Yiddish and Arabic Overlap.

Alexander Jabbari at Newslines writes about Yiddish and Arabic:

Through modern Hebrew, Yiddish words occasionally find their way into Arabic. A notable example in Palestinian Arabic is balagan, meaning “chaos,” borrowed from Hebrew. […] While balagan came to Palestinian Arabic through Hebrew, the source of the Hebrew word was likely Yiddish. The word is ultimately from Persian bālākhāna, meaning “upper room” or “chamber.” It passed from Persian into Tatar or another Turkic language and from there entered Russian as balagan, where it came to refer to a temporary wooden structure for circus performances. Because of the circus context, the Russian word also acquired connotations of buffoonery. When borrowed from Russian and put into Yiddish (and Polish), the chaos of the circus setting gave the word the sense of a mess, bedlam or chaos. It’s hard to say with certainty whether the Hebrew word balagan came from Yiddish, Russian or Polish, as all three are common lexical sources for modern Hebrew. In any case, there have been other, more direct encounters between Yiddish and Arabic.

In Ottoman Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem before 1948, it was common for Yiddish-speaking Jews and Arabs to understand each other’s languages, particularly in neighborhoods where the two communities abutted each other. Among Jews, it was more often women engaged in business or neighborly relations with Arabs who learned Arabic, whereas men were more often secluded in yeshivas, engrossed in the study of Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Arabic was taught alongside German in the “modern” Sephardic schools established after 1850, and while there were attempts to integrate Arabic into the Ashkenazic institutes of learning, in order to provide graduates with practical job skills, these were usually resisted by the religious authorities. Nevertheless, in the 19th century there were groups of Ashkenazic men in Jerusalem who learned Arabic, both spoken and literary. Arabic words became part of the everyday Yiddish spoken in Palestine — even for terms specific to Judaism, like khalake, a boy’s ritual first haircut, from the Arabic for haircut, ḥalāqa. These were documented by Mordecai Kosover in his lengthy dissertation on the Arabic elements of the Yiddish spoken by the Ashkenazic (central and eastern European origin) Jewish community in Palestine.

Kosover was a fascinating figure who embodied the interaction between Yiddish and Arabic in Palestine. He grew up in Vilna and migrated to Jerusalem in 1928, where he studied at the recently established Hebrew University. After a decade, he left Palestine for the United States, completing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and becoming a professor at Brooklyn College. Though he taught Hebrew and Arabic literature, Kosover was above all dedicated to his mame loshn or mother tongue, Yiddish. He was active in YIVO, formerly the Yiddish Scientific Institute, and published prolifically in the language.

Kosover was primarily interested in the Yiddish of the “old Yishuv,” the Jewish communities living in Palestine long before Zionism. Yet as the Zionist colonial project gained momentum, it put Yiddish and Arabic into greater contact. The first Arabic-Yiddish phrasebooks and dictionaries appeared in Warsaw and Odessa in the 19th century, to serve the needs of Jewish pilgrims and migrants fleeing antisemitic pogroms. Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine from Europe in increasing numbers later in the 19th century, and many found themselves needing to learn Arabic. Around 1912, a short textbook teaching colloquial Palestinian Arabic in Yiddish was published in Jaffa to serve the needs of Zionist settlers. This was followed by additional texts for learning Arabic through Yiddish, published in Warsaw, Lviv, New York, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the 1920s and ’30s. But the trend of settlers learning Arabic did not endure, and Hebrew eventually edged out both Arabic and Yiddish as the dominant language of the Jewish community in Palestine. […]

The Zionist hierarchy of languages is illustrated in Yeshayahu Koren’s Hebrew novel “Funeral at Noon” (1974), set in the 1950s, where Erlich, a young Jewish man, speaks “dirty Yiddish” in the café and “pure” Hebrew to those born in the colony. But the novel also shows how such linguistic separation is inevitably breached, if not entirely subverted. Working in the nearby Arab villages, Erlich also picks up Arabic, which he writes down in a small notebook: “The Arab tells him the words and the sentences, and Erlich writes them down in Yiddish in his notebook. He writes Arabic in Yiddish.” Despite the Hebrew Language Committee’s efforts, modern, post- “revival” Hebrew adopted a great many loanwords not just from Yiddish, the native language of many of the revivalists, but also from Palestinian Arabic. Some such words reflect Palestinian pronunciation, like chizbat, meaning “tall tale” in Hebrew, from the Arabic kiḏbāt (“lies”). In rural Palestinian speech, the “k” is palatalized into “ch,” and the word becomes chizbāt — which sounds almost Yiddish.

Although Israel drove Arabic and Yiddish from the public sphere, it is still a site of surprising interaction between the languages, like the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s partial Yiddish translation of the Quran, produced in 1987. Ahmadiyya began as a messianic movement in 19th-century India, but missionaries soon spread it across the globe, including to Palestine. In 1928, they made the village of Kababir the center of the Ahmadiyya mission in the Middle East. Eventually, most of the Muslims of Kababir (now incorporated into the city of Haifa) became Ahmadis. […] The Yiddish translation of the Quran was commissioned from abroad by the fourth Ahmadi caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad.

