Languages spoken by Jews over the centuries: Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino
The languages spoken throughout history by Jews around the world is a particular subject in the history of the Jewish people. From the time of the Israelite tribes who settled in Canaan between the 14th and 13th centuries BC to the present day, four major languages can be identified: Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino. These were influenced, and from these different dialects developed depending on the area in which they were settled and the historical period we are talking about.
The Semitic basis of the alphabet. Image source: http://www.hayim-tawil.com
The origins of the Hebrew language
Hebrew is part of the Canaanite group of Semitic languages, part of the Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) family of languages, and has strong ties to Phoenician and Aramaic and, like most ancient Semitic languages, its alphabet has no vowels. However, sometime between the middle and the end of the first millennium, rabbis known as Masoretes instituted a system of dots and dashes to indicate how words should be pronounced. The Torah scrolls and most contemporary Hebrew writings are still written without vowels.
Hebrew is the language of the Bible, of Jewish prayer and – since the early 20th century – a modern language spoken in Israel. It is considered a ‘holy language’ in the Jewish religion and in Christianity. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, commonly called aleph-bet, after the first two letters, aleph and bet. In addition, the language includes five final letters: when the letters khaf, mem, nun, pey and tzade are the last letters of a word, they are written differently.
If you’ve visited Muzeon, you’ve probably looked in the books in our library and noticed that the pages are numbered backwards from the books we’re used to. This is because Hebrew is written and read from right to left.
Short history. Elements of linguistics
The Israelite tribes who settled in Canaan between the 14th and 13th centuries BC – whatever language they had before settling there – used Hebrew as their spoken and literary language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
Biblical Hebrew is undoubtedly essentially a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile (after the fall of Jerusalem) existed alongside living, spoken dialects.
The exile marks the disappearance of this language from everyday life and its subsequent use for literary and liturgical purposes only in the period of the Second Temple (515 B.C.-70 A.D.) The most recent biblical texts date from the 2nd century B.C.E., if we disregard the more or less artificial survival of biblical Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, and in certain types of mediaeval literature.
The Hebrew in the poetic sections of the Bible, some of which are very old, despite a possible post-exilic revision, as well as the earliest epigraphic material in inscriptions dating from the 10th to 6th centuries BC, we call archaic Hebrew, although there is no general agreement among scholars on this term. The language used in the prose sections of the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings, before the Exile is called Classical Biblical Hebrew or Biblical Hebrew proper. Late biblical Hebrew refers to the language of the biblical books written after the exile.
From the time of its appearance in documented written form, Hebrew provides clear evidence that it belongs to the Canaanite language group, with certain peculiarities. Possibly this means that when the Israelite tribes settled in Canaan, they adopted the language of Canaan, at least for their written records. Old, and certainly anachronistic, traditions about these semi-nomads allude to Aramaic ancestors, but in principle no linguistic inferences should be drawn from this.
Combining historical and linguistic aspects, it has been suggested in the first decades of this century that Hebrew is not a homogeneous linguistic system, but a Mischsprache (hybrid language), in which it is possible to distinguish an early Canaanite layer, very close to Akkadian, and another more recent layer, closer to Aramaic and Southern Semitic.
Various recent studies have pointed out that Aramaic may have strongly influenced the Hebrew language, not at the time of its emergence, but many centuries later, in the second half of the first millennium BC and up to the beginning of our Era. Thus, it is generally accepted that there is a significant Aramaic component in the phonetics (sound), morphology (structure) and lexicon (vocabulary) of late biblical Hebrew, as well as in rabbinic Hebrew.
It is increasingly believed that while Biblical Hebrew was the language of literature and administration, the language spoken even before the exile may have been an early version of what would later become Rabbinic Hebrew. Another significant feature is the influence of various foreign languages on Hebrew over the centuries.
Early Hebrew writings
The earliest Hebrew texts date from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. Hebrew was used both as a written and spoken language until the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. After that, Hebrew was used mainly as a literary and liturgical language. From the 3rd century BC it is believed that the majority of Jews spoke Aramaic in everyday life.
The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) is written in classical Hebrew from the period of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. This is why Jews have called Hebrew over the centuries a “sacred language” (Leshôn Ha-Kôdesh). After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, Hebrew became a literary language, used in prayer and Bible study. It was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries to replace the Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic, Judeo-Bosharan, Ladino and Yiddish dialects as the national language of the Jews. Hebrew was thus able to become the oﬁcial language of the modern Jewish state of Israel.
