Beszámoló a University College London Institute of Jewish Studies 2016. évi nyári konferenciájáról

EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2015/16


Jewish Languages

Institute of Jewish Studies, UCL, 26th to 27th July 2016

Main organiser: Professor Mark Geller (Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, UCL)

Co-organiser: Dr Lily Kahn (Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, UCL)


The following report presents the original aims and rationale for the UCL Institute of Jewish Studies 2016 summer conference on Jewish Languages, a summary of the sessions, an outline of key themes and issues emerging from it, and a description of plans for the associated output. The conference organisers wish to express their gratitude to the EAJS for the generous funding which made the event possible.


  1. Event rationale

The following is the original event abstract and rationale as proposed to the EAJS.

Event abstract

This conference is dedicated to the rich array of vernacular and written linguistic varieties other than Hebrew employed by Jews throughout history. Recently there has been a growing scholarly recognition of the significance of theoretical and descriptive research into these Jewish languages, including varieties with a long and in some cases substantial written tradition such as Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, and Karaim, as well as less well attested, scantily documented, and primarily oral varieties such as Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Turkish, Jewish Hungarian, Jewish Russian, and Jewish secret languages. The conference will bring together established scholars who have conducted pioneering work on Jewish languages with younger researchers who are contributing to this emerging field of enquiry.

Description of the event

The conference will be a two-day event consisting of a series of five consecutive one-and-a-half- to two-hour panels of three or four speakers each. Each panel will be devoted to a key topic in the field of Jewish language and linguistics. The first two panels will be devoted to the grammatical characteristics of Jewish languages, addressing issues of morphology and syntax respectively. The third panel will be dedicated to lexemes and lexicography. The fourth panel will focus on script, palaeography, and writing. The fifth panel will consider the relationship between Jewish languages and identity. The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion enabling participants to address themes arising from the presentations and to consider future research agendas.

Motivation for topic

The motivation for this topic is the increasing recognition of Jewish languages and linguistics as a significant emerging academic field. This heightened awareness is evidenced by the establishment in 2013 of Brill’s Journal of Jewish Languages, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to theoretical and descriptive research into historical and present-day Jewish linguistic varieties, and by the forthcoming publication of two volumes devoted to Jewish languages, Brill’s Handbook of Jewish Languages (2015) and De Gruyter’s Jewish Languages: An International Handbook (2016). The conference will be a timely complement to these publications. It will appeal to Jewish Studies scholars with an interest in linguistic issues as well as to historical linguists, endangered language researchers, and members of the general public.


  1. Summary and analysis of conference sessions

 The conference consisted of eight sessions spread over two days. Each session was comprised of one or two 45-minute papers, which allowed for relatively in-depth presentations and discussions. There were twelve speakers in total drawn from a pool of European scholars with expertise in a diverse range of Jewish languages. The session groupings were designed to bring to the fore the key themes arising from the various papers and to highlight a number of important topics in the field emerging from the speakers’ abstracts (i.e. the relationship between Jewish languages and sacred texts, Jewish vernacular traditions, cultural history of Jewish languages, contemporary Jewish languages, multilingualism and language contact, and literary production in Jewish languages). A presentation on the typology of Jewish languages was selected for the concluding session in order to situate the preceding talks within their broader theoretical context. Note that in order to make the most coherent programme possible through full exploitation of the links between speakers’ topics, the conference sessions differed somewhat from those proposed in the original event application.

In addition to the speakers, the conference (like all IJS events) was free and open to the public, and was attended by 55 audience members (according to the Eventbrite registration data). The organisers were very pleased that the conference was so well attended and that the event was able to offer high standards of scholarship while remaining accessible and relevant to the general public.


