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My tracing of Jewish multilingualism back to the period of settling in Canaan may well be wrong, and my assumption of knowledge of Aramaic in pre-exilic Judah is also based more on sociolinguistic than biblical or archeological evidence, but all scholars agree that the surrender to Sennacherib and the deportations that followed Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem in 597 BCE had a major influence in adding Aramaic to the languages of the Jewish people. In one simple view, favored by nineteenth-century scholars, we start with a period of Hebrew monolingualism, then enter, after the Babylonian exile, an Aramaic period, and next have Greek added after Alexander’s conquests; Hebrew lingers as Latin did in the Middle Ages: an artificial variety for writing sacred text. Or, perhaps, we go from a period when Jews lived in a multilingual region, and chose individually to be plurilingual, to a period when the Jewish nation shifted from speaking only Hebrew, with appropriate roles for each of its languages. The big questions that remain undecided are how fast these transitions were and what happened to Hebrew.
There are two major schools of thought, which I might label the multilingualist Hebraists, who believe and argue that Hebrew continued to be spoken until the destruction of the Second Temple or later, albeit in a bilingual or diglossic pattern with Aramaic enriched later by the addition of Greek; and the monolingualists, who assume that Hebrew became a limited artificial religio-literary language, like Latin in the medieval Church. It was this second group, raised in Anglo-Saxon monolingualism, who would ask what language Jesus spoke, ignoring the probability of plurilingualism. My own prejudice, as a sociolinguist happy to watch his grandchildren growing up as comfortable bilinguals, tends to be with the first school, but at the outset I admit it seems hard to reach a conclusion. Many Talmudic discussions end with the simple word Teiku, translated in bilingual editions as “The question remains undecided”, and used in Modern Israeli Hebrew to report a draw in a football match. This will be the only reasonable answer, in the meantime, to many of the questions raised in this book.
Yemen is part of the Arabian Peninsula, so its rapid conquest by Islam was not surprising. But what is more in need of explanation is the rapidity with which the Muslims conquered such a large portion of the ancient world (see Map 6). At his death, in 632 CE, Muhammad controlled the Arabian Peninsula, but eighty years later the Umayyad caliphs ruled over the Middle East, from the river Indus in the east, and were starting to conquer Spain in the west. Muhammad’s successors, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, ruled over that territory until 945, and Islam and Arabic have remained dominant after that in all of it, except Spain, until this day. What accounts for the speed with which these territories fell to Muslim rule?
Hugh Kennedy, who has one of the most convincing explanations of this, and whose account I will follow, asks how small armies (never larger than 20,000 men and often smaller) were able to conquer major empires so rapidly and to maintain their identity while persuading the conquered peoples to adopt Islam and later Arabic. Within a century Greek- and Aramaic-speaking Syria, Aramaic- and Persian-speaking Iraq, Greek- and Coptic-speaking Egypt, Pahlavi-speaking Persia, and Latin-, Greek-, and Berber-speaking north Africa had all come under Islamic rule, and were in the process of conversion to Islam and becoming Arabic-speaking.
A recent book dealing with the challenge of postmodernism to those who write Jewish history recognizes the problem of historians’ personal history in shaping their views of what they are describing and analyzing. By now, I am sure you have become aware of my prejudices as I have recounted the sociolinguistic history of the Jews: my background as a Zionist modern orthodox Israeli brought up as a speaker of English and now living by choice in a Hebrew-dominated society. In this chapter, which deals with the addition of English and Spanish to the sociolinguistic ecology of the Jews, I start with a personal autobiographical account of the languages of my own background, which will give me a chance to depict the changes that have occurred to many Jews in the last two centuries or so.
My mother’s oldest known ancestor was Jane Benjamin, identified in the 1841 British census as a forty-six-year-old hawker living with her daughter in the East End of London. Born in about 1795 in Holland, she probably married in London in 1816. My assumption is that she was a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi who picked up enough English to be able to work as a peddler. Her daughter, Esther, was born in London, presumably growing up bilingual in Yiddish and English. In 1860 Esther became the wife of Julius Green, a Polish-born tailor who had arrived in England some time before 1848, when he was married by the Chief Rabbi to Mary Solomons, London-born, who died ten years later after bearing two children.
