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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Under this heading are considered the various forms of those languages, other than Hebrew, which have been spoken or written by the Jews, and which have been modified by them, either through the introduction of Hebrew words, usages, and syntax, or by the conservation of older forms of speech which have gone out of use in the lands where the languages to which they belong were originally spoken. When the Jews lost their home and became a race without a country, they were naturally forced to adopt the languages of the peoples among whom they came to dwell; but Hebrew continued to be their language of prayer and of literary composition. They started out almost as bilinguists; for Aramaic is found not only in the Bible, but also in many of the oldest prayers (compare the use of the expressions "leshon hedyoṭ" [B. M. 104a] and "leshon ḥol" [Ber. 40b] to denote "Aramaic"). In a short time they became polyglots, while Hebrew, because of the Bible and their ritual, remained their holy language. Thus Judah ha-Levi refers to Abraham as using Hebrew as a sacred language and Aramaic as a profane tongue ("Cuzari," ed. Cassel, p. 175).

According to Abraham Abulafia, the Jews of Sicily used not only Italian and Greek, but also Arabic, which language they had adopted at the time when that island was under the dominion of the Arabs ("Rev. Etudes Juives," 9:149). The first Jewish settlers in Corfu came from Greece: to these were added emigrants from Apulia, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries others from Portugal; so that in the synagogues of Corfu the hymns are sung in Hebrew, Greek, Italian, and Portuguese ("Abhandl. des Füunften Intern. Orient.-Congresses," p. 228, Berlin, 1882).

Benfey's dictum, "The Jews have always spoken a jargon" ("Z. D. M. G." 37:606); Nöldeke's remark that wherever Jews live together in largenumbers they peculiarly color the language they speak ("Alttest. Lit." p. 248); and Wellhausen's saying in regard to the Jews of northern Arabia, "The Jews spoke among themselves a gibberish which the Arabs found it difficult to understand" ("Skizzen," 4:13), are only partially true, as in many communities in Europe Hebrew was spoken down to the eleventh century (Zunz, "Z. G." p. 187). And where the Jews of Europe wrote the languages spoken in the countries in which they dwelt, they wrote them, up to the fifteenth century, with remarkable exactness, though often using Hebrew characters (Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 359). Curious instances of what Steinschneider calls the "linguistically amphibious life of the Jews" ("Monatsschrift," 42:34) are: the macaronic verses written in Hebrew and Arabic by such South Arabian poets as Shibzi; some poems of Leo de Modena, veritable "tours de force," which can be read either as Hebrew or as ltalian; the Hebrew-Arabic-Romance glossaries called "Maḳre Dardeḳe" (Schwab, in "Rev. Etudes Juives," 16:253 et seq.); and the Hebrew-English-Spanish "Vocabulary" by Jacob and Ḥayyim Moreira (Perles, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Hebräischen und Aramäischen Studien," p. 143).


Jewish dialects are characterized by foreign words treated as Hebrew; or by Hebrew words treated as foreign words; or by the use of words which have long since disappeared from the ordinary speech of the country; or by the retention of the ancient pronunciation of the language. Any one of these peculiarities will give a definite character to a Jewish dialect without its becoming of necessity a jargon, though some of the later developments of Judæo-German almost deserve that name. The Hebrew words introduced into the newly acquired language came largely from the Bible (which was the starting-point and foundation of all Jewish studies), from the liturgy as used in the synagogue and the home, and from peculiar Jewish social customs.

