In the ancient Middle East, the nomadic Hebrews
spoke Hebrew, a Semitic language. Judaism's oldest texts were also
written in Hebrew, including the Decalogue, Torah, Bible and the
Mishnah. Hebrew was used throughout Jewish history in the liturgy as a
sacred language, as well as in religious texts.
In the nineteenth century, there was a Hebrew renaissance, for the
most part in Haskalah centers, and later among Zionist activists, who
modernized the vocabulary and revived it as a living language. In modern
Israel, it is the official language, alongside Arabic and English. From
the third century B.C., the residents of Judea and Galilee began using
the Aramaic language, also a Semitic language. Part of the Talmud was
written in Aramaic. In the Diaspora, the Jews have used many different
languages. On the Iberian Peninsula, the Ladino dialect took shape
(Judeo-Spanish), as did Judeo-Portuguese, with a strong lexical
influence from Hebrew and Aramaic.
After they were expelled from Spain in 1492,
Jews living in Islamic countries, primarily in the Ottoman Empire,
continued using these languages, as did small enclaves of refugees from
the Iberian Peninsula who were scattered throughout Europe in the
Balkans, Italy, France and Holland. Today, these languages have all but
disappeared. In France, the Laaz (Corfat) dialect developed, based
mainly on Old French. This dialect, however, began disappearing as early
as the medieval period. The Ashkenazim used Yiddish, which has its
roots in a twelfth-century Low German dialect. Yiddish absorbed lexical
borrowings from Hebrew, as well as a few vestiges of Old French. By the
sixteenth century, Yiddish had become a fully-formed, completely
independent language, with two dialects: the western dialect, used by
German and Dutch Jews, which disappeared in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries; and the eastern dialect, used in Eastern Europe
and influenced by the Slavic languages.
The Eastern European Yiddish dialect has
various sub-dialects, including wolynski (from Volhynia, Wolyn), used
among Galician Jews and those in Ukraine and Moldova; the Lithuanian
dialect of Yiddish, used in Lithuania, Belarus and the Bialystok region;
and the central or Polish dialect, used throughout the former Congress
Kingdom. Each of them had several varieties of local dialect, such as
the Warsaw sub-dialect of Polish Yiddish. In the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, a rich literature developed in Yiddish.
Today, Yiddish survives as the language of everyday communication only
among a few Chasidic groups living in the United States and Israel.