This book started with two questions that I am regularly asked, the first (in Israel) about whether Hebrew is endangered, which I tried to answer in Chapter 1. The second is the question that is put to me whenever I meet activists who are trying to maintain or revive their heritage languages: how, they ask, was Hebrew revived? What was the magic? No magic, I tell them, and no miracle, unless it was that a group of secular nationalists chose to use as their daily language a variety that had been preserved for sacred purposes by a religious establishment that mainly opposed both their nationalism and their language policy.
Reading the chapters of this book, you have already learned the basis of my answer, which is that, during the two millennia when Jews were in exile and when they learned and spoke many other languages, Hebrew was almost always a significant part of their linguistic repertoire, as a sacred language for religious purposes and as a language of literacy. It was therefore not a matter of reviving a dead language, reconstructing it from ancient manuscripts (as with Cornish) or from isolated elderly speakers (as with Eyak). What was involved, rather, was the expansion of the domains in which the language was currently being used and an increase in the number of uses and users.
This book has so far traced the adoption and development of the first three major languages of the Jews: Hebrew, from its misty origins until its loss as a spoken language about the second or third century CE; Aramaic, added as a vernacular language and becoming semi-sacred during the years after the Babylonian captivity; and Greek, which was introduced during the period of Hellenization and greatly strengthened under Roman and Byzantine rule. It has also noted the change of balance in population from Palestine to the Diaspora, as, starting with the Babylonian Diaspora, many Jews fled to other places that seemed safer or economically more desirable.
These developing Diaspora communities were in place and waiting, as it were, for the Muslim conquest; in fact, Josephus reported that Jews lived everywhere in the world as he knew it. It was migration and conversion, however, that first added Arabic to the Jewish sociolinguistic ecology, as some Jews moved as traders and settlers through the Nabatean lands in the south and on into the Arabian Peninsula. The number of migrants is not clear, and may not have been large; indeed, with the evidence of the conversion of local pagans, it seems at times that it was Judaism rather than Jews that moved to the Arabian Peninsula and crossed into Ethiopia, the two forming – according to some – the Land of Cush. There, Arabic was adopted as a language of the Jews by migration and linguistic assimilation into Arabic-speaking regions, and by the conversion of indigenous peoples; later it was spread, as a result of the Muslim conquest, by the diffusion of Arabic throughout the rapidly growing Arab Empire, from the Indus in the east to Andalusia in the west. Other languages were added too as a number of African groups adopted Judaism, although the dating is in doubt: while their traditions claim early conversion, the African groups emerge as Jewish only in the nineteenth century and later.
There are two conflicting views of Jews in Slavic lands. The standard view, supported by most scholars, goes like this. Starting with the First Crusade, in 1096, Jews in Spain, France, and Italy suffered regularly from periodic pogroms and other persecutions, and were from time to time expelled from the towns and countries in which they lived. This pressure for migration continued for several hundred years, and, with no outlet to the west yet available, the obvious direction was to the east, through Loter (which was the foundation of Ashkenaz), into the countries that were now largely occupied by the Slavic peoples – Indo-Europeans who had moved into the region from the sixth century (see Map 9). One of the linguistic effects of this migration was the addition to the Jewish repertoire of varieties of Slavic, identified in Jewish linguistics as Knaanic. The term is a pun on the word “Slav” as slave, and the biblical category of Canaanite slaves. Knaanic, as some linguists following Solomon Birnbaum call it, was eventually replaced by Yiddish.
The alternative view is that there was only a comparatively small and temporary eastern migration, followed rapidly by a return to Loter. In this view, the bulk of Jews in eastern Europe either were there already, perhaps local converts (the Sorbian and Ukrainian hypothesis), or came from the Caucasus or Persia (including the Khazarian theory). In either event, we are left with the question of how Knaanic or other Slavic varieties were so completely replaced by Yiddish.
The defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great and the resulting Greek-speaking empires produced a major change in the sociolinguistic repertoire of the Jewish people living within them, adding Greek to the Hebrew–Aramaic bilingualism that had begun with the Babylonian exile. Aramaic was by this time firmly fixed in the Jewish sociolinguistic profile, although, as I argued in the last chapter, its exact role as a vernacular alongside or replacing Hebrew remains open to question. Hebrew remained the preferred language for religious and literary composition, but it was a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic that was later to be entrenched as the language of the Babylonian Talmud, recognized in combination as loshn koydesh (the sacred tongue, Yiddish) in Ashkenaz. Now, in the latter part of the fourth century BCE, Greek was added as a third component, producing a trilingual pattern that was to be a template among Jews living in Palestine or elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean throughout Roman rule during the later Second Temple period, and more or less until the Islamic conquest.
A complex process of cultural merger produced a version of Jewish Hellenism that survived the Maccabean revolt. For a second time the Jewish sociolinguistic ecology was revolutionized by external pressure, a military success of the Macedonian warrior whose surviving nation is still disputed between Greek and Slavic speakers. Alexander conquered the known world, spreading his power as far as India and establishing a rule over the Middle East that entrenched Greek there for several hundred years. Jews remaining in the tiny state and those who emigrated from it were exposed to the new language and culture, setting off a struggle between Judaism and the dominant non-Jewish culture surrounding it that came to typify Jewish history.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not Hebrew is a Jewish language, Yiddish is without question the premier Jewish language, as its name proclaims. While German scholars of the Enlightenment and Zionist Hebrew Israeli scholars denigrated it, modern students of Jewish varieties all see it as the prime example of an autonomous Jewish language. It may have started as a fusion language, but it gained standardization, vitality, and vernacular functionality, achieved a distinguished literary use, and still has surviving secular and religious supporters endeavoring to overcome the murder of most of its modern speakers. True, most secular speakers are old, and the religious are members of a few Hasidic sects. Other secular supporters now form the kind of “metalinguistic community” that is typical of many disappearing indigenous languages without vitality. But, because of its continuity among Hasidim, Yiddish is the best example of a surviving Jewish variety with natural intergenerational transmission.
Its birth, commonly assumed to be in the Rhineland area of the Loter-Ashkenaz Jewish culture area sometime around the end of the first millennium CE, with all the uncertainties of medieval Jewish life and society and with the controversies that have arisen about its Slavic environment and component, must be the center point of a study of the languages of the Jews. This gives added importance to studying the Jews who created it and the non-Jewish environment in which German first became a language of the Jews (see Map 8).
Teach your tongue to say “I do not know” lest you be caught in a falsehood.
Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta (chapter 3)
Historical sociolinguistics and the puzzle of origins
A number of years ago two of the founders of the field of sociolinguistics, Joshua Fishman and John Gumperz, were working together on a pioneering study of Spanish–English bilingualism in a Jersey City barrio. From time to time they would argue over their findings. When challenged for evidence, Fishman (trained in statistics and sociology) would go to his office and bring back a ream of computer printout with analyses of multiple questionnaires. On other days, when Fishman challenged Gumperz (a field linguist and ethnographer), Gumperz would reply: “Last night at a party I heard someone say it.” The claims in the last chapter about the current state of languages in Israel can be tested by either of these two methods of handling data: by statistical analysis of the results of surveys or questionnaires, or by ethnographic observation and interviews.
But, unfortunately, we do not have the data. At the end of Chapter 1, I was probably more certain than I should have been, for Israel has had no language question on the census since 1983. Israeli Hebrew language departments continue to discourage studies of Hebrew later than the Mishnaic period; Modern Hebrew, they assert, has not yet jelled. So my personal assessment of the present sociolinguistic situation is open to debate, and my guess about the future can also be questioned, accounting for the nervousness of the president of the Hebrew Language Academy. But that is talking about something that could be checked, were there resources available for surveys or interviews. Neither of these methods is even conceivable for historical studies, especially in trying to reconstruct the sociolinguistic ecology of communities thousands of years ago.