The earliest non-Hebrew language with which the Jews became acquainted was the Aramaic; but there is no information as to how far they modified that language in the course of time. The Aramaic portions of the Old Testament show some peculiarities, which are possibly due to the Masorites. The Aramaic which the Jews spoke in Babylon, and which Arabic writers are wont to call "Nabatæan" ("Jew. Quart. Rev." 12:517), is proved by the Mandean dialect to have been similar to the language spoken by other peoples in that neighborhood; and the later development of a distinct Western Judæo-Aramaic in Palestine and Syria was due largely to the rivalry between Church and Synagogue. The Aramaic spoken by the Jews in New Testament times, as well as the dialect represented in the Palestinian Talmud and in some of the Targumim, probably differed little from the language of the non-Jewish population. How small these differences were, may be gaged from a study of the modern Aramaic dialects spoken in northern Mesopotamia. The Jews living near Lake Urmi, in western Persia, and even those across the Turkish border, still speak a form of Aramaic which is only differentiated from the other modern Aramaic dialects by the introduction of Hebrew words and phrases. This dialect is called by the Jews "Lishanah shel Ibrani" (Hebrew Tongue), or "Lishanat Jabali" (Mountain Tongue), or "Leshon Galut" (Tongue of the Exile; see Gottheil in "Jour. Amer. Or. Soc." 15:297 et seq.). The language written and spoken by the Samaritans around Nablus, formerly believed to be a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew, has been proved by later investigation to be a Western Aramaic dialect interspersed with a number of Hebrew words (compare Nöldeke in Cheyne and Black, "Encyclopædia Biblica," 1:284b).

Use of Greek by Jews.

From the time of Alexander the Great the Jews came largely under the influence of Hellenism, which affected not only the thought and the practises, but also the language of the Jews; and many Greek words and phrases found entrance into their vocabulary. In how far the Jews adopted Greek speech in the mother country, it is difficult to say; but in the Greek cities along the coast they must have heard that language spoken and must in many cases have used it. In the Diaspora, however, Greek soon succeeded in ousting Hebrew and Aramaic, and it became the vernacular of the Egyptian Jews. In former times it was held that Hellenistic Greek, which lived down to about the year 600, was the dialect of the Greek-speaking Jews in the Orient; but the study of Greek dialectology and the numerous finds of papyri and ostraka, within recent years have convinced scholars that the Greek spoken by the Jews in Egypt and found in their literary productions is part and parcel of the general Hellenistic κοινή. Philo and the Jewish Alexandrian philosophers and poets differ as little in point of language from their non-Jewish neighbors as does Josephus from the other historians of his time who wrote in Greek. Even the translation of the Old Testament into Greek does not represent any special Jewish dialect of this κοινή. It is, of course, full of Hebrew words, expressions, and syntactical constructions; but these new elements are due, in the largest measure, to the attempt of the translators to adhere slavishly to the original Hebrew; and Blass is probably right in asserting that "no one ever spoke in this manner, not even the Jewish translators" ("Grammatik des Neutestamentlichen Griechisch," p. 2, Göttingen, 1902).

This is true of the New Testament also. Though Jewish theological ideas and even individual expressions have left their mark on the Greek where in some cases the books were translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, the language has in no measure the character of a Jewish dialect. Blass (ib. p. 3) calls it a moderated Attic Greek. Deissmann has very properly pointed out that the difference between a translation and an original in this Hellenistic Greek may be seen if the prologue to the Greek Book of Ecclesiasticus be compared with the body of the book itself (Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc." 7:638). It is therefore entirely wrong to speak of a Biblical Greek, a Septuagint Greek, a New Testament Greek, or a Judæo-Greek dialect. The same is true of later times, when Jews settled again in Greece and Constantinople. The Greek found in theBible translations published during the sixteenth century (see Jew. Encyc. 3:185-197), though written in Hebrew letters, does not differ from the ordinary spoken Greek of the day ("Hebr. Bibl." 15:40; "Rev. Etudes Juives," 22:258; "Jew. Chron." July 26, 1901, p. 25).

Use of Arabic.

When the Jews came under the influence of Arabic culture, they readily accepted the language of their masters, and, from Morocco in the west to Bagdad in the east, they spoke and wrote Arabic in all its various forms. The language of the old Jewish poets in Arabia differs in no respect from that of their heathen and Mohammedan contemporaries. But in course of time Arabic became a second mother tongue to the Jews of the Orient, such as only the Judæo-German became for the Jews in eastern Europe. In contradistinction to the latter, however, Arabic was also the literary language of the Oriental Jews; into which they not only translated their theological and religious books, but in which they also wrote upon all conceivable topics. It might, therefore, be proper to speak rather of Judæo-Arabic dialects than of one particular dialect. The term must not, however, be misunderstood. Saadia, in his Bible translation, uses many Arabic words in the sense of their Hebrew equivalents; but this is no criterion. In his philosophical work he writes, as did Judah ha-Levi, Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, and others, a pure Arabic; a degree more "vulgar" than that of his Mohammedan neighbors, but "Jewish" only in the introduction of Hebrew technical terms and Hebrew quotations (Friedländer, "Sprachgebrauch des Maimonides," p. , Frankfort, 1902).