Session 1: Jewish languages and sacred texts

This session consisted of two papers, each addressing a different aspect of the relationship between Jewish languages and sacred texts. The first paper was delivered by Dr Alinda Damsma (Leo Baeck College, London), who presented a clear and insightful overview of the history of scholarship on Zoharic Aramaic. This began with the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century proposals by Gustav Dalman and Gershom Scholem that the language represented an artificial fusion of Eastern and Western dialects, a view that remained largely unchallenged until the 21st century when scholars such as Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert and others working within the framework of UCL’s five-year project on the language of the Zohar sought to revisit this notion and offer a more nuanced assessment of its composition. Dr Damsma proposed that the language of the Zohar can be considered a type of Late Jewish Literary Aramaic, as it bears striking similarities to the language of the Tosefta-Targums written in that dialect. She is currently conducting a research project on the language of the Zohar which will culminate in the publication of a much-needed reference grammar of this important form of Aramaic. A lively Q & A session followed the presentation, including a discussion about whether the Aramaic of the Zohar can be considered a koiné, a topic which requires further study based on a larger sample of medieval Aramaic texts.

Dr Damsma’s contribution was complemented by a presentation by Professor Henryk Jankowski (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań) on translations of the Hebrew Bible into Karaim, a Turkic language variety used by the Karaite community in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. He gave a fascinating survey of Karaim Bible translations, which are all fragmentary but which reveal important information about Eastern European Karaite translation techniques. The translations are believed to have been conducted orally in the synagogue (in a similar method to that of Aramaic Targumim), and this is evident in the language of the written versions, which hints at a word-by-word rendition. Key translation strategies, which likewise often resemble those found in the Targumim, include addition of explanatory material; alterations of vocabulary without a specific Karaim equivalent; avoidance of anthropomorphism (e.g. ‘God’s power’ instead of ‘God’s hand’); and omissions (usually due to scribal error or uncertainty on the part of the translator). Professor Jankowski noted that these techniques, which have parallels not only in the Targum tradition but also in other Jewish languages such as Ladino, is very different to the translation tradition of Islamic texts into Turkic languages. The discussion session at the end of the presentation raised issues regarding the motivation for the avoidance of anthropomorphic expressions; the differences between Karaite and Islamic translations into Turkic languages; and the attempt to create a koiné for Karaim based on the Turkish standard.


Session 2: Cultural history of Jewish languages

This session was delivered by Dr Hilary Pomeroy (UCL), who gave a historical overview of the development of the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish/Judezmo) language and its associated literature and culture. This included a discussion of the linguistic differences that evolved between the language of the Jews following their expulsion from Spain and settlement in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa on the one hand, and Castilian Spanish on the other. Outside of a Spanish-speaking milieu, Ladino preserved archaic features that were subsequently lost from Castilian Spanish. (This is a feature commonly observed in Jewish languages, though the reasons for this differ from language to language.) An example of such an archaism is the use of a third person feminine singular pronoun as a polite second person form. Dr Pomeroy also discussed Ladino Bible translations, which exhibit some of the same techniques witnessed in the Karaim translations, such as highly literal renditions preserving Hebrew syntax (e.g. translating the Hebrew plural form מים ‘water’ with the Spanish plural ‘aguas’). Dr Pomeroy touched on the emergence of Ladino literature and then discussed the factors leading to the language’s decline, including the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, negative self-perception by speakers, the increasing dominance of French as a prestige language, and the decimation of speakers in the Holocaust. The session concluded with a discussion of Ladino in the present day: the language is in a critical condition, rarely spoken in the home or passed on to the younger generation, but scholarly efforts to promote it have led to a resurgence of interest with a variety of academic programmes and initiatives aimed at fostering research in the field.


