Introduction to Jewish Languages
The spring liberation holiday of Passover (Pesach – פֶּסַח) offers a rich illustration of the cultural diversity of the Jewish people. Wherever Jews have celebrated this holiday, they have incorporated songs, recitation, and conversation in their specific communal language(s), as well as food traditions influenced by the local cuisine and the community’s migration history. Most communities have used a printed haggadah featuring the original Hebrew and Aramaic text, often alongside translation into the vernacular.
What are those vernaculars? Wherever Jews have lived around the world, they have spoken and written in languages distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors. Some of those language varieties might be considered dialects of the local non-Jewish language, and others are so different that the two communities cannot understand each other. For example, medieval Judeo-French and Judeo-Persian seem to have been quite similar to French and Persian, except that they were written in Hebrew letters and included a few Hebrew words. Yiddish (primarily Germanic) was born in Germanic lands but was maintained after migrations in territories where non-Jews spoke Polish, Hungarian, and other non-Germanic languages. Similarly, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) originated in Spain, but it survived for centuries as a Hispanic language after its speakers were expelled and moved to Turkish, Greek, and Slavic lands. Most other Jewish languages are somewhere in the middle of this continuum: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, and Judeo-Italian, for example.
For more information on the many languages Jews have spoken and written throughout history, see:
Benor, Sarah Bunin, ed. 2002-2020. Jewish Language Website. www.jewishlanguages.org.
Hary, Benjamin, and Sarah Bunin Benor, eds. 2018. Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present. De Gruyter Mouton.
Kahn, Lily, and Aaron Rubin, eds. 2016. Handbook of Jewish Languages. Brill.
Spolsky, Bernard. 2014. The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge.
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Hosting your first Passover Seder? Not sure what food to serve? Curious to
know more about the holiday? Explore our Passover 101 Guide for answers
to all of your questions.