In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Collected Works of Individuals
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Lexicons of Hebrew and Aramaic Words in Jewish Languages
  • Defining the Field
  • Specific Jewish Languages in the Context of Jewish Linguistics
  • Comparing Jews and Other Groups
  • Jewish Language Ideologies

Jewish Studies Jewish Languages
Sarah Bunin Benor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0056


Wherever Jews have lived, they have tended to speak and write somewhat differently from their non-Jewish neighbors. In some cases these differences have been limited to the addition of a few Hebrew words (e.g., among some medieval French Jews and some contemporary American Jews), and in other cases the local Jewish and non-Jewish languages have been mutually unintelligible (e.g., Yiddish in eastern Europe and Ladino in the Balkans). The resulting language varieties have been analyzed under the interdisciplinary rubric of Jewish languages, also known as Jewish linguistic studies, Jewish interlinguistics, or Jewish intralinguistics. The phenomenon of Jewish languages came to scholarly attention during the political debates about Yiddish and Hebrew in the early 20th century. Researchers began to analyze individual Jewish languages, including Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Arabic. In the mid-20th century the Yiddishists Solomon A. Birnbaum and Max Weinreich spearheaded comparative research on Jewish languages. The late 1970s and the 1980s saw a slew of edited volumes that dealt with several Jewish languages, a short-lived journal, and progress toward a theoretical understanding of Jewish languages based on comparative analysis. It was in these years that the study of Jewish languages transitioned from the realm of isolated publications to a small academic field. This field continues to blossom, as evidenced by conferences, publications, and online collaborations. In all of this scholarship on Jewish languages, as in language research more generally, there have been two major trends: descriptive and theoretical. The descriptive work has provided data on the written and spoken languages of Jews around the world and throughout history. This work is crucially time sensitive, as many of the long-standing Jewish vernaculars (such as Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Aramaic, and Jewish Malayalam) are on the verge of extinction due to mass migrations and upheavals. Theoretical work has focused on classifying Jewish languages, describing their genesis, and analyzing features they have in common, especially Hebrew and Aramaic words. This bibliography offers an introduction to this diverse body of work, demonstrating that the field has come a long way in the 20th century. In addition, the fact that many of the references here are to edited volumes and journal articles, rather than book-length comparative analyses and theoretical treatments, suggests that much work remains to be done. (This bibliography does not include descriptive work on individual languages, including textbooks, dictionaries, grammars, and analysis of language variation, change, and ideology. For work of this type, readers are referred to General Overviews and Bibliographies and to the Oxford Bibliographies articles Yiddish and Ladino.)

General Overviews

Several scholars have written general overviews of the phenomenon of Jewish languages geared toward nonspecialists, students, or the general public. These texts outline the history of Jewish settlement in the Diaspora, indicating where Jews have lived in different eras and which languages they have spoken. Some discuss linguistic features common to many Diaspora communities, such as using Hebrew and Aramaic words and writing systems. These works necessarily—and often tacitly—take stances on controversial theoretical issues, such as how to define and delimit Jewish languages and what to call them. Newcomers to the field might begin by reading the brief encyclopedia articles. Spolsky and Benor 2006 introduces the history of Jewish languages and describes a few briefly, including Judeo-Arabic and Jewish English. Bunis 2009 goes into more depth about the linguistic traits of Jewish languages, offering examples from Judezmo and Yiddish that illustrate principles of component fusion. The articles in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Skolnik 2007) offer longer introductions to individual Jewish languages, including their histories and scholarly debates. The Jewish Language Research Website is a useful tool for teaching and study, as it includes descriptions of several languages as well as maps and visual and audio samples. Rabin, et al. 1979 offers a smaller-scale array of resources in Hebrew. Lowenstein 2000 serves as an excellent textbook for college courses, as it is accessible and contextualizes Jewish languages among other cultural realms. Spolsky 2014 is a comprehensive history of Jewish languages, written from the perspective of the sociology of language. Sunshine 1995 offers a brief history of the field of Jewish interlinguistics. Wexler 1981 is an excellent introduction to Jewish linguistic studies, as it cites a great deal of previous literature and represents an ambitious and erudite approach to the field. Two useful handbooks have been published in recent years: Kahn and Rubin 2016 and Hary and Benor 2018. Kahn and Rubin 2016 includes more languages, and Hary and Benor 2018 focuses more on contemporary language varieties, like Jewish Swedish and Hebraized French and Amharic in Israel.