It has been customary to look down upon Judæo-Arabic as merely the "Middle Arabic" of the day interspersed with Hebrew words and phrases. But here again, as is the case with Judæo-German, many of the peculiarities observed are survivals of older forms of the spoken Arabic dialects (see Kampffmeyer in "W. Z. K. M." 13:247). Thus some of the peculiarities in the Arabic dialect of the Moroccan Jews may be survivals of the Arabic spoken in Spain, which the Jews carried with them at various times when they were banished from the peninsula; and this may explain what Talcott-Williams says of this dialect, that it "comes near being the worst and most obscure patois spoken anywhere and dignified by the name of Arabic" ("Beiträge zur Assyriologie," 3:572).

The Jews in Persia also have developed a distinct form of Judæo-Persian. Wilhelm Geiger speaks of it as "jargon used as a vernacular" ("Grundriss der Iranischen Philologie," 1:408); but here again, although Hebrew theological and religious terms have crept in, older forms of Persian have been preserved which make the dialect an interesting one. It is in reality only a development of the New High Persian with local dialectic peculiarities. It occasionally shows striking coincidences with the Pazend; and Horn thinks that some of the translations of the Biblical books which have come down were made in neighborhoods in which Parsees lived.

Judæo Persian.

Thanks to the labors of Bacher, Horn, Salemann, and others, renewed attention has of late years been paid to the Judæo-Persian. There are even various subdialects to be recognized. The mountain Jews in the Caucasus speak what they themselves call "Farsi-Tat," which differs in few respects from the Tat spoken in the province of Baku and the peninsula of Apsheron (see "Seventh Report of the Thirteenth International Oriental Congress," p. 12). The language of the Jews of Bokhara, which is also spoken by the Bokharan Jews in Jerusalem, has its origin in the Tadshiki spoken by the Iranians in central Asia. Quite an extensive literature exists in Judæo-Bokharan; and not a few books have been printed in this dialect. If Salemann is right ("Litteraturblatt für Orientalische Philologie," 1:187), there are two dialects to be distinguished in Bokharan, because the Jews of that place came originally from Tus and from Meshed. Of the Judæo-Persian, Nöldeke says ("Z. D. M. G." 51:70) that "the imitation of Hebrew has caused the most barbaric distortion of the Persian." J. de Morgan speaks of the language of the Jews of Siḥne ("Jour. Asiatique," 8th series, 19:197); but further details have not been published.


Of the European dialects, in addition to the Greek, spoken by the Jews, mention must first be made of Judæo-Spanish. It had its origin in the Spanish peninsula itself; for Francisco Fernandez y Gonzalez published in 1884 ("Boletin Acad. Hist." 5:299; compare "Rev. Etudes Juives," 10:243) three letters written in Judæo-Spanish and in Hebrew characters by Jews living in Spain before the expulsion. As generally understood, however, the term signifies the Spanish language as used by the exiles from Spain in northern Africa, in the East, and in certain parts of Europe, where they settled. It is called also "Ladino," "Espanol," and "Spaniolic." A very large literature has grown up in this dialect, which does not differ from the regular Spanish except in the fact that occasional Arabic words are to be found, and older forms which have gone out of use in the modern developments of the language in the peninsula. According to Ticknor, a modern Judæo-Spanish newspaper could be read with perfect case by a Spaniard of the time of Alfonso the Wise. It is interesting to note that parallel to the Judæo-Spanish there is an Arabic-Spanish literature, that of the Moriscos, descendants of the former masters of Spain (Grünbaum, "Neue Beiträge zur Semitischen Sagenkunde," p. 245; idem, "Jüdisch-Spanische Chrestomathie," pp. 1 et seq.).

