A Sociolinguistic History of the Jews – By Sarah Bunin Benor

Sarah Bunin Benor on Bernard Spolsky’s The Languages of the Jews

Bernard Spolsky, The Language of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 361pp., $36.99
Bernard Spolsky, The Language of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 361pp., $36.99

Intellectual history. Political history. Cultural history. Economic history. There are so many lenses through which we can analyze the past. All of them have been applied to the study of the Jews, a transcontinental people with a history of migration, persecuted minority status, and cultural interaction with their neighbors. With his wide-ranging new book, Bernard Spolsky adds another lens through which to view this fascinating story: language.

The Languages of the Jews takes readers on a world tour, from ancient Palestine to the contemporary State of Israel, with stops along the way in the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman Empires, North Africa, Yemen, Ethiopia, Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, India, and the New World. Jews in most of those locations picked up the local language and spoke and wrote a distinctive Jewish version of it. Spolsky subjects a few major exceptions to close scrutiny: Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 maintained a variety of Spanish for centuries in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, known today as Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, or Judezmo; and Jews in Eastern Europe (Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, etc.) created a Germanic language with heavy influences from Slavic and Semitic languages, known today as Yiddish.

In each of the settings Spolsky examines, we learn about migration and settlement patterns, communal structures, common professions and educational practices, governmental decrees regarding what Jews can and cannot do, and, often, persecutions and expulsions, all of which affect Jewish language practices. We meet noteworthy Jewish figures, mostly male scholars, and we get insight into how those both within and outside of the Jewish community felt about Jews’ distinctive language. A theme throughout this book is the special role that Hebrew has played in Jewish life in most of these communities: even when Jews were speaking Jewish versions of Arabic, Greek, and Venetian, they recited prayers in Hebrew, studied Hebrew texts, and sometimes wrote business documents in Hebrew. Because of the sacred status of Hebrew, many of the Jewish vernaculars were written in Hebrew letters and incorporated Hebrew words.

Spolsky shows us the effects of historical developments on language. The advent of printing technologies led to collaboration between Jews and Christians and increased prestige of Hebrew, especially in Renaissance Italy. In nineteenth-century Russia, military conscription expedited the decline of Yiddish and the adoption of Russian. And in nineteenth-century France, the emancipation and mandatory primary education of Jews and other minority groups led to widespread adoption of French. In some cases we learn about governmental policies that specifically target Jewish language practices. Jews’ Dhimmi (second-class) status in Muslim lands in the seventh and following centuries included the restrictions “not to teach their children the Qur’an, nor to speak as Muslims do, nor to follow the Muslim custom of naming a man after his son (for example, Abu Musa).” Even if these policies were not uniformly enforced, they led to some degree of social isolation and the development of a distinctly Jewish variety of Arabic. In 1558, Jewish moneylenders in Venice were required to keep their accounts in Italian, not Hebrew. And in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, some Jews were jailed or fined for claiming Yiddish as their mother tongue on the 1910 census.

Spolsky made a wise choice to organize Languages of the Jews both by era and by region. After an introduction dealing with Modern Hebrew, he treats ancient Palestine and surrounding areas, discussing Jews’ use of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Then he deals with the Arabian peninsula and Africa and the spread of Islam in antiquity and the middle ages. Next he moves to medieval Europe, including France, Spain, Central Europe, Greece, Italy, and Slavic lands. Then he discusses the modern period, focusing on linguistic emancipation throughout Europe, Britain and its former colonies, the New World, and Islam and the Orient. He ends with a detailed discussion of the return to Hebrew with Zionism. While this organization can at times feel confusing (perhaps because of some instances of repetition and other minor editing problems), it makes for a mostly coherent narrative and allows readers to see commonalities between regions, as well as the prominence of communal multilingualism.