Session 3: Jewish vernacular traditions

This session was opened by Dr Rachid Ridouane (CNRS, Paris), who provided an overview of the history, sociolinguistics, and linguistic structure of Jewish Berber, as spoken in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. As very little is known about Jewish Berber, Dr Ridouane’s session was a particularly important one for the light it shed on this neglected Jewish linguistic variety. The session highlighted the long history of Jews in North Africa, discussed the various theories on the origin of the Berber Jews, and stressed the close and friendly relationship between Berber-speaking Jews and Muslims, with most elements of the culture shared between the two groups. Dr Ridouane used a transcription of a Berber Passover Haggadah to illustrate some of the distinctive features of Jewish Berber, which are most highly concentrated in the domain of phonology (including e.g. the merger of the phonemes /s/ and /ʃ/, which would be distinguished in non-Jewish Berber), but also include a Hebrew/Aramaic lexical component that has in some cases been incorporated into Berber syntax. Dr Ridouane illustrated the mutual intelligibility between Jewish and Muslim varieties of Berber with a video clip showing a Skype conversation between a Berber speaker in Israel and the son of an old friend from his home in Tinghir, Morocco. This high degree of mutual intelligibility prompted a discussion in the Q & A session regarding the degree to which a variety such as Jewish Berber can be defined as a distinct language.

The session was concluded with a presentation by Maria Maddalena Colasuonno (University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’), who provided a detailed survey of the phonological, morphosyntactic, and lexical characteristics of various Judeo-Italian spoken dialects from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as attested in written sources of different genres. Dr Colasuonno demonstrated that many of the Jewish dialects of Italian exhibit archaising features when compared to their co-territorial non-Jewish counterparts; for example, Judeo-Mantuan is thought to represent a pre-Lombardised dialect of Italian because of its use of features no longer attested in non-Jewish Mantuan (e.g. non as a negator instead of the bleached lexeme mia/miga). Other Jewish Italian dialects, such as Judeo-Roman, exhibit similar archaising trends, e.g. old preterite endings. These differences can be attributed to the fact that throughout much of the period in which these dialects developed, the Italian Jews lived in relative social isolation from speakers of the co-territorial non-Jewish dialects. The juxtaposition of Dr Colasuonno’s talk with Dr Ridouane’s was highly instructive as it illustrated the sociolinguistic variety found among vernacular Jewish languages: while Jewish Berber speakers enjoyed a close relationship and greater linguistic similarity with their non-Jewish neighbours, Jewish speakers of Italian dialects were often socially isolated from their non-Jewish counterparts and this is reflected in their language.


Session 4: Contemporary Jewish languages

This session was opened by Dr Helen Beer (UCL), who delivered an insightful presentation on the historical and contemporary marginalisation of Yiddish and the dichotomy between popular conceptions of the language and the reality of its rich and diverse literary and cultural legacy. Dr Beer gave an overview on the history of negative attitudes towards Yiddish, including the nineteenth-century disdain for the language by its own speakers and others as a corrupt and degenerate jargon; the hostility towards Yiddish in Mandate Palestine and the early years of the State of Israel, which included the banning of Yiddish newspapers and theatre productions and the boycotting and attacking of Yiddish actors; and the current dismissal of the language as nothing more than a vehicle for jokes and curses. She then contrasted these attitudes with a case study of the Tsishoschool movement in interwar Poland, which served to illustrate the vibrancy of twentieth-century Yiddish-language cultural activity. Key features of Tsisho included a broad curriculum including biology and other sciences taught in Yiddish; the involvement of Yiddish literary figures in syllabus development; intensive pedagogical discussions; and a comprehensive teacher training programme including instruction in Yiddish language and literature, music, and pedagogical methodology. Key figures involved in the programme included well-known scholars and writers such as Max Weinreich, Avrom Reyzn, and Emanuel Ringlblum. Dr Beer finished the presentation with a call for the gap between popular conceptions (past and present) and the reality of Yiddish cultural diversity to be closed, and for preconceptions to be replaced with a more accurate and multi-layered understanding of the language and its contributions.