The ancient Hebrew language shows two distinct periods of evolution: biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. During the early Byzantine Empire (4th century BC) spoken Hebrew disappeared especially after the appearance of the Mishna text and the Bar Kokhba War of 135 BC.
A letter from Bar Kochba to Joshua, son of Galgola, Wadi Murabba'at, 2nd century AD (year 135). Image source: https://data1.geo.univie.ac.at
Like all languages, Hebrew developed and was influenced by many neighbours. The Hebrew of the rabbis of the second century, known as Mornic Hebrew, differs in many ways from the Hebrew language of the Bible. New terms, forms and expressions entered the language through the writings of second-century rabbis and later through the works of rabbis such as Rashi in 11th-century France.
During the Golden Age in Spain (10th-13th centuries) Maimonides ‘Hebraized’ many words and phrases from Aramaic and for many centuries the language continued to develop from the literature, which recorded debates on topics of interest to all Jewish communities around the world. There were deliberate attempts to revive the biblical language, the first in literary form during the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the second as the spoken language for the newly established state in the 20th century.
The Mishnaic Hebrew language, however, appeared too full of Aramaic, Arabic and Yiddish influences. Authors such as Moses Mendelssohn and Abraham Mapu were striving for a purity of Hebrew, distancing themselves from biblical Hebrew in order to write poetry and prose and at the same time trying to develop the language to express themselves according to contemporary literary norms.
Periods of language use
There are 6 periods of language use, which can be distinguished as follows:
- the biblical period (Old Testament, Tanakh);
- the post-biblical period (Mishnah, Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls);
- Talmudic and Masoretic period (Midrash, Talmud);
- Mediaeval period – Biblical and Talmudic commentaries (Maimonides, Kabbalah, etc.);
- 18th-19th century period;
- period of the revival of the Hebrew language – 20th century – the language, which for 18 centuries was considered dead, became in the 20th century the state language of Palestine under the British Mandate (alongside Arabic and English), and then the oﬁcial language of Israel.
In the modern era, since the 19th century the Hebrew language has been nicknamed “contemporary Hebrew”, “Israeli Hebrew”, “new Hebrew” (ivrit hadashah). Contemporary Hebrew has retained many features of the Sephardic language, but has been considerably enriched by numerous neologisms (especially in the fields of technology, science and administration) and by borrowings of words and expressions from European languages (especially English, Russian, German, Yiddish) and Arabic. A few words have also entered from the Romanian language, notably ‘hora’, which entered modern Hebrew from the late 19th century, together with the dance in question, adopted as the main Israeli folk dance. Israeli language and slang today also use a number of words borrowed from diaspora languages – such as Yiddish, Ladino, Russian, Polish, Arabic, including greetings (ahlan), appreciative words like “sababa” or “ahla” (excellent), as well as swear words.
While the creation of a body of secular Hebrew literature has been impressive, the re-establishment of Hebrew as a spoken language has been almost miraculous. Hebrew had not been spoken for two millennia, yet in the late 19th century, European Jews dreaming of a cultural renaissance in Palestine began to resurrect the language. This became possible thanks to the efforts of a number of enthusiastic scholars, among them the ﬁgure of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
The form and literary usage of contemporary Hebrew begins with the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) of the mid-19th century. The revival of Hebrew as a “living language”, used unanimously and daily, was initiated by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858- 1922). He joined the Zionist national revival movement and in 1881 emigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by the ideals of changing the way of life in the European Jewish diaspora, Ben Yehuda began looking for ways to transform a liturgical and bookish language into a spoken one. In 1922 the British Mandate over Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the three oﬁcial languages, which helped to spread and strengthen its place in all spheres of education, science, economics and politics.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Image source: https://blog.nli.org.il/
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda developed a vocabulary for modern Hebrew, incorporating words from ancient and mediaeval Hebrew, as well as creating new words. The revival of the Hebrew language was harmoniously integrated into the Zionist movement and ideology. In 1905, the first Hebrew gymnasium, “Herzelia”, opened in Jaffa, teaching exclusively in Hebrew. In 1922, Hebrew became one of the official languages of Palestine under the British Mandate, and today it is a modern language spoken by the citizens of Israel and by Jews all over the world. The policy of active and uncompromising promotion in Jewish institutions and state organisations after the proclamation of the State of Israel (14 May 1948) guaranteed the success of the revival of this language.
