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The Myths and Misconceptions of Jewish Linguistics

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 101, Number 2, Spring 2011
pp. 276-291 | 10.1353/jqr.2011.0016

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David M. Bunis, ed. Languages and Literatures of Sephardic and Oriental Jews: Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress for Research on the Sephardi and Oriental Jewish Heritage. Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute and Misgav Yerushalayim, 2009. Pp. 482 (in English, Spanish, French) and 434 pages (in Hebrew).

Frank Alvarez-Péreyre and Jean Baumgarten, eds. Linguistique des langues juives et linguistique générale. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2003. Pp. 447 (with two articles in English).

John Myhill. Language in Jewish Society: Towards a New Understanding. Clevedon-Buffalo-Toronto: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2004. Pp. ix + 239.

The three books here under review consist of two collections of studies in a number of Jewish languages and one discussion of the role of Jewish languages in Jewish societies. All three, especially the two collective works, make ample reference to Max Weinreich's Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh. The two collective works continue the tradition of comparative treatments of Jewish languages that began in the 1930s.

The three volumes also contain numerous mentions of my article "Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework" (Language 57 [1981]: 99–149), which was inspired by Weinreich's magnum opus. However, since 1981, I have radically altered my views on Jewish languages. In my 1981 article, I accepted Weinreich's premise that most Jewish languages were connected to each other through successive acts of language shift, leading back to colloquial Hebrew, for example, Yiddish replaced Judeo-French and Judeo-Italian which in turn replaced Judeo-Latin and Judeo-Greek, the successors of the Judeo-Aramaic and Hebrew speech communities of the biblical period. It is true that there are unique (Judeo-)Romance elements in Yiddish and a handful of Judeo-Greek elements in some Judeo-Romance languages, but these facts can reflect language contact as well as substratal influences. There is also no reason to think that the presence of a Jewish community in a single location in successive historical periods automatically implies generational links between those very communities. For example, there is no evidence that Romance-speaking Jews in pre-eighth-century Spain are the ancestors of Romance-speaking Jews in Spain in the thirteenth century. A consequence of the assertion that Jewish languages cannot be placed on an unbroken chain of language shift leading back to old colloquial Hebrew is that the Hebrew component of Jewish languages cannot provide straightforward clues to the reconstruction of old colloquial Palestinian Hebrew. I also accepted Weinreich's assumption that Jewish languages were acts of Jewish linguistic creativity intended to support the unique religion and culture of the Jews and to replace obsolete colloquial Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic.

I now believe that the importance of an unbroken chain of language shift leading back to Hebrew was grossly exaggerated, since it emerges that most Jewish languages were created independently of preexisiting Jewish languages (e.g., Judezmo [Judeo-Spanish] arose centuries after the demise of colloquial Latin, and there are doubts about the very existence of a Judeo-Latin). Moreover, my research in Yiddish and Judezmo have convinced me that they were in fact created by recent Irano-Turko-Slavic and Berber converts to Judaism, respectively. If that is the case, then the big question is whether collective studies of "Jewish languages" have any raison d'être; if they do, what should the goal of such collective studies be?

The use of the Biblical Hebrew term ashkenaz (Scythians) as a selfdesignation of Yiddish-speaking Jews is a dramatic clue to the largely Iranian ethnic origin of the biggest Jewish community in the world, yet the historical facts are almost universally denied. The term has in fact gone through a number of semantic changes: (a) "ashkenaz" = Iranian: David ben Avraham al-Fāsi, a Karaite philologist from Fez, wrote in the tenth century that "Ashkenaz" was the man from whom the Khazars descended, while another Karaite, Josef ben Burhān, wrote in the same century that Khazars were "Ashkenazim." Shlomo ben Shmuel, of Urgench, Uzbekistan, the author of a Hebrew-Persian dictionary in the early fourteenth century, called his native land "ashkenaz." In the same vein, an original characterization of the meaning of "ashkenaz" with some degree of truth was provided by O. N. Štejnberg...

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