. (I assume a few specialized scholars within the Jewish community want to be able to read the LXX and other texts like Josephus in Greek, but 99.9% of ordinary working rabbis these days will never need that skill.) Indeed, burgeoning Christian use of the Septuagint and Greek-in-general may have made Aramaic more attractive as a sign of differentiation, although who knows what if any comparable strategy was available for Jews living in lands where Aramaic/Syriac was the traditional liturgical (sometimes also everyday, sometimes not) language of the local Christians (Lebanon all the way over to Kerala, and more anciently in Persia, China and other places where now-defunct Nestorian communities once thrived). Although typically (as the centuries wore on, at least) the Aramaic-speaking churches were strongest in places where the local political elite was not Christian, which itself may have changed the dynamic of Christian-Jewish relations.
    FWIW, wikipedia says that the version of the Old Testament traditionally used in the Aramaic-speaking churches “is an independent translation based largely on a Hebrew text similar to the Proto-Masoretic Text. It shows a number of linguistic and exegetical similarities to the Aramaic Targums but is now no longer thought to derive from them.”

  11. lands where Aramaic/Syriac was the traditional liturgical (sometimes also everyday, sometimes not) language of the local Christians
    Pagans too, until Mohammed and the boys came to town.

  12. Sarah Bunin Benor, who authored one of the articles in that first edition of the Journal of Jewish Languages, is quoted in a Tablet Magazine feature, “Struggling To Preserve an Iranian Jewish Language Before It Goes Extinct.” The language is Judeo-Kashani, which can be heard on this You Tube clip.

  13. My Farsi’s a little rusty, I admit, but that sounds exactly like Farsi to me.

  14. Let me also put in a pitch here for Benor’s BECOMING FRUM, a sociolinguistic study of the ways in which those entering into the Orthodox Jewish community pick up their speechways.
    John McWhorter gave it an unnecessarily dismissive review in The New Republic (which, like Slate’s and so many others, is TNR’s house style these days), but it’s well worth your time.

  15. John Cowan, I’m not smart enough to see the connection between your comment and the Skolem-Lowenheim theorem. Even worse, if you are making a joke about the Skolem-Lowenheim theorem, I’m not smart enough to get it.

  16. Walt: Well, one way to state the theorem is that given a (formalized, first-order) theory with undefined terms, then if the theory is self-consistent, you can assign the terms to suitably chosen natural numbers (or any other infinite set) and the theory is then true. So if it’s possible, by a mere reassignment of terms, to make a (false, but consistent) theory about the descent of Yiddish to be true of the natural numbers, of all things — how much easier then it must be to make it true about the adoption of languages by Jews!
    So it’s mostly a joke, because of course the S-L theorem does not guarantee any such neat isomorphism as the article proposes, and when we find such a thing, it’s quite appropriate to be surprised. But when engaged in discussion it is always good to consider Nozick’s tolerance principle (related to Carnap’s but not the same): rather than trying to prove your opponent false, try to see in what sense his theory might be true.

  17. Bulbul: Oddly, English does have an (archaic) verb for something close to what you describe as “the common practice to read the sacred scripture line by line and each line in the original was immediately followed by a translation”. In the early days of Protestantism, when illiteracy was common in England and the colonies but congregational (as opposed to choral) singing had been introduced into public worship, it was common to deacon off (or out) a hymn. That is, the deacon (or other minor church dignitary) would read the first line of a hymn, which the congregation would then sing, and repeat until the hymn was finished. People remember tunes better than words, and if they can’t read the hymn-book, someone has to remind them of the words. Apparently the practice stuck long after literacy became common: the OED’s examples are from 19th century America.
    (Later, deacon came to mean ‘cheat’, but that’s another story.)

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Lining out” is a (now more common?) synonym for the practice JC describes. See, e.g., (noting that in addition to some continued usage in the U.S. the practice still exists in a few parts of Scotland for Gaelic psalmody).
    It is not uncommon in U.S. Greek Orthodox parishes for the scripture lessons to be chanted in Greek and then chanted (or merely read) in English translation, but it tends to be the whole lesson one way then the other, rather than a verse-by-verse or line-by-line alternation.

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