Refresher on Jewish vernaculars

2024-07-09 @Languages

Outside of liturgy, Jews have mostly spoken and written the local vernacular of regions inhabited. Aramaic and later Arabic have seen the longest use over the past two-thousand years. It didn’t dawn on me until recently the extent of Jewish scholarly effort produced in the Arabic/Judeo-Arabic languages: something extraordinary like half, I’d seen mentioned.

Greek saw fair share of usage in the antiquity, although most probably as the Higher language among Jews. Parts of the Old Testament were produced in Greek.

Persian, Spanish (and their modified Judeo counterparts) and the European languages later followed, German and Polish in particular. Medieval/High German eventually shaped the Yiddish Lingua-Franca in heavy practice through the 20th century.

Until the Holocaust, Polish was the other predominant local vernacular spoken by an astronomical proportion for the sheer virtue of Poland housing more Jews than any other single nation. (For centuries and through the early 20th century most Jews inhabited Europe in contrast to the earlier Arabia).

At present, English and Modern Hebrew comprise the two major Jewish vernaculars worldwide. It makes sense, being that US and Israel host the largest Jewish populations. Since Biblical times, Hebrew hadn’t seen practice as a vernacular until its systematic reconstruction from the late 19th century.

Another difference between now and then: up until the formation of Israel - Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arab, Judeo-Persian and Aramaic - many of these predominant vernaculars were commonly written in Hebrew characters.

But we no longer find similar transliteration across local language adaptations. Jews write English in the Latin script as I suspect of most world population. Zionism, the already dual vulgar-lithurgic role of Hebrew and the overall stronger integration into local society over the centuries preceding have largely extricated the need for such development, to state in grossly simplified terms.

Interestingly, a fair share of Yiddish vocabulary has impressed onto modern English. And while initially a property of American lexicon (or am I misled?), the borrowings have, as far as I now, permeated to the broader, worldwide extent.

Beyond these evident cases, Jews have wielded far more tongues while migrating across Arabia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Europe, the Americas and even India, everywhere adapting the local patois or continuing the Aramaic, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) or Yiddish lingua-franca traditions: the latter often further impacted by indigenous influence, obvious cases being West and East (the more Slavic) Yiddish, although even further regionalized across more isolated communities as Scotland, for instance.

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