Linguist Asks: Do You Speak Jewish?

Medieval Judeo-Persian manuscript |
Courtesy of the British Library

If someone asked you to name a Jewish language, Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino would likely be the first few that came to mind. But what about Ge’ez, Judeo-Greek or Judeo-Golpaygani?

These are just some of the Judaic languages used by global Jewish populations throughout history, according to Dina Maiben. The assistant director of Gratz Advance and Hebrew programs at Gratz College discussed the evolution of these languages for Gratz’s Jan. 19 continuing education webinar “Do You Speak Jewish?”

During her talk, Maiben refuted a common claim about Hebrew.
“There are people that will tell you that Hebrew was a dead language, that it died sometime around the first or second century of the Common Era. But I don’t believe that at all, because the definition of a dead language is a language that doesn’t create new words. And yet, in every single period of its existence, Hebrew was generating new terminology,” she said.

This was because Jews were scattered throughout the world, and the only language they shared was Hebrew. For much of the Middle Ages, scholars wrote to each other in Hebrew because it was a common tongue they could be sure other Jewish communities would have access to.

Maiben explained that Hebrew itself did not exist in a vacuum and was created from other languages that came before it. Scholars call its main linguistic ancestor Proto-Semitic, which is the parent language of all Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Babylonian, Assyrian and Arabic.

“We don’t have anything written in Proto-Semitic. We have no idea what the language was like, except we can sift through all of its descendants and find commonalities, which is how historical linguists determine what family a language belongs to,” Maiben said.

But what makes a language other than Hebrew Jewish? Maiben said Judaic languages have several traits in common. Most have a non-Jewish base language that provides grammatical structure while also incorporating Hebrew or Aramaic vocabulary. There are usually influences from other Jewish languages, a Hebrew or Aramaic writing system, and distinct vowel pronunciations.

Jewish languages consist not only of grammar and vocabulary but of discourse style. The practice of overlapping speech, or multiple people speaking at once, is a habit that may seem familiar to anyone who has sat around a Jewish family dinner table, regardless of nationality or language. This discourse style is distinct from interrupting, because it consists of actively building on ideas rather than going off on different tangents. Maiben attributed this practice to the discussion and debate styles of ancient Torah study, as well as chanting patterns in synagogue prayer.

Jewish languages flourished in the Diaspora, from Judeo-Malayalam in India to Judeo-Arabic in the Middle East. Many words from non-Jewish base languages made their way into their Jewish variants and later into English. In the Persian Empire, where Jews spoke variations of Persian like Judeo-Shirazi and Judeo-Golpaygani, the Old Persian word for garden, pardis, became the base of the Hebrew word for orchard and the English word paradise.

In central Asia and parts of China, Jews spoke another Persian dialect, Judeo-Hamedani. In Africa, Ethiopian Jews wrote in the ancient Semitic language Ge’ez. In Europe, Romaniote Jews spoke Judeo-Greek from the rise of the Byzantine Empire to the 1940s, when the Holocaust drove its speakers to the brink
of extinction.

Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, developed in the medieval era with additional influences from Arabic, Latin and Romance languages. Around the same time, Judeo-German, or Yiddish, grew into two distinct variants, Eastern European Galicianer and Western European Litvak. Semitic and Hebrew words comprise up to 25% of the lexicon.

Maiben argued that there is also a version of Judeo-English evolving primarily in Orthodox communities and Jewish summer camps in the United States today. Speakers will often use English grammar structures interspersed with Yiddish and Hebrew vocabulary, or use Yiddish and Hebrew grammar structures while speaking English, like saying “make a party” rather than “have a party.”

“Even people who are not in the Orthodox community and not in the camp world, but just within the Jewish community as a whole, use a ton of Hebrew and Yiddish words in their vocabularies,” she said.; 215-832-0729


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