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Jewish languages dying out

by: Lindsay Soberano - Last updated: 2003-09-13

Jewish graves

Jewish speaking in dying out

“Of the more than 6,000 languages currently being spoken, fewer than half are likely to survive the next century,” says the International Clearing House of Endangered Languages.

As Jews, we have reason to be alarmed, considering many of the 27 Jewish languages listed in are extinct or nearly obsolete. For instance, Zarphatic (Judeo-French), Khannic (Judeo-Slavic) and Ancient Hebrew are extinct; Italikan (Judeo-Italian) is almost extinct; and Yiddish (Judeo-German) and Judeo-Spanish are seriously endangered.

Yiddish, which stems from Middle High German, is written in the Hebrew alphabet and borrows from Aramaic, Slavic, Romance languages and English. There are two major dialects: Eastern Yiddish includes languages from Poland, Lithuania, White Russia, Ukraine, Romania and the Baltic States, while Western Yiddish includes those which were used in the Netherlands, Alsace, Switzerland and Germany.

Though Yiddish began to develop in the 10th century, it was not used in daily speech and writing until the 19th century, when many Jews engaged in the arts and religious scholarship. Literary figures such as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leibush Peretz emerged at this time. There was a wealth of Yiddish press and theatre. At its peak, 11 million Jews spoke Yiddish.

However, with the Holocaust; the Stalinist purges, which suppressed Yiddish cultural life; and the fact that the majority of Yiddish-speaking parents failed to pass the language on to their children, Yiddish plummeted.  

Today, around 4 million Jews speak Mamaloschen (mother tongue). Whereas Yiddish has two major dialects, Judeo-Spanish has many.

In Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish: A European Heritage, Haim Vidal Sephiha and Nathan Weinstock explain, Judeo-Spanish is a language of fusion based on 15th century Castilian, coloured by hispanic Arabicisms, and after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, by Moroccan Arabicisms, Turkisms, Italianisms, Hellenisms, and Slavisms. 

Judeo-Spanish vernacular is known as Spaniol, Judezmo, Spaniolith or Espanioliko in the Middle East, Haketiya in northern Morocco, or Tetuani in Oran, Algeria.

According to Sephiha, "Four per cent of its words come from Hebrew, 15 per cent from Turkish, 20 per cent from French, and two per cent from Ladino."  
Ladino is the direct translation of Hebrew into Spanish, and has only recently become confused with the term Judeo-Spanish.

Before the Holocaust, less than half a million Jews spoke Judeo-Spanish. Around 160,000 Sephardim perished out of 365,000. Today, around 180, 000 Jews speak Judeo-Spanish. The number of speakers is decreasing and most are over 50.
As the number of Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish speakers dwindles, revitalization efforts are on the rise. Yiddish courses are offered at European, North American and Israeli universities; and Yiddish cultural festivals are held worldwide.  

Though Judeo-Spanish teaching posts exist in countries such as Spain, France, Germany, England, Israel and Greece, it is not taught in North America.

Perhaps this is because, unlike Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish has not carved out much of a voice for itself.

Judith Cohen, a York University Professor, who specializes in medieval and traditional music (including Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish) says, "Yiddish has a much longer presence in Canada than Judeo-Spanish." She adds, "There is no tradition of the language in Canada, as there is of Yiddish, or of Ashkenazi culture which gave Canada such writers as A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Adele Weisman. The first Sephardim in Canada in the 18th century were basically assimilated to local culture linguistically; and otherwise they've only been here since the late 1950s."

Cohen notes that most of the Sephardim in Canada, who are concentrated in Montreal and Toronto, speak Arabic and/or French. "The little Judeo-Spanish spoken in Canada is mostly the Moroccan variety (khaketia)." Therefore, "It would never occur to them to teach khaketia - it' s more a sort of community in-language."
Cohen also says, "The 'Ladino' classes taught in Israel and France are basically a somewhat artificially standardized version of Eastern (Turkish/Greek) Judeo-Spanish, which mostly ignores the Moroccan version." This is not the only way Haketiya seems to be slipping through the cracks.

In June 2002, 250 delegates from various countries met in Paris under the auspices of UNESCO to attend a conference on the future of Ladino. But Cohen asserts that Moroccan Judeo-Spanish was excluded. "It is also not included in Christine Varol's otherwise excellent Judeo-Spanish language manual. Or Gad Nassi's recent anthology of Judeo-Spanish literature," she says. While some are struggling to revitalize dying languages, others are attempting to catalogue what is left.

The Rosetta Project, a collaborative endeavor by language specialists and native speakers around the world, are creating an archive of the world's languages. A group of scientists and engineers are crafting a modern Rosetta stone that will preserve more than 1,400 of the world's 7,000 languages on a 3-inch nickel disk with a thousand-year lifespan. The records are tentatively slated to be completed by 2005. Yiddish and Ladino are included. But it is not clear which Judeo-Spanish vernaculars will indeed be recorded. The project, however, is open to cataloguing any information that people may have to offer.

First published in Afterword, the home of Canada's only Jewish student newspaper