Dr Beer’s presentation was followed by an illuminating talk by Joshua Lebenswerd (Stockholm University) on the linguistic practices of present-day Swedish Jews. The presentation began with a sociolinguistic history of Jewish settlement in Sweden, which was overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking both before and after World War II. It then turned to an examination of the linguistic switch that occurred in the 1950s when, after the establishment of the State of Israel, Swedish Jews began to replace their Ashkenazic pronunciation and postvernacular use of Yiddish vocabulary with Modern (Israeli) Hebrew pronunciation and vocabulary. Thus, for example, Yiddish expressions (e.g. gut yontef ‘happy holiday’) were replaced by their Modern Hebrew equivalents (e.g. ḥag sameaḥ). Today, Swedish Jews employ both Yiddish and Modern Hebrew lexis and pronunciation, but are likely to do so in different social settings, with Yiddish associated with informality and nostalgia, while Modern Hebrew is regarded as more formal, ‘correct’, and modern. Similarly, Yiddish is regarded as more of an in-group code, with speakers preferring to employ Modern Hebrew equivalents in conversation with non-Jewish speakers. The questions following the session focused on attempts to clarify the degree of difference in perception of Yiddish among older versus younger speakers, and whether speakers fluent in Yiddish would be more or less likely to regard the language as nostalgic; the consensus was that most speakers apart from the oldest living generation are not fluent in Yiddish, and that the attitudes expressed are rooted in a postvernacular relationship to the language.


Session 5: Multilingualism and Judeo-Arabic

The second day of the conference opened with a session comprised of two complementary presentations on codeswitching and multilingualism in medieval Judeo-Arabic. Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner (Woolf Institute and University of Cambidge) focused on contracts, letters, and other documents from the Cairo Genizah, whereas Dr Meira Polliack (Tel Aviv University) concentrated on literary texts. Both speakers emphasised the issue of dialect continua in Arabic, discussing the question of (as mentioned above in the case of Jewish Berber) whether Judeo-Arabic can be considered a distinct language. Dr Wagner pointed out that the question is a vexed one because in many cases there is no clear-cut distinction between Jewish forms of Arabic versus Christian and Muslim counterparts; instead, there may be other distinctions, such as urban vs. rural. Dr Polliack added that the situation varies tremendously depending on the historical and sociolinguistic setting, so that while e.g. there may be very little difference between the language of an urban twentieth-century Iraqi Jew and that of his or her Muslim and Christian neighbours, the situation can be very different in other periods and contexts. With respect to the Genizah, the first salient feature marking a given Arabic text as ‘Judeo-Arabic’ is the use of Hebrew script. Dr Polliack pointed out that the use of Hebrew script was often the primary factor prompting medieval users to regard the language as ‘Jewish’, regardless of the presence or lack of any distinctive phonological, morphosyntactic, or lexical features that they may have. In addition, Judeo-Arabic texts may exhibit considerable linguistic differences from non-Jewish varieties of the language, but (as in the case of many other Jewish languages), there is a continuum depending on the genre and intended audience. Thus, Hebrew vocabulary is much more commonly attested in documents intended for a Jewish audience, and Aramaic is restricted to certain specific genres (legal and magical). The discussion following the sessions focused on questions of the appropriate labels for a linguistic variety such as Judeo-Arabic, with speakers asked for their opinion on Benjamin Hary’s term ‘religiolect’ (which they supported, but which has not gained widespread currency).


Session 6: Jewish languages in contact

This session was delivered by Dr Szonja Komoróczy (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest), who gave a presentation on the linguistic shift that Hungarian Jews underwent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries whereby Yiddish was gradually abandoned in favour of German and Hungarian. This shift took place in several stages in different parts of the country. In the early nineteenth century Jews in Budapest and other regions with the German and cultural and linguistic sphere of influence began to substitute written Yiddish for Judeo-German (i.e. German in Hebrew characters) and to replace their spoken Yiddish with German. This was particularly common in the Reform community. Simultaneously, some rabbis in Reform congregations began delivering their sermons in Hungarian rather than Yiddish. While the use of Judeo-German and German persisted for nearly a hundred years, by the late nineteenth century spoken and written Hungarian spread rapidly throughout the Hungarian Jewish population, including the Orthodox, and while Yiddish continued to be employed in informal contexts into the twentieth century, it was largely replaced by Hungarian in this period. However, in the decades after it ceased to be a vernacular traces of Yiddish continued to be attested in the speech of Hungarian Jews. Yiddish was often associated with particular social contexts, frequently appearing in satirical writing and in ironic settings, with code-switching and code-mixing featured prominently. The session raised questions as to whether recent years have seen a similar phenomenon to the one exhibited in the speech of Swedish Jews whereby speakers have started to replace traditional Yiddish lexical items with their Modern (Israeli) Hebrew equivalent. Dr Komoróczy replied that the Hungarian situation appears to be different than the Swedish one, and that Yiddish terms continue to be used as opposed to Modern Hebrew ones.


