When languages die, whole cultures die with them, and communities lose their identity. Jewish languages are no different.

An estimated 6,800 languages are spoken in the world today. Linguists say that about half are endangered, and that 90% will disappear by the end of this century. The dominance of English in worldwide commerce, culture and politics and on the internet has resulted in many other languages being marginalized and even suppressed.

How Languages Die

Throughout history, languages have been born, developed and died. Only Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and Tamil have had lives of more than 2,000 years.

Many of the world's languages are considered endangered. According to linguists, these are the languages that people no longer speak exclusively. Two Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino, fall into the endangered category. Linguistic death or extinction occurs when there is no one who speaks a language.

Two Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino, fall into the endangered categoryThe death of a language may occur slowly when a population gradually shifts its allegiance to another language until their own language is no longer used. This is the history of many now-extinct Jewish languages. Sometimes the use of a language is not considered advantageous, parents do not pass it on to their children, or its use is discouraged by society or by government. A language may also suffer sudden death by the destruction of its speakers.

The death of a language can be reversed, but the only successful large-scale revival of a language has been Hebrew. Continued attempts to reverse the drift of Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh have not been successful.

Among the many Jewish languages, only Hebrew is strongly entrenched despite the fact that most Jews do not speak it and use it only as a liturgical language.

Many of the Jewish languages that became extinct after the Holocaust were already endangered before the War. Yiddish, which had been considered seriously endangered because of the destruction of the majority of speakers by the Nazis, and the assimilation of Jews into the linguistic communities in which they live, seems to have reached a plateau in its decline. Any strength in the status of Yiddish is largely due to its daily use in the Hassidic community, and, to a lesser degree, the enthusiastic efforts in some quarters like that of the National Yiddish Book Center and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Most Jews however, have little or no interest in learning let alone using the language of their parents or grandparents.

Linguistic specialists suggest that for a language to survive requires 100,000 people to speak it. For this reason the main Sephardic language, Ladino, is seriously endangered, and can only be kept alive with monumental efforts. So few people now speak it that it can no longer be passed along from generation to generation. Like Yiddish, it too, is being actively promoted by some organizations such as the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Research Center in Istanbul and the Cervantes Institute.

Aramaic, which was once widely spoken among Jews is now relegated to that of a scholarly and liturgical language with rabbis and scholars knowing enough to read Aramaic, but not to speak it, and very few can write in it. Nor do many have a broad understanding of the language. (Click here for more about Aramaic)

There are about 18 other languages which could be considered as "Jewish languages" There are about 18 other languages which could be considered as "Jewish languages." How many Jews have even heard of them? How many rabbis are familiar with these languages, and how many Hebrew schools and yeshivas discuss these languages as markers of the global history of the Jewish people?

The use of the term "Jewish language" must be qualified. Hebrew as a general rule, is exclusively a language of the Jews, both historically and currently, even though many non-Jews can either speak Hebrew or read it, particularly within the Christian academic community. Aramaic in its various forms is spoken to a limited degree among various Middle Eastern peoples, and is used liturgically in some Christian denominations. Yiddish and Ladino however, are more or less exclusive to Jews, even though there is much overlap with other languages.

Other so-called Jewish languages are invariably an outgrowth of other languages in the countries in which Jews have lived. Linguistics experts consider some to be dialects of other languages rather than fully autonomous languages.

In any case, there appear to be about twenty-one languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino that would be considered as "Jewish" languages. Most of these are extinct because no one speaks them. Some however, are virtually extinct since there are so few people who speak them even as a second language, that they are not likely to survive the death of the current generation.

Language International

In southern India, Malayalam (related to Tamil) was used by Jews, most of whom have now moved to Israel where the language will probably die out.

