Lenguas de Ibn – language of the Jews

What factors contribute to the development of distinctive Jewish languages in non-Jewish lands?

For much of Judaism’s recent, and not so recent, past, Jews have lived in the Diaspora, outside of the land of Israel, spread out across the globe. While Jews live in various countries, they often acculturate or assimilate to those around them. They dress, eat, and work like their neighbors, albeit with some exceptions. There are those, however, that still hold true to their Judaism and don’t assimilate fully. They may dress, eat, and work like their neighbors, but they don’t always speak the same language. Often times, especially but not limited to the languages of Yiddish and Ladino, Jews merge their country’s language with their religion’s, adding various Hebrew or Aramaic words to create a language that is through and through Jewish. They balance the pros of assimilating against the cons of abandoning their storied past and traditions. Although the Jews could have simply learned their homeland’s language, they developed their own languages due to prior knowledge of Hebrew through holy, Hebrew scripture, the desire to protect their identity, and by being at least somewhat isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors as they migrated through the diaspora.

Languages in general have come and gone as long as mankind has existed and often follow a similar pattern in how and why they form. Group life is one major factor, for example. Whether it be German, Chinese, Spanish, or Latin, languages often follow three broad ways in which they develop, which often influences group life: migration, divergence, and intermingling of populations. Migration’s role in linguistic development includes a separation from the original language and those who speak it, i.e. Spanish speakers who move away from Spain to a place that speaks no Spanish. This migration often forces those speakers to learn a new language and, consequently, combine their old language with the new when talking to their fellow migrators. Divergence’s role in linguistic development includes a change or increase in a political center. For example, though it might only be a dialectic difference, the English of Britain and the English of the United States partly diverged once the political centers changed and the United States grew into the powerhouse nation it is today. Lastly, the intermingling of populations, often through conquest and war, contributes to the development of language by forcing people of different languages to interact with one another. To communicate with each other, the people have to learn the other’s language. As both sides get more comfortable with each language, and start to form their society, they start adding grammar and vocabulary from the other language. If this happens for a long enough time, jargon, dialect and language develop.
For the Jewish people, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, migration is the only one of the above reasons that influenced their linguistic development and change. The dawn of the Common Era saw the spread of Jews around Europe lead to the eventual developments of both Yiddish (11th century) and eventually Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, especially after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Then, as the Jews learned scripture and migrated together, they formed unique groups around the world, mixing with different languages and cultures along the way. “[The Jewish languages were a] result of the successive convergent developments,” said Yiddish language professor Marvin Herzog in Herbert Paper’s Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. As they learned the Hebrew text of the holy scriptures, the Jews’ knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet grew. The Jews’ knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet was often more comprehensive than their knowledge of their residing nation’s language. This gave way to writing the native languages in Hebrew letters, transliterating them so the common people could at least read the native language.

With the basis of how Jewish languages developed in general, let’s turn specifically to the language of the Jews that has its roots in German – Yiddish. The development of Yiddish was also primarily influenced by the Jews’ prior knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, migration, and subsequent isolation of the Jewish people. Yiddish is a language of Ashkenazi Jews that uses an alphabet based on Hebrew and was often criticized as a hurdle to assimilation. Max Weinreich, a linguist who specialized in the Yiddish language, broke down the development of Yiddish into four distinct time periods, each characterized slightly differently. Before 1250, Weinreich and others argue that there was “Early Yiddish,” which was an offshoot brought from French Jews to Germany speaking a Judeo-French language, adding rabbinical terms and idioms to daily speech as they learned in Germany from liturgical tradition. “Old Yiddish” followed this early version from 1250-1500, when the Jews migrated east to Poland and other Eastern European countries. Slavic languages influenced the German dialect so much so that it became its own language as the Jews began to interact with these new languages. Subsequently, “Middle Yiddish,” which ranged from 1500-1750, took place when the Eastern European Jews began writing down the language with Hebrew characters that was now a mixture of the Slavic languages as Eastern Europe became the world hub of Jewry. Finally, “Modern Yiddish,” which dates from 1750 until the present, formed when the Yiddish culture flourished in Eastern Europe, while declining heavily in Western Europe with the rise of anti-Semitism. However, the Holocaust all but destroyed the Yiddish language, especially in the West.