Session 7: Literary production in Jewish languages

This session was delivered by Dr Andrea Schatz (King’s College London), who presented a detailed history of the early modern Yiddish translation of the tenth-century Hebrew chronicle Yosippon, a popular adaptation of some of Josephus’ works including Jewish War. The Yiddish translation of Yosippon is an instructive case study of the reception of historical writing in early modern Ashkenaz. The text was translated by Michael Adam, a Jewish convert to Christianity; it was first published in Zürich in 1546 and was subsequently reissued in a number of editions. Dr Schatz juxtaposed Michael Adam’s Yosippon with his Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch, and provided a comparison of the different early modern editions of the work, illustrating the ways in which changes to the introduction, the choice to include or omit the Hebrew introduction, and the presentation of his commentary reflected shifting linguistic and literary standards. The presentation prompted the question of whether Michael Adam’s translation was affected by his conversion to Christianity, and of whether any comparative studies had been done on the Latin and German translations of the text, which were conducted in a similar period to the Yiddish one. This is a subject on which little work has been done, and which requires further investigation.


Session 8: Typology of Jewish languages

The final session in the conference placed the two days’ discussions within a broader theoretical framework by outlining a number of key considerations regarding the typology of Jewish languages. Professor Frank Alvarez-Pereyre (CNRS, Paris) provided a thorough overview of the history of Jewish interlinguistics, beginning with the work of pioneering mid-twentieth-century scholars Max Weinreich and Salomo Birnbaum, who paved the way for comparative study of Jewish diaspora languages as a distinct field of enquiry, and continuing with the work of later scholars such as Joshua Fishman. He then presented a number of key typological points which should be taken into account in the analysis of Jewish languages; these include the use of the Hebrew script; the presence of a Hebrew/Aramaic lexical component; archaising morphosyntactic features; and mutual intelligibility. This session provided a fitting end to the conference in that it drew together and contextualised many of the issues which had been raised over the course of the event.


  1. Summary of significant themes

The conference papers highlighted six major themes which were presented by Dr Lily Kahn in a closing address following the final session. The first of these is the issue of co-territoriality. While two of the most prominent Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino, have been isolated geographically from their non-Jewish sister languages throughout most of their history, this is actually an unusual phenomenon among Jewish languages in general; instead, it is much more common for such language varieties to be co-territorial with their non-Jewish counterparts. Apart from Yiddish and Ladino, among the languages discussed during the conference, Polish/Lithuanian Karaim stood out as being the only other example of a non-co-territorial Jewish language. The remaining languages (e.g. Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Berber, and Judeo-Italian), are more typical in that they have been spoken and (where relevant) written in the same geographical region as the corresponding non-Jewish sister varieties.

The second important theme flows from this issue of co-territoriality: with few exceptions, the Jewish languages examined in the conference are or were completely, or almost completely, mutually intelligible with their non-Jewish counterparts. Nevertheless, the Jewish varieties invariably exhibit some distinctive features which allow them to be labelled as such; these may be phonological, as in the case of Jewish Berber and some of the Judeo-Italian dialects, or morphosyntactic, as in Judeo-Italian. In most cases the Jewish varieties contain certain archaising features, which is particularly noteworthy because the reasons for this vary from language to language: in some cases (e.g. Judeo-Italian) archaisms may reflect a history of social isolation from the co-territorial non-Jewish community, whereas in others (e.g. Ladino) they are a function of geographic isolation. The languages also exhibit lexical differences from their non-Jewish counterparts, most prominently in their use of a Hebrew/Aramaic component. Despite these distinctive features, the overwhelming tendency towards mutual intelligibility raises the question (on which Dr Wagner, Dr Polliack, and Professor Alvarez-Pereyre touched in their talks) of whether and to what extent these Jewish varieties can be termed ‘languages’.

