Jewish Languages

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. (A.C./CM)
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