Saving Jewish Iraqi.

Almost a decade ago I posted about “Jewish Arabic” and “Muslim Arabic” in Iraq; now Jacky Hugi (translated by Aviva Arad) reports on an effort to preserve the former:

On Friday mornings in a class on the heritage of Babylonian Jewry, Oded Amit has taught a small group of Israelis to speak Jewish Iraqi, the language of his ancestors. Amit, 70, was born and raised in Baghdad, and Jewish Iraqi was the language in which his mother raised him.

“It’s a beautiful language, rich, full of wisdom and wit, but it is disappearing,” Amit told Al-Monitor. “What I’m doing is an attempt, perhaps desperate, to save something of it — to keep it alive a little longer. The younger generation doesn’t speak it anymore. They heard their aunt or grandma speaking it, but for them it’s not a mother tongue, it’s a curiosity.” […] Before Amit began teaching, he spent long hours extracting the rules of grammar from his mother’s language.

“I conjugated the verb ‘to write’ and derived the rules from that,” he said. “The problem is that there are many exceptions.” His work is important for historical documentation, because literature on the Babylonian dialect is relatively scant. It includes a dictionary published by Gila Yona and Rahamim Rajouan in 1995, a dictionary by Yitzhak Avishur published in 2008 and the updatable online collection of researcher Yehuda Katz from Herzliya. The Center for Babylonian Jewish Heritage has a collection of many items, including vocal and visual documentation of the language. It is clear to all that, within a decade at the most, the living language will no longer be heard. […]

One of the well-known aspects of the dialect of Babylonian Jewry is its juicy curses. Yona and Rajouan included an appendix dedicated to curses in their dictionary. Especially entertaining are those that wish death by certain means on others. Someone you wish to see hanged is called “maqtua al-raqba,” that is, “decapitated neck.” For someone you wish would die in agony, you say, “Nfaqsit eino,” that is, “May his eye burst.” For wishing a simple death, there’s the moniker “zawaj a-almana,” meaning “the widow’s husband.” If the death wish applies to several people, you say “wahad thakal lakh,” meaning “that each would mourn the other.” Many curses are surprisingly also forms of praise. For instance, the word “naghl,” meaning “bastard,” is a curse that suggests spitting at a father’s crotch, since thanks to it, the child came into the world. It is usually meant as an expression of admiration.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. The World in Words podcast just had an episode about Judeo-Arabic, probably relatedly:

  2. Thanks!

  3. And as everybody knows, endangered and minority Jewish-languages are well furnished in “juicy curses”…

  4. Jonathan Wright says

    Looks like standard Baghdad Arabic to me, but maybe there are subtleties I’ve missed. You would think that any account of it would note how it differs, if indeed it does.

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