In Portugal Judeo-Portuguese was spoken before the 16th century. Unlike in Spain where Jews who rejected Christianity were expelled in 1492, the Portuguese Jews were converted by force in a mass baptism in 1497. They only started to leave Portugal in 1536, but by then their ties to Judaism were very tenuous, though there was a resurgence in the language as these émigrés spread throughout the western world. However, by the mid-19th century the language had become extinct.

France was the home to two Jewish languages. Shuadit also known as Judeo-Provencal was spoken in southern France and Avignon particularly during the Middle Ages. The last speaker died in 1977. Zarphatic also known as Judeo-French is also extinct. It too, was used in the Middle Ages in Northern France.

Zionists favored Hebrew and discouraged the use of other Jewish languagesIn Italy, Judeo-Italian, known also as Italkian, Volgare or Latino (as distinct from Ladino) is either extinct or very close to it. It existed from about the 10th Century to the 19th. In Greece, the same is true of Judeo-Greek, also known as Yevanic which was the dialect of the Romaniotes, Greek Jews dating from the Hellenistic period. Yevanic died out for a number of reasons. The Ramaniotes were assimilated by the Ladino-speaking Sephardim. Many emigrated to Israel and the USA, where the Zionists favored Hebrew and discouraged the use of other Jewish languages. Finally the extermination of many of the Romaniotes in the Holocaust sealed the fate of the language.

As one moves towards Eastern Europe, numerous Jewish languages other than Yiddish have now all but disappeared. Judeo-Slavic or Knaanic and its variants in what is now the Czech Republic died out in the late Middle Ages. In Israel and Georgia, there are still those who speak Judeo-Georgian but it too, is on the way to extinction. Many linguists do not regard it as a separate language from Georgian.

A further language which is considered Jewish is Karaim, the national language of the Karaites in Lithuania, Israel and Ukraine. It uses both Cyrillic and Hebrew scripts but is spoken by so few people that it is regarded as extinct. It should be noted that while the Karaites are recognized as Jews by some rabbinical authorities, since they are descended from Jews, because, however, they reject Rabbinic Judaism, they are clearly outside the Jewish faith.

In Israel, Azerbaijan and Russia, Judeo-Tat or Jahuric is spoken by a small number of people. Judeo-Crimean Tatar, Krimchak and Judeo-Tadjik or Bukharic is spoken in Uzbekistan. All are on their way to extinction. In the Crimea, Gruzinic or Judeo-Georgian is spoken. With about 80,000 speakers, its use is also declining. Many of these languages also have speakers in Israel and the USA where the languages are near extinction because of assimilation of the second generation.

In Iran and in former republics of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, there are a large number of Jewish languages. These are usually grouped together under the term Judeo-Persian. One variant is Bukharic spoken in Uzbekistan.

One of the most fascinating languages listed by the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv is Lutera'i , the secret jargon of Iranian Jews. Based on Persian grammar and local dialects of modern Farsi, it has an extensive Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary. This was a jargon which allowed Jews to speak secretly in the presence of strangers.

Judeo-Persian was purely a literary language and not spoken. It is now extinct. Judeo-Iranian on the other hand, consists of a number of spoken local and ethnic dialects. Because of the massive emigration of Iranian Jews to Israel, the USA and to Teheran, local dialects are dying out.

Because of the massive emigration of Iranian Jews, local dialects are dying outIn Africa there are also a number of Jewish languages which for many of the same reasons, emigration and assimilation, are on their way to a linguistic death. This includes Judeo-Berber from Morocco and Judeo-Arabic, both of which existed into the 20th century, but are now approaching extinction.

Most Ethiopian Jews speak Amharic, the more widely used language of the majority. However, at least two Jewish languages did exist. Kayla and Qwara were spoken by the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) of the Qwara region. Both are on their way to extinction.

The study of the extinct and endangered languages of the Jews presents a picture of the history of Diaspora Jewry, its travels and its relations with the many nations with whom Jews lived. Despite this, the subject matter is ignored by most university centers of Judaic studies and rabbinical seminaries, and by the Jewish community at large.