The Aramaic language, a Semitic language, which spread mainly in antiquity in Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and whose writing is ancestral to the later Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic alphabets, is considered to be closely related to Hebrew, both having the same alphabet. The two are viewed as two distinct languages. At first it was spoken by the Arameans, but later it became the language of international circulation used in trade and as a means of communication in the Assyrian Empire and the Babylonian Empire. It was also the official language used in administration in the Persian Empire.
Map of Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects, Coghill (2016).
Origins of the language
The birthplace of Aramaic was Mesopotamia, in Hebrew Aram Naharayim, meaning “Aram of the rivers”. The tribes of Aramaeans called Chaldeans, lived either south of Babylon, around the city of Ur, or in Upper Mesopotamia between the Chebar (Khabur) River and the great bend of the Euphrates with the Haran area at its centre. Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were originally from Aram Nahara-yim, and perhaps because of their ties to the city of Haran, Moses says Jacob was “Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). From there in northern Mesopotamia Aramaic spread southward across all of present-day Syria.
The first writing system in Aramaic is based on the Phoenician alphabet. At the time of Jesus of Nazareth, the mother tongue of the Jews of Palestine was Aramaic. The Aramaic expressions in the New Testament also testify that this was the language used by Jesus. In his time, the Bible was still read in Hebrew in the synagogues, but many people, especially women, did not understand it. Because of this, synagogue readers introduced the custom of translating the scriptures into Aramaic. Later, written translations of the Old Testament into Aramaic called Targumim appeared. By the pre-Christian period spoken Hebrew had fallen out of use as a spoken language, remained for a long time more as a language of worship, and was replaced in everyday life by Aramaic.
A small number of biblical texts – chapters from the books of Ezra (4:8 – 6:18; 7:12-26) and Daniel (2:4 – 7:28), a verse from the book of Jeremiah (10:11) and a word from Genesis (31:47) are written in Aramaic and not Old Hebrew, also Gemara – much of the Talmud or oral Torah, much of the books of Kabbalah, a number of liturgical prayers and hymns from the Jewish religion.
Of all the Semitic languages, Aramaic is the closest to Hebrew and forms with Hebrew and possibly Assyrian the northern group of Semitic languages. However, Aramaic was regarded by the ancient Hebrews as a foreign language; and a hundred years before the Babylonian exile it was understood only by the scholars of Jerusalem.
As a relatively widespread Semitic language, the language of the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean conquerors of the 6th century BC, Aramaic became the lingua franca and the oﬁcial language first of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and then of the Persian Empire. Nowadays, modern forms of the Aramaic language called Neo-Aramaic are still spoken in everyday life in small Arab and ‘Assyrian’ Christian as well as Jewish communities in the Middle East (in Syria for example in the village of Ma’aloulah, in Lebanon, Iraq, the USA or Cyprus, among the Kurdish Jews who emigrated to Israel). It is also more widely spoken as a liturgical language in churches in the Near East – in Maronite and Jacobite Christian churches in its ancient form and in Judaism, alongside Hebrew, in all Jewish communities around the world, especially Orthodox, as the language of the Talmud and Kabbalah.
Dialects and periods
Aramaic is divided into several dialects which, historically speaking, fall into five main groups:
- Old Aramaic – the language of Old Aramaic inscriptions up to 700 BC (from Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria and northern Israel).
- Official Aramaic – was used between 700 and 300 BC. It includes inscriptions from the Syria-Iraq area; Biblical Aramaic; Elephantine documents; Driver documents; and Hermopolis documents. This particular Aramaic dialect served not only as the official language of Persia, but also as the lingua franca of the Near East.
- Middle Aramaic – was used from 300 BC to the first centuries of our era. Included are documents in somewhat corrupted Aramaic from Persia, India, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Aramaic inscriptions from Jerusalem, Aramaic words found in the New Testament, Nabataean Aramaic, Palmyrene Aramaic, Aramaic from Hatra, from Dura-Europos, and (partially) Aramaic ideograms from Middle Persian are all in Middle Aramaic. The Onkelos translation of the Bible (Targum) also seems to belong to this period, as does the language of most Dead Sea manuscripts written in Aramaic. The Uruk document dating from this period is the only Aramaic document written in cuneiform. While the common denominator of all these dialects is their effort to imitate official Aramaic, they also contain elements of Late Aramaic. It appears that most of these versions were not spoken.