The Greek-speaking Jewish community in early modern Corfu (Italy), for example, was absorbed by speakers of Apulian (an Italian dialect), but they preserved some Greek words and customs, such as reading Greek poems on the fast of Tisha b’Av. In early twentieth-century Cairo (Egypt), Jewish groups from several regions converged, yielding a meeting place of Egyptian Arabic, Arabic from other North African countries, Ladino, Yiddish, and Russian, in addition to Italian, French, and English, international languages adopted by middle- and upper-class Jews. At one point, Cairo even had two newspapers and a theater troupe in Yiddish. And even before the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, Jews in the Holy Land used Hebrew as a lingua franca; Spolsky gives the example of a Jew from Kabul and a Jew from California speaking Hebrew in mid-nineteenth-century Palestine.

Jewish linguistic history involves a number of debated issues, such as how long Jews continued to speak Hebrew in antiquity, how much Greek the Talmudic rabbis knew, whether Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the Lost Tribes, and what role the Khazars, a medieval kingdom that converted to Judaism, played in the origin of the Yiddish language. Spolsky presents multiple perspectives, sometimes coming to his own conclusion (as when he rejects the innovative ideas of Paul Wexler on the origins of Yiddish), and sometimes leaving the question open by offering a term from rabbinic literature: “teiku,” meaning “the question remains unanswered” (which has the additional effect of demonstrating that Jews’ incorporation of Hebrew continues in contemporary Jewish English). His openness to multiple scholarly narratives — coupled with copious footnotes and an impressive bibliography — enables readers to learn about debates and come to their own conclusions.

Milk Store, Toronto, 1903. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Milk Store, Toronto, 1903. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Spolsky, an internationally renowned scholar of the sociology of language, is the perfect person to write a sociolinguistic history of the Jews. His expertise in language policy led him to explore angles that might never have occurred to most historians or linguists, such as census data on self-reported language use, or the checkout histories for Yiddish and Polish books in Vilna libraries in the 1920s. He brings knowledge of contemporary language situations, like those in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, to bear on how we write ancient and medieval sociolinguistic history. And his impressive knowledge of Jewish history, as well as biblical and rabbinic writings, leads to important connections that another sociologist of language might not make.

Spolsky’s biography is evident in his decision to feature Israeli Hebrew and the State of Israel prominently throughout Languages of the Jews. Late in the book he writes, “By now, I am sure you have become aware of my prejudices as I have recounted the sociolinguistic history of the Jews: my background as a Zionist modern orthodox Israeli brought up as a speaker of English and now living by choice in a Hebrew-dominated society.” Because of this orientation, he starts and ends his history with Modern Hebrew in Israel, suggesting a teleological narrative: vernacular Hebrew use is the destiny of the Jewish people. The Jewish people originated in the Land of Israel in biblical times and returned there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to create the State of Israel. The intervening years of Diaspora involved a series of migrations, persecutions, expulsions, and, in modern times, the threat of assimilation; the distinctive Jewish languages created during the Diaspora period are mostly endangered or extinct, while spoken Hebrew is thriving once again.

I feel as much wonder as Spolsky does about the maintenance of Hebrew as a sacred language from antiquity to the present in diverse Jewish communities and its culmination in the revival of spoken Hebrew. But we all have our biases and, as a Jew living in the Diaspora, I wish to highlight an alternative sociolinguistic narrative: Jews have lived in many countries and spoken many languages, but they have always distinguished their language from that of their non-Jewish neighbors. The linguistic differences have variously been small, as in the case of medieval Judeo-French, or large, as in the case of Yiddish in Hungary. Jews throughout the world today, in countries as far apart as the United States, Argentina, Lithuania, Morocco, and Australia, continue this practice of distinction. Yes, Jews have been emancipated and enlightened and have shifted from language to language. But they maintain their tradition of linguistic distinctiveness, not just in contemporary Israeli Hebrew, but also in Jewish varieties of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, and other modern languages.