Despite these four different Yiddish time periods beginning in Germany, Weinreich says that the Jews weren’t fluent in German when Yiddish was being formed. “They [the Jews] never speak pure German, they mix in many Hebrew words both in writing and in speech, and in this manner they teach their children to speak from the start, and accustom them slowly to Hebrew,” Weinreich said. Because the Jews had been studying Torah and other Jewish texts in the holy language, Hebrew, many of them knew the letters quite well. Jews who spoke Judeo-Romance vernaculars in the Rhineland in the early formation of Yiddish used Hebrew and Aramaic writings from scripture, while adopting local varieties of German. According to Marvin Herzog, the combination of adopting the local German, while still holding true to Jewish roots and studying scripture “yielded a Jewish vernacular different from that of the non-Jews.”

Furthermore, the persecution by both the Crusaders in the 11th century and later by those who blamed the Jews for the Black Plague in the 14th century drove entire Jewish communities out of Germany. Those that had lived there fled the country carrying parts of the German language and knowing the Hebrew scripture. Now, however, they were isolated from their communities and found themselves interacting less with non-Jews. As they settled in their new lands, they began to self-segregate themselves after facing so much persecution. They wanted to protect themselves from the centuries of hatred. As a result, the Yiddish language took shape as its own language, as there was little-to-no interference from other languages or people.

Similarly, the Ladino language also developed through prior knowledge of Hebrew – through Torah and the like – and migration after the Spanish Inquisition, which resulted in their need for protecting themselves. The roots of Ladino date back to 711, when the Muslims of North Africa came into Iberia. After the Christian Visigoths had held anti-Jewish measures, including forced conversions, the Muslims in Iberia had a friendlier relationship with the Jews. As a result of increased communication with other peoples, many Jews became quadrilingual, learning Arabic to communicate with the rulers and literature, a Romance dialect to communicate with the local population now living under Islam, Hebrew for prayer and poetry, and finally, a language spoken in the home that was a mixture of all three. The home language varied by region and would eventually form the basis of Ladino.

Ladino did not became a “language of the Jews” until the exile from Spain in 1492, as it was originally just the language of their province in Spain. It reflects the grammar and vocabulary of 15th century Castilian Spanish, as once the Jews were forced out of the country, they lost contact with the modernized language of Spain due to isolation from the Spanish language. This isolation kept the characteristics of the language in the 15th century despite the passage of time, as Ladino used archaic Spanish words while also deriving words eventually from Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and French. Ladino was written in the Hebrew alphabet and Rashi script until the 20th century for similar reasons to Yiddish. The Jews had already been studying the Hebrew scripture, so it was natural for them to use those letters and take some words as they moved out of Spain to new, unfamiliar territories; it was simpler to use an alphabet they already knew than to learn an entirely new one. Furthermore, in the Jewish schools of Spain, Rabbis translated biblical and liturgical texts word-for-word from the Hebrew or Aramaic to the provincial language, naturally taking on some of those words that didn’t have exact definitions in the Castilian language.

After 1492, the Spanish Jews fled to other parts of Europe and northern Africa in the Ottoman Empire, including Morocco, where they were welcomed and brought into communities. Sultan Bayezid II, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the time, was actually happy to welcome the Jews to his land because of their high-tech skills, saying, “The king of Spain’s loss is my gain” at the time of the Inquisition. Throughout much of the Ottoman Empire, in fact, Jews actually intermingled with the local populations, forcing them to at least somewhat learn the local languages to communicate with their neighbors. In their homes, they began to use both the language the brought with them from Spain and the local language, mixing the two and further developing the unique Ladino language. Eventually, as the Ottoman Empire began to fall, the communities were isolated yet again for fear of security and uncertain future. According to Judith Roumani, a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, as the Empire began its slow decline years later, the Jews “Maintained Ladino because they stayed together. Women and children might not need any other language. Living sometimes in remote places, they may not even have realized that their language came from Spain. Because Ladino was the vernacular spoken at home, within families, its genres were secular and oral: lullabies, ballads (romances), proverbs.” According to Prof. Haïm-Vidal Sephiha, a Judeo-Spanish linguist and activist, in Ladino, four percent of words are based on Hebrew, 15 percent are based on Turkish, 20 percent are based on French, which is all built on the foundation of the 15th century Spanish Castilian, which is the basis for 60 percent of the language.