- Late Aramaic – can be divided into two dialect groups: Western Aramaic – which includes Galilean Aramaic, Palestinian-Christian Aramaic and Samaritan Aramaic; and Eastern Aramaic – consisting of three dialects: Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic and Mandaic.
- Modern Aramaic – Neo-Aramaic.
A long list of provisions distributed, dated in the seventh year of Alexander the Great's reign, 324 BC, Bactria. Image source: https://www.khalilicollections.org
Short history of the language
Aramaic is believed to have first appeared among the Aramaeans in the late 11th century BC. By the 8th century BC it was accepted by the Assyrians as a second language. Massive deportations of populations by the Assyrians and the use of Aramaic as a lingua franca by Babylonian merchants contributed to the spread of the language, so that in the 7th and 6th centuries BC it gradually replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca of the Middle East. It later became the official language of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty (559-330 BC), but after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek replaced it as the official language throughout the former Persian Empire.
However, Aramaic dialects survived until the Roman era, especially in Palestine and Syria. Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews as early as the 6th century BC.
In the first centuries of our era, Aramaic was divided into two categories: Eastern and Western. Western Aramaic dialects include Nabataean (formerly spoken in parts of Arabia), Palmyrene (spoken in Palmyra, which lies northeast of Damascus), Palestinian-Christian, and Judeo-Aramaic dialects. Western Aramaic is still spoken in a small number of villages in Syria.
Eastern Aramaic includes Syriac, Mandaean, Eastern Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic. One of the most important of these is Syriac, which was the language of an extensive literature between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Eastern Aramaic is still spoken by some small groups of Jacobite and Nestorian Christians in the Middle East.
Yiddish has been the language spoken by a considerable portion of Ashkenazi Jews for the past thousand years, and is the third major literary language in Jewish history, after Classical Hebrew and (Hebrew) Aramaic. It has served as an expression of everyday Jewish life, religious, secular and at all levels in between. It developed a significant literature, press and folklore. Yiddish has been the language of instruction in many Jewish schools and is now taught in many colleges and universities around the world.
Origins and influences
In Ashkenazi societies, Hebrew was the language of the Bible and prayer, Aramaic was the language of study, and Yiddish was the language of everyday life. Scholars refer to this as Ashkenazi internal trilingualism. Although they vary in sounds and usage, all three languages are written with the same alphabet.
Yiddish literally means ‘Jew’. Linguistically, it refers to the language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews – Jews from Central and Eastern Europe – and their descendants. Although the basic vocabulary and grammar derive from mediaeval West German, Yiddish integrates several languages, including German, Hebrew, Aramaic and various Slavic and Romanic languages.
The most widely accepted theory is that the language formed in the 10th century, when Jews from France and Italy began migrating to the German Rhine Valley area. There, they combined the languages they brought with them with the German of their new neighbours, creating the earliest form of Yiddish. As the Jews continued to migrate east – as a result of the Crusades and the Black Death – Yiddish spread to Central and Eastern Europe and began to incorporate more elements of Slavic languages.
Yiddish emerged first through a complex fusion of two linguistic backgrounds: a Semitic component (containing the post-classical Hebrew and Aramaic that the early settlers brought with them to Europe from the Middle East) and a grammatically and lexically stronger Germanic component (derived from a series of High and Middle German dialects). In addition, a number of words from Romanic languages appear to have appeared in Yiddish at an early stage. Since its birth in the German-speaking area, Yiddish has spread throughout most of Eastern Europe, where the language has acquired a Slavic component.
The Yiddish language flourished for several centuries and moved further and further away from the German language, while the German language developed in a different direction. Yiddish has evolved its own unique rules and pronunciations. Yiddish has also developed a rich vocabulary of terms for the human condition, expressing our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes, fears and desires.
The earliest documents in Yiddish date back to the 12th century, but researchers have determined that the language’s origins date back to the 9th century, when the Ashkenazi emerged as a unique cultural entity in Central Europe.