  • Bunis, David M. “Characteristics of Jewish Languages.” In Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. Vol. 1, Themes and Phenomena of the Jewish Diaspora. Edited by M. Avrum Ehrlich, 167–171. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2009.

    Explains how Jews distinguished themselves linguistically from non-Jews, including the integration of Hebrew and Aramaic words, influences from Jewish languages spoken before the most recent migration, archaisms, and linguistic innovations. Discusses migration patterns, translation traditions, and writing. Examples are mostly from Yiddish, Judezmo, and Judeo-Arabic.

  • Hary, Benjamin, and Sarah Bunin Benor, eds. Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2018.

    This edited volume includes descriptions of languages in over two dozen Jewish communities, including information about their structure, Hebrew/Aramaic loanwords, historical development, current use, and sociolinguistic variation. A few chapters offer synthesizing analysis and theoretical insight. Equal attention is giving to longstanding and new language varieties, including an innovative focus on immigrant languages in contact with Modern Hebrew in early-21st-century Israel (Amharic, French, Russian, and Yiddish).

  • Jewish Language Research Website.

    This site offers descriptions, bibliographies, and resources for over a dozen Jewish languages, including Hebrew, Jewish Aramaic, Jewish English, Jewish Malayalam, Jewish Russian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Iranian, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Portuguese, Judeo-Provencal, Ladino, and Yiddish. It lists over a hundred scholars and links to syllabi, sound samples, and other teaching resources.

  • Kahn, Lily, and Aaron Rubin, eds. Handbook of Jewish Languages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    A useful handbook featuring twenty-three chapters, each describing the structure and textual traditions of a different Jewish language. The descriptions of Judeo-Iranian languages, Judeo-Italian, and Yiddish are especially comprehensive. Includes less commonly analyzed languages like Jewish Georgian, Karaim and Krymchak, Judeo-Slavic, Judeo-Syriac, and Judeo-Turkish. Manuscript images from several languages are included.

  • Lowenstein, Steven M. The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Chapters 1–3 (pp. 1–67) of this well-written book on Jewish cultural diversity offer a fine introduction to folk traditions, regional variations, and Jewish languages. Includes time lines, genealogies, language trees, maps, photos, migration histories, and linguistic analysis. The remainder of the book discusses names, cuisine, dress, music, ancestry, and so forth.

  • Rabin, Chaim, Joshua Blau, and Haim Blanc. “Haleshonot hayehudiot: Hameshutaf, hameyuhad vehabe‘ayati.” Pe’amim 1 (1979): 40–66.

    Descriptions of sixteen languages—Judeo-Aramaic (old/new), Judeo-Kurdish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Georgian, Krimchak, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Ladino, Judeo-Provencal, Judeo-French, Yiddish, and Judeo-Slavic—images of Avadim Hayinu translated in several Haggadoth, an overview of Jewish languages by Chaim Rabin, and a symposium focusing on Judeo-Arabic and its relationship to Ladino.

  • Skolnik, Fred, ed. Encyclopaedia Judaica. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

    Includes descriptions and bibliographies of several languages and their literatures, including a series of in-depth articles about Hebrew language, grammar, and script (including images); shorter articles about Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, Judeo-Provencal, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Tat; and an overview of Jewish languages.

  • Spolsky, Bernard. The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107295292

    Large-scale history of Jewish communities around the world through the lens of the sociology of language. Using diverse sources, it details migrations, communal structures, and legal restrictions and their impacts on language use and language ideology. Comprehensive bibliography makes it a great resource for research on particular communities.

  • Spolsky, Bernard, and Sarah Bunin Benor. “Jewish Languages.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2d ed. Vol. 6. Edited by Keith Brown, 120–124. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006.

    Brief description of the phenomenon of Jewish languages touching on their histories and distinctive features. Includes contemporary languages like Jewish English and offers statistics on contemporary language use.

  • Sunshine, Andrew. “History of Jewish Interlinguistics: A Preliminary Outline.” In History of Linguistics 1993. Edited by Kurt R. Jankowsky, 75–82. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.78

    Brief history of comparative studies of Jewish languages. Analyzes early-20th-century writings of Matthias Mieses and Borokhov and mid-century work by Solomon A. Birnbaum and Max Weinreich.

  • Wexler, Paul. “Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework.” Language 57.1 (1981): 99–149.

    This article brought the phenomenon of Jewish languages to the attention of linguists and jump-started the field of Jewish interlinguistics. With extensive footnotes and over 350 references, it surveys the linguistic history of the Jewish Diaspora, discusses various features of Jewish languages, and “formulates urgent research tasks in comparative Jewish interlinguistics” (p. 99).

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