There’s much more history at the link, all of it interesting. (Via Dmitry Pruss at FB.)


  1. balagan retains Turco-Persian phonotactics in Russian, and likely it is not by chance that it was borrowed.

    It is a funny class of wanderwords: expressive words that wander in a certain region because they sound properly.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    expressive words that wander in a certain region because they sound properly

    I just happened to notice a northern Ghanaian one of those: the word that turns up in Kusaal as kikirig “fairy” (thus in local English, though the associations of the word are quite different.*) It turns up all over, in forms far too alike to be actually cognate.

    * Kikirig ya’a mɔr bʋʋdε, fʋn tis o ka o lεbig o mɔɔgin.
    “If a fairy is in the right, agree with it so that it will go back home to the bush.”
    (i.e. “Give the devil his due.”)

  3. It turns up all over, in forms far too alike to be actually cognate.

    Obviously a borrowing from the otherwise undocumented language of the local fairies, then.

  4. i keep not having my citations ready to hand, but this brought to mind a piece where jonathan boyarin writes about realizing that the street-vendor call he kept hearing in palestine was slightly arabized yiddish “alte zakhn” [“old things/castoffs”], not arabized biblical hebrew or aramaic, as he’d been trying to interpret it (i can’t remember the phrase he’d found in it).

  5. the street-vendor call he kept hearing in palestine was slightly arabized yiddish “alte zakhn”

    In Egypt it’s روبابيكيا, ie Italian ropa vecchia. Or so I gathered from the short story of that name by Naguib Mahfouz.

  6. The alte zakhn horse-cart era in Israel came to an end surprisingly recently, about ten years ago. Some people felt nostalgic about it, but the horses did not, which is why the practice was ended. Those horses did not have a good life.

    This is a more modern one, more clearly heard here. The crier is saying, “Buying everything [i.e. all] furniture, alte zakhn, alte zakhn. Bed, cupboard, table, chairs, frigidaire, gas oven, sewing machine, washing machine, sofa, buffet, rug, alte zakhn.” The caller (recorded, played through a speaker) is very clearly speaking Mizrahi Hebrew, with a trilled /r/, pharyngeal /ħ/, and centralized /i/.

    The pronunciation of the /e/ in alte is very distinct, as [e̠] instead of [ǝ], and so is the un-reduced vowel of the second word, zakhen instead of zakhn. I remember hearing it when I was little, pronounced exactly the same. I wonder where that particular pronunciation started.

    My grandfather’s wry joke, when people asked him how he is, was to say “alte zakhn”. He was not a Yiddish speaker but everyone knew the expression.

  7. Lars Mathiesen says

    When I visited Mexico City, the spiritual brethren of that outfit started at like 7 am and came past 2-3 times per day. I almost learned Spanish from listening.

    Here in Denmark we only get the ice cream van once a week or so, though there are maybe 3 routes within hearing distance so with a bit of running you can indulge more.

  8. David Marjanović says


    I hear [ɪ] every time, as if the whole word had been adapted to Arabic. That idea, however, contrasts with the consistent lack of a leading glottal stop.

    In zakhen there’s an unremarkable [ɛ].


    I would say epiglottal (i.e. [ʜ]), pulling vowels toward [æ] rather than [ɑ].

    Also remarkable: the actually velar [x].

  9. I am pretty sure that I read somewhere, probably a thread here on languagehat, about Israeli Arab parents who spoke Yiddish to each other when they wanted to prevent their children from understanding them.

  10. Alte-zakhen criers used to have an odd bit of particular syntax, too (not heard in Y’s link): hakol kone for “buy(ing) everything”, with an OV order instead of the normal kone hakol. I think this order would be ungrammatical in basically any other context.

    balagan retains Turco-Persian phonotactics in Russian

    How so?

    I hadn’t known there were Arabic varieties that palatize [k] before front vowels; are there others besides rural Palestinian?

  11. I seem to remember that’s true of some Iraqi dialects, but I don’t have a source at the moment.

  12. Owlmirror: that might have been me, referring to a scene in the sitcom Avoda Aravit / Arab Labor. It was contrived for its hilarity, like the Indians speaking Yiddish in Blazing Saddles.

    (ed.: here.)

    DM: I also first heard the vowel as [ɪ], but wasn’t sure, so I checked the spectrogram and convinced myself of what it said. On closer thought I think the lips are spread out more than in a prototypical [ɪ].

    Epiglottal/pharyngeal: Maybe the third item, /ʃulħan/ ‘table’ is more pharyngeal, the last one, /ʃatiaħ/ ‘rug’ is more epiglottal.

    unremarkable [ɛ]: in my near zero understanding of Yiddish, the vowel would be reduced to a short [ǝ] or to nothing.

  13. hakol kone: maybe it’s just a run of the mill fronted argument, but lacking the expected stress in the even intonation of the crier, which makes it sound odd.