A page from Worms Maḥzor, 1272. This page contains the earliest known complete sentence in Yiddish from a manuscript: the words contain a blessing for the person who will take the book to the synagogue; the text is written in the blanks of the large calligraphic Hebrew word at the top of the page. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem). Image source: https://yivoencyclopedia.org
The first printed mention of Yiddish is a blessing found in the Worms Mahzor (Vórmser mákhzer) of 1272. Since the 14th century, Yiddish has been commonly used for epic poems, such as Shmuel-bukh, which recasts the biblical story of the prophet Samuel into a European chivalric love story.
Map of the diffusion of the Yiddish language. Image source: https://www.yivo.org
Yiddish is generally thought to have become a language in its own right between 900 and 1100 AD, but it is difficult to establish with certainty because in its early days Yiddish was a spoken rather than a written language. The history of Yiddish runs parallel to the history of Ashkenazi Jews. According to linguist Max Weinreich, the language originated when Jews from the Romanic-speaking territories of what is now southern France and northern Italy migrated to the Middle Rhine Basin. Here they switched from a Jewish form of the Romanic language to the local German of the time and, as they adapted it to their needs, it was infused with Rabbinic Hebrew, which had been a component of their earlier language, as well as with Romance elements. Since Jews tended to live in separate communities, any language they took over became their own unique language.
The Crusades forced many of these Jews to emigrate from the Rhine basin. Along with them, the Yiddish moved east to southern and central Germany, and from there to what are now Bavaria, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As a result, the German component of Yiddish has many features in common with the Bavarian (upper = southern) and Franconian (central) German dialects. Since the 13th century, Yiddish-speaking Jews have settled in increasing numbers in what is now Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Romania, and over time Eastern Europe has become the centre of the Yiddish language and the most widely populated Jewish settlement in the world. By the 18th century, Yiddish was the language spoken by almost all Jews in Europe, with the exception of the Sephardim (who lived mainly in the Mediterranean areas).
During the 19th century, Jews in Western Europe began the processes of acculturation and assimilation of the dominant languages in the countries where they lived, until by the 20th century only remains of Western Yiddish survived in Alsace and Switzerland. But while Yiddish suffered a partial loss of speakers in Western Europe, there was a huge increase in the number of Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe. When the great overseas migration of Eastern European Jews began in the 1880s, Yiddish spread to many countries around the world.
The history of the Yiddish language is usually divided into four periods: Early Yiddish (until 1250), Old Yiddish (1250-1500), Middle Yiddish (1500-1750) and Modern Yiddish (from 1750 onwards). Because many Jews were literate when Yiddish emerged, literary documents from each period have survived, except for the earliest period.
Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish and Judezmo, is basically 15th-century Spanish, but words from Portuguese, French, Italian, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew are also blended in.
Ladino, also known as Sephardic, is a Romance language spoken by Sephardic Jews, descended from Iberian Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal. As Spanish and Portuguese Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the Iberian Peninsula, many of them fled to places such as Turkey, Greece, Italy and the Middle East. The exiled Jews continued to speak their native Ladino language while adapting to the languages of their new environments, mixing these new languages with the language of their homeland. Thus Ladino is a combination of Castilian Spanish and Hebrew, with fragments of Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian and Italian.
A 1902 issue of La Epoca, a Jewish-Spanish newspaper in Salonica (Thessaloniki) during the Ottoman Empire. Image source: Wikipedia
From the Spanish Inquisition until World War II, Ladino was the main language spoken by thousands and thousands of Jews throughout the Mediterranean. Today, Ladino is no longer spoken anywhere as a primary language, and it is estimated that there are a maximum of 200,000 speakers who know Ladino worldwide. At first, it was written with the Rashi (or Solitreo) alphabet, then with Hebrew letters, and now mainly with the Latin alphabet.
While Sephardic Jews continue to have thriving communities, the Ladino language is almost extinct today. However, it has continued to be spoken in Israel, the Balkans, North Africa, Greece, America and Turkey by descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492. Today, it is estimated that there are only between 60,000 and 200,000 Ladino speakers worldwide.
Traditionally, Ladino was written in the Hebrew alphabet, but today it is mostly written with the Latin alphabet, phonetically spelled. Nowadays, being a Romance language, people who speak and read Spanish are able to understand most parts of Ladino, allowing the two languages to converse easily.
Sáenz-Badillos 2008, Angel Sáenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, Cambridge University Press, 2008.