The third theme arising from the talks is the issue of script as a marker of linguistic identity. Often, as Dr Polliack noted in her discussion of Judeo-Arabic, the use of Hebrew script has been regarded as the defining feature that has historically made speakers and writers perceive a language as ‘Jewish’, and indeed, most languages traditionally categorised as ‘Jewish’ have been written in a form of the Hebrew script. However, as the conference highlighted, this is not always a necessary precondition for a language to be regarded as ‘Jewish’; this was clearly demonstrated in the case of Berber, Italian, and Swedish as spoken by Jews, in which we can see distinctive Jewish features despite the absence of Hebrew script.

The fourth theme is the prevalence of multilingualism and layering of elements in successive Jewish linguistic varieties. A salient early example of this is the way in which Aramaic, the first Jewish language apart from Hebrew, itself became an element of subsequent Jewish languages (e.g. Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Karaim) when it fell out of vernacular use. More recently, this pattern has recurred, with postvernacular Yiddish becoming an important element of the speech of Swedish and Hungarian Jews. In some cases, different Jewish languages may be incorporated synchronically into a new speech variety and employed in different social or generic settings: for example, in Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic features more prominently in legal writings, while in modern Jewish Swedish, Yiddish and Modern Hebrew are used in different social registers. The use of Jewish elements may also shift depending on the language of the interlocutor or correspondent: thus, writers of Judeo-Arabic letters tend to reduce their use of Hebrew vocabulary in correspondence with non-Jews, while Swedish Jews eschew Yiddish in favour of Modern Hebrew when speaking with non-Jews due to the belief that their audience is more likely to understand the latter.

The fifth theme is the relationship between Jewish languages and sacred texts. This can take the form of a) new sacred texts composed in Jewish languages and b) the translation of Hebrew sacred texts into Jewish vernaculars. In both cases Aramaic set the trend for this type of engagement with sacred texts. As Dr Damsma showed in her talk, Aramaic was a key vehicle of Jewish linguistic creativity in the composition of the Targums, Zohar, and other mystical texts. Likewise, the evolution of the Targums was rooted in a desire for the Hebrew Bible to be made available to the people in their vernacular; as Professor Jankowski demonstrated, this tradition continued to proliferate long after Aramaic itself ceased to be a Jewish vernacular, and many of the same Targumic techniques are visible in Karaim Bible translations (as well as in other Jewish languages such as Ladino).

The final theme emerging from the conference is that there is still a lack of wider understanding and need for further investigation regarding the position, history, nature, and role of the languages of the Jewish Diaspora. This is exemplified perhaps most tellingly in the fact that Yiddish, the largest Jewish language in terms of speaker numbers and diversity of literary production, is still the subject of much misinformation and stereotyping (an issue addressed by Dr Beer), and that its literary riches (which Dr Beer and Dr Schatz touched on) remain very much under-examined. It is hoped that this conference, along with the associated publication (see below), will contribute in some measure towards a heightened awareness of the importance of Jewish languages as a field of enquiry, and that the scholars involved in the event will continue to engage with each other on the issues raised in this summary.


  1. Planned outcomes

Revised and edited versions of the conference papers will be published in the Brill series of IJS conference proceedings. Conference participants were informed of this during the event and the organisers will be in touch with them over the coming months with further details. It is hoped that this volume will serve as a useful resource for scholars and students of Jewish languages and that it will make a meaningful contribution to the growing body of research on this exciting field.


  1. Conference programme and other materials

See attached PDFs for the following:


Lily Kahn

Mark Geller

31st July 2016


Forrás (Source):