Jews have lived in many countries and spoken many languages, but they have always distinguished their language from that of their non-Jewish neighbors

Spolsky does characterize English as “a major Jewish language,” and he mentions Jewish Dutch, Jewish Lithuanian, and other post-Emancipation Jewish language varieties. But he minimizes their distinctiveness and implies that he considers them qualitatively different from languages that developed in ancient or medieval Jewish communities. Near the end of the book, he writes about three options in Jewish linguistic history: “Jewish independence,” which involves the use of Hebrew (ancient and modern); “subordination and persecution following, or leading to, expulsion,” which involves “the development of specifically Jewish varieties or dialects of the co-territorial non-Jewish languages,” and which would include Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, etc.; and “an acceptance of Jews as equal citizens after an emancipation period,” which involves “assimilation and a loss of linguistic differentiation,” which would include the languages of contemporary Jewish communities, like English and Russian.

As I have demonstrated in a paper and a book, the language of contemporary American Jews involves a good deal of differentiation. Even though Jewish English developed during a period of emancipation, and even though most (but not all) American Jews are able to speak English without distinctive features, insider-oriented Jewish English can incorporate enough influences from Hebrew and Yiddish to require subtitles in movies (as in “Trembling Before G-d”) and translation of lectures (as in the similar videos I discuss in Becoming Frum, one oriented toward Orthodox Jews and the other toward newcomers). It may be less distinct from American English than Yiddish is from Polish, but it is still distinct.

Is Jewish English less of a “Jewish variety or dialect” than Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Berber, or Judeo-French? The distinctness of these three languages has been subject to much debate, but Spolsky, like many other scholars, refers to them as Jewish languages. He even characterizes Judeo-Malayalam, spoken by Jews in Kerala, India, as a “Jewish variety of the local language.” It is written in the same script as the surrounding language, is mutually intelligible with it, and contains Hebrew borrowings — all also traits of Jewish English.

So why is Judeo-Malayalam considered a “Jewish variety” while “the existence of a Jewish variety of English is more controversial”? I believe it has to do with the period of development of these communities and their distinctive ways of speaking and writing. Many scholars will see Jewish groups that existed before the modern era as having a Jewish language variety and Jewish groups that fit into Spolsky’s third category — accepted in a post-emancipation society — as speaking the local language. Although I agree that emancipated Jewish communities are likely to speak more similarly to their non-Jewish neighbors than those in non-emancipated communities, I argue that these differences are of degree rather than kind. Yiddish and Ladino are among the few exceptions in the history of the languages of the Jews, maintained for centuries away from their lands of origin, surrounded by unintelligible languages of different linguistic families. Other languages, like Judeo-Arabic in Baghdad (which gets relatively little attention in the book), Judeo-Tajik (Bukharan), and Jewish English, may be different enough from their surrounding languages to be unintelligible to local non-Jews, but they still develop in contact with their “coterritorial” base languages, to use a term from Max Weinreich’s work.

I would amend Spolsky’s typology to account for the existence of two different types of Jewish languages/dialects/varieties in addition to Hebrew, characterized by their relationship to the language spoken by local non-Jews: coterritorial ones like Judeo-Arabic and Jewish English and post-coterritorial ones like Yiddish and Ladino. Among coterritorial Jewish languages, we can talk about a continuum of Jewish linguistic distinctiveness. Using Spolsky’s book as a starting point, we can comparatively analyze the language practices of Jewish communities — past and present — to determine where they fall on this continuum.

Despite my slight difference in approach, I feel that Spolsky’s book is an important addition to the literature of my field, a must-have reference for historians of the Jews and scholars of Jewish languages. I expect to return to the book often to find details about how a certain language came to be part of the Jewish repertoire or when I want references to learn more about a community’s history. The bibliography alone is a treasure, offering thirty solid pages of references on history, sociology, linguistics, and religious studies. In addition, the book will be of interest to the field of diaspora studies and to those who study Roma and other migratory populations.

I hope Languages of the Jews will inspire similar histories of the Jews through other cultural lenses: music, art, architecture, food, clothing, etc. Each would tell a similar story of a diverse religious/ethnic group migrating around the world and regularly negotiating its integration versus its distinctiveness vis-à-vis neighboring peoples. If such historical accounts are as comprehensive and interesting as Spolsky’s book, readers will be grateful.