Judaeo-Urdu Manuscript, Or.13287.

Ursula Sims-Williams at the British Library’s Asian and African studies blog posts about a unique manuscript:

The British Library’s sole Judaeo-Urdu manuscript is a copy in Hebrew script of the well-known Urdu theatrical work, the Indar Sabha, written by Agha Sayyid Hasan ‘Amanat,’ a poet at the court of Vajid Ali Shah of Awadh.

Our manuscript seems to have been created in the early 20th century, perhaps by a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of India. Originating in the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, the Baghdadi Jewish community settled in India from the late 18th into the 19thcentury and was primarily centred in two major urban centres of India, Calcutta and Bombay. A printing industry in Judaeo-Arabic grew in both locations to cater to the religious needs of the community as well as its appetite for news and entertainment, producing devotional treatises, gazettes, and also the occasional historical novel, murder mystery and romance (Musleah, On the Banks of the Ganga, p. 522-531). The British Library’s collections are a rich resource for these publications and for the history of the Baghdadi Jewish community in India, and our Hebrew curator has previously written about a Judaeo-Arabic serial issued in Bombay for our blog. […]

Establishing a direct link between the Baghdadi Jewish community and theatrical production of the Indar Sabha has proven elusive. […] While such a conclusion is purely speculative at this point, it might be the case that this Judaeo-Urdu manuscript was created for (or by) one of the actors or theatre producers of the Baghdadi Jewish community.

Fortunately, due to the generosity of the Hebrew Manuscripts project, this unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript will be digitised and made freely available online, which we hope will encourage further research into the language, cultural context, and history of this fascinating manuscript.

There are more details, a bibliography, and gorgeous illustrations at the link. What a wonderful world, where there are such things as Judeo-Urdu manuscripts and we can all admire them without having to go to the museum!


  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Timely, insofar as what purports to be the first book devoted to Judaeo-Urdu was published late last year. https://www.gorgiaspress.com/a-unique-hebrew-glossary-from-india-an-analysis-of-judeo-urdu

  2. Very nice, thanks!

  3. Nothing beats Judeo-Malayalam for strangeness.

  4. On one hand, I find descriptions of Judeo-this and Judeo-that languages somewhat annoying. As I have noted before, the most widely spoken Judeo- language, Yiddish, is intelligible as a south German dialect, augmented with a number of religious terms adopted directly from Hebrew. Everything I have seen suggests that other such Jewish tongues are of a similar character.

    On the other hand, it is quite interesting that Jews continued to write their local languages using Hebrew characters. This is particularly interesting in languages from regions outside Europe. James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, while ostensibly being a full-frontal attack on antisemitism, talks about how Jewish culture survived in Europe for two thousand years, in spite of general Christian persecution of religious minorities. Antisemitic in its own way, the book claims that Judaism only survived because Christians felt that it was important to keep Jews around to fulfill the prophecies of Revelations, rather than admitting that the Jewish desire not to assimilate was historically unusual. The existence of separate Jewish communities in non-Christian regions, writing their Hindi/Urdu using Hebrew characters, puts the lie to his thesis, that Jews only survived because they were important to the surrounding Christian culture.

  5. Good points, but it would never occur to me to think that, e.g., Judeo-Urdu was any sort of different language — I just assume it’s Urdu written in Hebrew characters, with the usual selection of Hebrew borrowings.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    Is the Judaeo-Urdu manuscript Urdu with a special Judaeic register or reguar Urdu written in Hebrew script for Jews who don’t read Arabic script? There are several different processes here (which may or may not be stages in a process), and we could need some terminological accuracy,

    1. An immigrant community takes up the majority language as its own.

    2. An immigrant community takes up the majority language and starts writing it in its own traditional script.

    3. A minority community develops its own register(s) of the majority language.

    4. A minority community migrates within a speech area, or resists migration, thus becoming dialectally divorced from surrounding majority speakers.

    5. A minority emigrates and keeps using the language of the old country,

    6. An immigrant community with its own language loses the linguistic ties to the old country, thereby turning its speech into an independent language.

    My sense is that Judaeo-X is typically around point 3 or 4. Ladino is at 5 or 6, Yiddish at point 6. Judaeo-Urdu is, except for this document, maybe at 1. Point 2 is really beside the, ur, point, but it’s both a result of the cultural resilience that leads it to 3. and 4., and the reason that the Judaeo-languages (judaeolects?) can be studied. I’m sure there are similar situations in other culturally resilient diaspora communities, but where, and how?

  7. marie-lucie says:

    People who have learned to read and write using a specific script tend to maintain it when writing a different language than the one in which they first acquired literacy. This is why you can look at a map of Eurasia and for a number of languages you can guess which religion first brought them a writing system. And the writings of missionaries and anthropologists in the Americas until the appearance of technical phonetic alphabets also gives cues to which language(s) those people started from.

    Another important use of one’s own writing system together with a version of the dominant language of the area is that the writing can serve as a code to make one’s communications unintelligible to the powers that be.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    […] Yiddish, is intelligible as a south German dialect, augmented with a number of religious terms adopted directly from Hebrew.

    Not only religious ones, but basically all abstract nouns down to “family”. Of the Yiddish I’ve encountered and try to understand (which isn’t much), I’ve on average understood everything except the topic. This seems to be unusual for Judeo- languages; Ladino really is just conservative Spanish with Hebrew religious terms.

    (Also, it’s not simply southern German; the Germanic part of East Yiddish is a weird mixture of Bavarian-Austrian and East Central German, which makes perfect sense if it developed in Prague. There’s a source claiming that’s exactly what happened, based also on the fact that the terms for some very basic religious activities are Slavic; I’ll look it up tomorrow.)

  9. Trond Engen says:

    marie-lucie: Another important use of one’s own writing system together with a version of the dominant language of the area is that the writing can serve as a code to make one’s communications unintelligible to the powers that be.

    Yes, and two more uses: as a token of shared culture and heritage within the group in spite of giving up one’s language, and to make access to the heritage language and the holy scriptures less cumbersome for those set out to learn it.. That’s why I think of 2 as a result of the cultural resilience that leads to the development of a particular register.

  10. Now that I think about it, Yiddish kinship terms are, in my experience, an idiosyncratic mish-mosh of Germanic and Semitic terminology. Unfortunately, I never got to meet any of the L1 Yiddish speakers in my family, to see how such terms would be used inside the family unit by native speakers.

  11. Ladino really is just conservative Spanish

    Not entirely: it has innovations of its own, like /nw-/ > /mw-/ as in the word muevo/a ‘new’, or generalized /-s/ > /-ʃ/ as in Portuguese, or the loss of padres, hermanos in the gender-neutral sense of ‘parents, siblings’.

  12. SFReader says:

    Babel’s “Red Cavalry” was written in Judeo-Russian, I am sure


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