The Jews were driven out of France in 1306; but before that time they had settled in large numbers both in the north and in the south. It was especially in Provence that during the early Middle Ages they developed a large literature, and evidently adopted the Provençal dialect which they heard spoken around them. Remnants of this Provençal are to be found not only in the 2,500 glosses in the commentaries of Rashi, Joseph Caro, Samuel ben Meïr, Eleazar of Beaugency, and the Tosafists (Schwab, "La Transcript. des Mots Europ. en Lettres Hebr." in "Mélanges Havet," p. 317, Paris, 1895), but also in original poems (e.g., "The History of Esther" by Israel Caslari of Avignon, which wasread on the Feast of Purim; "Romania," 1892) and in prose works and liturgies (e.g., the elegy on the auto da fé at Troyes, 1288, by Jacob ben Judah of Lorraine; "Romania,"; "Rev. Etudes Juives," ). These Provençal works are written in Hebrew script; and the Judæo-Provençal represented in such writings is a faithful reproduction of the Provençal language of the time, modified by the introduction of Hebrew words and by its transliteration into Hebrew characters (see Güdemann, "Geschichte des Erziehungswesens," 1:26, Vienna, 1880; Oesterreicher, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Jüdisch-Französischen Sprache im Mittelalter," Czernowitz, 1896).

Strange to say, there are no traces of a Judæo-Italian dialect, even though some macaronic poems, as mentioned above, may be read as either Hebrew or Italian. The Jews in Italy very seldom wrote Italian in Hebrew characters; the "Tefillot Latine," Mordecai Dato's sermons, and Moses Catalano's poem being among the few cases in which they did (comp. "Rev. Et. Juives," 10:137). Italian literature began with Dante in the thirteenth century; and as it grew up under their very eyes, the Jews soon took part in its development, and did not mix the language with Hebrew (see Steinschneider, in "Monatsschrift," 42:116,420; Güdemann, "Geschichte des Erziehungswesens . . . der Juden in Italien," p. 207).


The most important Jewish dialect is of course the Judæo-German. The name by which it was formerly known, "Iwri-Teitsch," shows at once that it is a more mixed dialect than any of those already mentioned. The Jews in the Rhine provinces originally used French for their daily intercourse (Güdemann, "Geschichte des Erziehungswesens . . . in Frankreich," pp. 114, 275). Whatever the character of this French may have been, it certainly influenced the German that was spoken by them during the period from the eleventh to the fourteenth century; for the frontier between France and Germany was open, and the persecution in the former country drove many to seek homes across the Rhine. With the exception of this French influence, the German Jews in the early Middle Ages were characterized by the purity of the German they spoke and wrote, though they transcribed it in Hebrew characters. This transcription arose from the desire to make it possible for women, young people, and the unlettered to read and enjoy literary productions ("Hebr. Bibl." 8:15). The Hebrew script used for this purpose was the same as that employed for the commentaries on the Bible; and from the name of the chief commentator it soon became known as the "Rashi script."

This Middle High German of the Rhine provinces was carried eastward, especially into Poland, when the Jews were driven into the Slavonic lands after the Black Death (fourteenth century). The Jews came to Poland from all parts of Germany; and though High German was at the base of the language which they carried with them, there were also introduced many peculiarities of other dialects, both northern and southern. In Poland the Jews preserved their German dialect; and when they returned to Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they brought with them their old Middle High German, modified not only by other German dialects, but also by a surprisingly large element of Hebrew. During the last two centuries Judæo-German has been carried over the world wherever the movement out of eastern Europe has brought the Jews from Slavonic lands. In its journey over the globe Judæo-German has suffered changes in various ways: in Poland, Polish words were incorporated; in Holland, Dutch words; in Turkey, Turkish; and, lastly, in English-speaking countries many English words have found their way into the vocabulary.

The introduction of words and phrases from so many different tongues makes Judæo-German appear to the superficial observer to be a language which knows neither grammatical rules nor lexicographic standards. It has therefore been customary to speak of it as "Mauschel-Deutsch," and those who use it have contributed to this misunderstanding by adopting the appellation "jargon" in place of the more correct and modern term, "Yiddish." See JUDÆO-GERMAN; Judæo-Spanish.

  • Neubauer, On Non-Hebrew Languages Used by Jews, in Jew. Quart. Revelation 4:9 et seq.;
  • Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebers. pp. et seq.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Dialects'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/dialects.html. 1901.
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