From Babylon to Babel: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Languages

This past weekend, I was a bit hung over one morning and complained (kvetched?) to a friend that I had to “schlep all the way up to Lincoln Center to get a bagel.” I am not Jewish, nor is there much of a Jewish community where I grew up, but living in New York City, it is hard not to pick up some Yiddish.

This borrowing is testament to the relatively amicable history of Jews in modern America. Before the past century or two, however, their ancestors were so vigorously marginalised that they developed their own languages, distinct from their Christian or Muslim neighbours. Yiddish is a typical example: it is a dialect of German, having branched off some time in the Middle Ages and being most distinct for the heavy influx of Hebrew vocabulary. It is also written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Yiddish was once the lingua franca of Jews across Central and Eastern Europe, even deep in Slavdom; its legacy is perhaps most obvious in the fact that even Polish or Russian Jews usually have Germanic family names (e.g., anything ending with the suffix -stein or -berg). That world was tragically annihilated in the 1940s, and its descendants have largely left Europe and now speak English or modern Hebrew.

Today, there are still Yiddish-speaking communities in the United States, most prominently in Hasidic areas of Brooklyn. Those priced out of tony Williamsburg have colonised a town upstate that they renamed Kiryas Joel. I had no idea the place existed until my friends and I unwittingly booked a cabin near there for a weekend trip. When we went into town to buy groceries, we were the only ones not dressed for the 17th Century, and we had to triangulate conversations between the locals, me speaking German, and my Jewish friend speaking Hebrew.

The only other place where Yiddish is an official language is Birobidzhan, an area of Siberia where the Soviets unsuccessfully tried to send all their Jews. When they got the opportunity, most decamped to the sunnier promised land of Israel, where Yiddish is still the preferred language among the ultra-Orthodox who find the modernised version of Hebrew heretical.

The Jews’ linguistic history in the Islamic world ran along similar lines. Just as Old German separated off and half-relexified with Hebrew became Yiddish, Old Spanish became Ladino. The Sephardim were scattered to the four winds in 1492, but they and their language put down roots far from Spain. Ladino became an important trade language of the Ottoman Empire. A few kept going all the way to South India, where they even developed their own flavour of Malayalam.

Hebrew and Arabic are cousins (about analogous to English and German), so the Jews’ Arabic dialects did not stray so far from the mainstream. They were distinctive, however. As in Europe, the Jewish dialects sometimes preserved some older features of the language. They also reflected a history of migration: the Cairene Jewish dialect still bore traces of the ancient capital of Alexandria, and Jews in Baghdad (which, having been founded in the 8th Century, is a new city by Middle Eastern standards) carried the Mosul accent with them.

In some countries, the Jewish community integrated more with the general population. In Germany, which had the largest and best-integrated Jewish population in Europe before World War I, exasperated bourgeois Jews stridently prevailed upon their more benighted brethren to forget Yiddish; a similar tension existed among Jewish immigrants to the United States.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps understandably, the most linguistically integrated Jewish populations are in countries where their place has always been tenuous. France has an ancient heritage of anti-Semitism, and no sooner had the traditional version been anathematised in the later 20th Century than a fresh wave crashed in from the Islamic world. But like other Frenchmen, French Jews judge that almost nothing is more horrible than not speaking French.

Likewise, few would call Iran a haven of tolerance, but Persian Jews have always been perfectly happy to speak standard Persian, and they are the only Jewish population in the entire Islamic world that has not fled en masse to Israel and Hebrew.

Conversely, especially in the modern age, Jewish communities in friendly countries have sought to reassert their heritage. Hebrew was revived as a modern language by scholars who lamented that their brethren were too keen to speak only German. Likewise, I know many Americans and Britons who are indistinguishable from their peers aside from the rites they observe on a few evenings each year, yet learned impressively fluent Hebrew as kids. On the opposite end of the spectrum, no one in Brooklyn, a fortiori Jerusalem, would object to Hasidim switching out their wardrobes and lexicons and joining mainstream society, but they go to incredible lengths to preserve their separate heritage.

Today, Jewish dialects of Arabic are moribund. The children and grandchildren of people who fled their homes in the Arab world to Israel are, by and large, perfectly content with Hebrew. Aside from an eccentric few who voluntarily continue the segregation imposed on their distant ancestors, Yiddish is pretty much dead already. It is almost certain that, by 2100, Hebrew will be the only distinctly Jewish language.

The death of languages leaves a bitter taste in any linguist’s mouth. But the conditions that gave rise to this homogenisation, that Jews today can choose between being fully-integrated members of Western societies, or living in their own nation for the first time in 19 centuries, would have seemed like an impossible dream to the previous generations whose languages are now disappearing. So this time, the loss of linguistic diversity is at least bittersweet.

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

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Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets