The Hebrew Union College "Jewish Language Project"
Get to know Sarah Bunin Benor, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Hebrew Union College, founder and director of the HUC Jewish Language Project and author of several books about Jewish languages.
Interview by Sylvie Hodes
Sarah Bunin Benor is Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion and Adjunct Professor in the University of Southern California Linguistics Department.
Q - What's your personal background and how did it lead you to what you do today?
A - I got interested in languages in high school and then in college I learnt about the existence of languages like Judeo-Portuguese and Judeo-Italian, which I had never heard of. I was just surprised and excited and I knew this was what I wanted to do. So, I've been studying Jewish languages ever since then.
Q - And what is the Jewish Language Project which you founded and now direct?
A - I had been doing a number of projects involving Jewish languages, and a few years ago I decided to consolidate them all into one official project of HUC, where I teach, called "The Jewish Language Project". Our mission is to encourage research and raise awareness about Jewish languages around the world, both those that are endangered and those that are emerging.
Q - Why is it so important to document and preserve these Jewish languages?
A - There has been so much linguistic variety throughout the history of the Jewish diaspora, but most people are mainly aware of Yiddish, Ladino and, of course, Hebrew. However, many don't know about Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-French. I believe it's important for Jews to be familiar with their history and especially with the diversity of their people. Looking at languages really helps us understand how Jews were both a part of and apart from their local societies.
Distribution of the main historical Jewish languages
Q - What constitutes a Jewish language? Historically, many of them were written in Hebrew characters or have taken Hebrew words. Is that integral to the definition of a Jewish language, or can it be any language spoken by Jews?
A - I think it can be any language spoken by Jews. Trying to come up with some criteria for what is included and is not included in Jewish languages is not so productive. Instead, my take on it is, wherever Jews have lived, they have spoken somewhat similarly to, and somewhat differently from, the non-Jews around them. Our goal is to analyze those similarities and differences. Instead of thinking about just one set of features, we can talk about features that these languages tend to have but don't have to have.
Jewish languages tend to have a lot of Hebrew words, some Aramaic words, and influences from languages that Jews spoke before they lived in their current land. And they sometimes have archaic features. Sometimes the non-Jews around them changed their language, but the Jews didn't change it as much. Or sometimes Jews changed their language, whereas the non-Jews didn't pick up these new features. All of these features are common, but not required to be part of the Jewish languages.
It's true that throughout history, most Jewish languages have been written with Hebrew characters, which are actually Aramaic characters. But some, languages have not, like Judeo-Georgian and Judeo-Malayalam (the traditional language of the Cochin Jews, in southern India). They were always written in their local scripts. And that is the case with Jewish languages that have emerged in the last few centuries, like Jewish-English and Jewish- Latin American Spanish and Jewish Swedish. Today, the rates of literacy are so much higher than when long standing languages like Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, were born, that it is not surprising that Jews nowadays don't write English in Hebrew letters.
Q - Is that a reflection on literacy levels or also the extent of integration into surrounding society?
A - Probably a little bit of both. But I think the education systems play a big role. There's a requirement for schools, even if they're run specifically by Jewish communities, to teach literacy in the local language. And that wasn't the case in the Middle Ages.
Q - So the Jews who spoke their own languages or dialects back then wouldn't necessarily be literate in the surrounding language?
A - That's right. The literacy was based on their school system, which studied the Hebrew and Aramaic texts. So, they used the letters they were familiar with when writing their spoken languages.
Q - And would they have been able to adapt their speech in order to speak to their non-Jewish neighbors?
A - Yes, I think throughout history, Jews have code switched. They have spoken their in-group language to members of their community, and then spoken with fewer of those distinctively Jewish features when talking to the local non-Jews. But it's hard to know because the records that we have are the few documents that have survived, mostly written by elite men. And of course, we don't have recordings of Jews talking to others in the Middle Ages. So, it would be useful to look at how Jews today interact in different situations to get an idea of how that might have happened in the past. But we have to keep in mind that the situation today is very different and the relations between Jews and non-Jews in most parts of the world today is much better than it was in many points throughout history.
But we do have some interesting written imitations of Jewish language by non-Jews.
Q - What form do those imitations take?
A - They make fun of particular Jewish intonations or particular Jewish grammatical structures or words that they use. You get that in literature, and it's usually mocking the Jews.
Q - Can any language have a Jewish counterpart or a Jewish dialect?
A - Yes. Even though there are not a lot of Jews who speak certain languages, you can still have a Jewish variety of that language if there are at least two Jews that speak it with each other. We do have evidence of a few written documents with distinctive features in languages that we don't historically consider to be Jewish languages, like Urdu and Zulu. There is some research on documents written in those languages, even sometimes in Hebrew letters, by people who were learning those languages for business purposes or because they lived in those regions.
Q - So how many do you think there were? Is it even possible to count?
A - it's difficult to count, because it's hard to distinguish between dialects of the same language and separate languages. For example, Judeo-Arabic has many different dialects. There's Yemeni, Moroccan, Iraqi Judeo-Arabic, etc. Do you consider all those as just one language, even though they're not necessarily mutually intelligible because their Arabic is so different from each other? Or do you consider them to be separate languages? You even get the same issue within a particular community. In America today, Orthodox Jews speak very differently from non-Orthodox Jews. Or, do you consider Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish-English to be a separate language than Syrian Jewish-English? I feel like the question is really impossible to answer.
Q - Is Jewish-English an accepted language by scholars?
A - Most scholars at this point do see Jewish-English as an accepted member of the family of historical Jewish languages. But whether you consider it a language or a dialect is a matter of sociopolitical factors rather than necessarily linguistic ones. Where do you draw that line? One way to do that is mutual intelligibility. If you can understand someone else who speaks a different way of speaking, then those two ways of speaking are dialects of the same language. But if you can't understand each other, then they are separate languages. But the problem is, what if people who speak one of them can understand the people who speak the other, but not vice versa? And how to define mutual intelligibility? Sometimes Orthodox Jewish English is quite similar to general American English or general British English, but sometimes it's different enough that you need subtitles in a movie.
So, I don't think it's really feasible to distinguish between languages and dialects in general, and to do that when discussing Jewish linguistic history is also not particularly productive.
Q - And particularly today, are we losing some of that diversity? Of course, migrations and demographic shifts have happened throughout history itself. But in the past century, we've seen some really traumatic ruptures in Jewish history (the Holocaust, expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, the Iranian Revolution, etc.)
A - Definitely, all those historical factors and others in the centuries before (emancipation, processes of urbanization) led to the decline of most longstanding Jewish languages.
Q - Do you think that there's now a rush to document these languages before they disappear?
A - Most of the people who speak, for example, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Shirazi and Judeo-Hamadani in Iran, are over 80, and it's really urgent to document these languages now before those last native speakers are gone. And if someone eventually wants to study these languages or even to sing songs in the languages or teach them to their children, they won't be able to if they're not sufficiently documented. That's why I've devoted a lot of the time and energy of the Jewish Language Project to raising awareness about endangered languages, especially those in Iran, and to documenting them.
We have volunteers working right now to interview these speakers and creating dictionaries. In fact, I'm teaching a class where one of the assignments is to interview speakers of endangered Jewish languages and do an elicitation to find out how you say certain words, and they're going to create online exhibits about these languages.
Map of Iranian Jewish languages
Q - Are most of the people being interviewed, based now in North America, or are you able to travel around the world or use new technology to speak to them?
A - They are mostly in the United States and Israel, but also some in the UK and other parts of Western Europe. Zoom and other programs like it make it so much easier now to interview people and get the recordings. Although some of the speakers don't use that kind of technology, so we have some volunteers in Los Angeles who go to people's homes and interview them there.
Q - That's really interesting because, of course, there are Jews all over the world, but most Jewry today is concentrated in two main centers, Israel and North America. Do these new concentrations of Jewish life have had a homogenizing effect on Jewish languages? Are we losing some diversity because of this new standardization? Or do they create new forms like the Jewish-English you were talking about?
A - Yes, and yes. When Jews moved in large numbers to the US, they tended to pick up English within a generation or two in order to fit in and to succeed socioeconomically. And the same goes for Jews in Israel, although there the pressure to pick up Hebrew was a little more ideologically based and there was pressure to drop their diaspora languages. But there is still some differentiation according to Jewish ancestral groups. You do have communities in Seattle, where there are a lot of Sephardic Jews, using elements of Ladino in their everyday Jewish-English. And you have Jews in Brooklyn and Great Neck New York from Syrian backgrounds who use words from Judeo-Arabic. You also see this in Israel with modern Hebrew, where many Jews from Mizrachi backgrounds use particular pronunciations of certain letters and they maintain that in their speech, often with pride in their heritage.
Q - Can you recommend any resources online or in person for anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish languages?
A - On the website that I run, Jewishlanguages.org, we have many resources. We have videos in these languages of songs and comedians, we have a list of translators and researchers, and we have descriptions of many of these languages. We also have some online dictionaries of the emerging Jewish languages. And we're working on online dictionaries of the longstanding Jewish languages.
We've also created a Jewish language consortium, with nine organizations that do research or raise awareness about Jewish languages. One of those is the Oxford School for Rare Jewish Languages. They are offering online courses right now, so I'd recommend looking into them if you're actually interested in taking classes. But we also have language learning resources available on our website.
We also have a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And we post fun facts about Jewish languages twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.