  14. The video in this article (all in Hebrew, alas), has another example, of an Arab alte zakhen man. His announcement is at 0:33, aronot, mitot, šulħanot, kisaot, mekarerim, kol hayešanim kone alte zaxen ‘dressers, beds, tables, chairs, refrigerators, all the old ones [more odd syntax] buys, alte zakhn’. At 2:00 you have an example of TR’s hakol konim.

    At 0:52 the actor Yaakov Ben Sira pronounces it with a normal Yiddish pronunciation. At 6:02 he pronounces it with more of an Israeli pronunciation. The voiceover at 2:44 is standard Ashkenazi Israeli pronunciation.

  15. a run of the mill fronted argument — what kind of fronted argument, though? Hebrew can front both topics and foci, but this is certainly not the former (“As for everything, I buy it”); and the latter construction I think only generally occurs in contexts where the non-focal stuff is already active in the discourse, not in out-of-the-blue utterances like street cries.

  16. TR, I see what you mean. Now, hakol kan konim or hakol konim kan ‘(we/you/they) buy everything here’ sounds a lot more acceptable than hakol konim, even as a standalone phrase (say on a sign). I can’t quite explain it. Do you have the same impression?

  17. For me, hakol kan konim and hakol konim sound equally bad; hakol konim kan is a bit better but still weird without context; kan konim hakol is normal.

  18. The guy who checks integrity of gas pipes here rings the doorbell and then almost sings…. let it be a major triad, C-G-E: служба |га-а….|за. “Service of gas”.

    It is funny, because he sells nothing. He just needs people to quickly recognize him as gas service. He also needs to make his line reflectory. To be able to say it 200 times a day without wasting his attention on it while still keeping acoustic properties consistent. I do not think he needs variable loudness, or he would mumble it when tired.

  19. Call signs of Russian street wendors here can have rather weird word order sometimes, and it happened to me to reflect on this. I though “they are just bored” and I thought “they want to sound unusual”, and when they fronted the object (the name of what they sell) I thought “it is the important/informative word, sellers use it in isolation as well” (but in initial position it is unstressed and less loud:-/ The canonical form is “spaceships! I-fix spaceships!”, not inverted “spaceships I-fi-i-ix”). The fact is, sometimes I am able to analyze them in terms of intonation patterns of conventional Russian, and sometimes I am not. But word orders are not a neat table of 6 (or 24) possible orders (*3 or *4 if you add intonation) to be used in 6 sets of situations. The actual list of pragmatically distinct situations requiring a peculiar word order is going to be long and it includes such items as, say, “storytelling”. Street vendors absolutely have the right to be unanalizable. Their situation is unique, the way language functions in it is unique (to say the least), and they simply can invent an extension for normal Russian grammar, where some elements will be borrowed, some arbitrary and some look logical as soon as you find yourself in their shoes.

  20. How so” – I think from the form of “caravan” it is obvious that it it not an English word (and plausibly Persian). I once mentioned Russian words sarafan and stakan (< dostakan) reborrowed into Persian. And elsewhere I mentioned a group sunduk-funduk-runduk-dunduk where the first two are Arabic Graecisms.

    What I mean is that balagan is a word that could have plausibly arise as a Turkco-Persian loan, and if I am not entirely convinced (because of its semantics), I still think that if Russians managed to create this word, they were inspired by Turco-Persian loans.

  21. Out of my own curiosity, I looked briefly for historical recordings of the street cries of the French chiffonnier and the Turkish eskici available online, but I was unable to find any. I did however find this recording of a rag-and-bone man from 1957.

  22. David Marjanović says

    DM: I also first heard the vowel as [ɪ], but wasn’t sure, so I checked the spectrogram and convinced myself of what it said. On closer thought I think the lips are spread out more than in a prototypical [ɪ].

    I guess it’s fronter than an English /ɪ/; in some way I find it more similar to [i], but it’s clearly not a canonical [i], so maybe that’s it. An [e] that is probably not on the front edge (maybe it even has retracted tongue root) is a phoneme in my dialect, and that’s not it…

    unremarkable [ɛ]: in my near zero understanding of Yiddish, the vowel would be reduced to a short [ǝ] or to nothing.

    Yes, sorry; it’s “unremarkable” in that [ɛ] is otherwise common in Yiddish, and is restored here in overenunciated German.

    I can’t listen to videos right now, so don’t hold your breath for my further groundbreaking insights 🙂

  23. John Cowan says

    I think that anyone who talks more or less constantly or repetitively winds up singing. The beggar who stands on the corner closest to me sings “Please help me” using a tune that drops a major fourth or more on “help”. And then there are auctioneers, who use their incredibly rapid and repetitive chants to build up energy in the crowd (search YouTube).

  24. Please help me

    “Will you touch, will you mend me Christ? Won’t you touch, will you heal me Christ? Will you kiss, you can cure me Christ!”

    (the situation is opposite: the passers-by are many, the beggar is one).

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