As the passage of time brought Jews further and further away from 15th century Spain, Ladino developed two distinct dialects based on where the Jews migrated. Western Ladino was used in Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia and other surrounding countries, preserving northern Spanish and Portuguese characteristics. In Turkey and Rhodes, Oriental Ladino reflected Castilian Spanish, while taking on aspects of Turkish and other local dialects. While the Sephardic Jews would communicate somewhat more with their non-Jewish neighbors than the Ashkenazim – which is why those languages influenced Ladino – their persecution-filled past left them wary of getting too comfortable. Consequently, they too isolated themselves at times, which further ensured the development of Ladino and Ladino culture. Anti-Jewish sentiment seemed to have played a role in the formation of Ladino as a Sephardic Jewish language.

In Yiddish and Ladino, as well as many other Jewish languages, some argue that their development and formation, just like the Jew, could not have survived without enemies and persecution. One of the fathers of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, said, “Our enemies have made us one… It is only pressure that forces us back to the parent stem.” Similarly, the pressure of survival forced the Jews to be isolated at various points in history in order to protect themselves. When a people live with just each other for a long enough time as a coherent group, their own type of communicating begins to develop that is unique to this group. The religion of Judaism was a group-forming tool that led to the development of Ladino and Yiddish. Einstein agreed with Herzl, saying, “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race; that at any rate is my belief.” Not only did the persecution force Jews to segregate themselves, Einstein argues, but it also made Jews feel more united as one people and one race. As a result, author of the Vanishing American Jew, Alan M Dershowitz, notes that Jews were more inclined to stick together, which was one factor in the development of not just Yiddish and Ladino, but many of the 21 Jewish languages that have developed over time.

According to Sarah Benor, an associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College, “Wherever they [Jews] lived, they spoke a Jewish version of the local language, and Yiddish and Ladino were actually exceptions in the history of the diaspora because they were maintained for centuries away from their lands of origin.” Since the scattering of Jews across the world, Jewish languages and cultures have found a way to blossom regardless of where they are and who their neighbors are. Despite reasons for Jews to assimilate fully to local cultures and forget their Judaism, traditions, and languages, Jews developed their own, distinct languages while living near or among non-Jews because of the need to protect their identity and self, isolation (by choice and enforced), previous knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and their respective alphabets, in addition to the migration that took place over centuries. The religion of Judaism bonded together a race, nation, extended family, etc. into a group that faced a plethora of challenges yet came away with over 20 distinct languages. With such an immense history of development of Jewish language, the question that demands an answer is if and when the next Jewish language will develop, or, if now that Jews face less persecution, the world has seen the last formation of a uniquely Jewish language.

Works Cited
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Benor, Sarah. “Yiddish, Ladino and Jewish English: Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?” Jdov. JDOV, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
Brann, Ross. “What Does the Cairo Geniza Teach Us about the Jews and Islam in the Middle Ages?” Ross Brann. Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem. 16 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the next Century. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. The Vanishing American Jew. The New York Times. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
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Paper, Herbert H. Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978. Print.
Rich, Tracey R. “Yiddish Language and Culture.” Judaism 101. Judaism 101, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Roumani, Judith. “The Story of Ladino: From Roots to Branches By Judith Roumani.” Sephardic Horizons. Sephardic Horizons, July-Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Rozovsky, Lorne. “Path to Extinction – The Declining Health of Jewish Languages.” The Declining Health of Jewish Languages – Jewish History. Chabad, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
Sephiha, Haïm-Vidal, Prof. “Judeo-Spanish.” Judeo-Spanish. Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Culture and Studies, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
Shyovitz, David. “Yiddish: History & Development of Yiddish.” History & Development of Yiddish | Jewish Virtual Library. Jewish Virtual Library, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

About the Author
Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff is from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently studying on a gap year program called Kivunim, learning Hebrew and Arabic and traveling the world. Next year, Dan will attend Northwestern University and will major in Journalism.