Medieval France, which included the Norman French-speaking Jewish community of medieval England, illustrates what Fishman has defined as diglossia, for all the evidence suggests that the Jews spoke a variety of French and wrote Hebrew. There is a dispute about the existence of Judeo-French, some arguing that “there never existed a Judeo-French dialect with specific Jewish traits, but they did speak Old French as mother tongue and within the community as well as in intercommunity relations”. Others argue that the Jews there switched regularly between Hebrew and French.
The evidence for the high level of Hebrew knowledge among Jewish scholars is in the continuing significance of biblical and Talmudic commentaries written at the time. When one is studying the Torah nowadays, the first and most important commentary is that written by Rashi; and, when one is studying a page of Talmud, the major commentaries on the left and right of the Talmudic text are those by Rashi and what are called “Tosafot”, which are “additional” commentaries that expand on or contradict Rashi and are mainly written by Rashi’s children, grandchildren, and pupils in France – although, showing the close relationship of Tsarfat (northern France) and Loter (Germany), also by other Tosafists living in Germany. Without these commentaries from medieval France, the task of studying these fundamental Jewish texts would be significantly more difficult.
Historical sociolinguistics is a comparatively new area of research, investigating difficult questions about language varieties and choices in speech and writing. Jewish historical sociolinguistics is rich in unanswered questions: when does a language become 'Jewish'? What was the origin of Yiddish? How much Hebrew did the average Jew know over the centuries? How was Hebrew re-established as a vernacular and a dominant language? This book explores these and other questions, and shows the extent of scholarly disagreement over the answers. It shows the value of adding a sociolinguistic perspective to issues commonly ignored in standard histories. A vivid commentary on Jewish survival and Jewish speech communities that will be enjoyed by the general reader, and is essential reading for students and researchers interested in the study of Middle Eastern languages, Jewish studies, and sociolinguistics.
The Hellenization of Judea (which from a language point of view meant adding Greek to the Jewish sociolinguistic ecology after the conquest of Alexander the Great) bled almost unnoticeably into the period of Roman rule, which, as noted earlier, did not mean a substantive addition of Latin except in government use and on official inscriptions. This period marks the beginning of Jewish trilingualism (or perhaps even triglossia), which we will find, with occasional exceptions, to be the dominant model at least until the eighteenth century, when western European emancipation started to weaken the role of Jewish varieties. A first question is where to start our chapter, and how to label the period it describes.
Without doubt, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was a major turning point, when centralized Temple rituals were replaced by synagogue worship and priestly leadership gave way to rabbinic. But was this a major linguistic transition? Synagogue worship was already under way and Diaspora communities were already in existence before 70 CE. Indeed, by 100 CE there were 5 million Jews in the Diaspora, five times the estimated 1 million who remained in Palestine. Perhaps one should, rather, select as a starting point the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE, one of the last attempts to restore Jewish sovereignty; its failure marked the beginning of nearly 2,000 years of dispersion. But there were other revolts later, up to the Arab conquest. Or should we label it a Hellenistic-Roman period, which in Palestinian archeological terms included Byzantine rule until the Arab conquest?
When people learn that I am a linguist, the first question they ask me is: how many languages do you know? Once I have successfully dodged an answer, the next question depends on where I am. At conferences dealing with language policy, one of the first questions people ask me is about the revitalization of Hebrew, and what I can tell them about it so that they can use the information to deal with the problem of the endangerment of their heritage languages.
Once you judge a language not by how many speakers it still has but by the age of the youngest speaker, you know it is in trouble. Joshua Fishman, one of the leading experts in the field of the sociology of language, defines the lowest stage of language maintenance as when it is known only by old isolated individuals without anyone to speak to. This was the situation with Eyak, a language once spoken by natives of Alaska; Michael Krauss, a linguist who studied it, said he knew only two old women who could speak it, and they hadn’t talked to each for many years; both have since died. Eyak had started to disappear when members of the tribe began to switch to Tlingit, a language that now has about 400 speakers in the United States and Canada, most of whom are now bilingual in English. All over the world, speakers of the many languages that are endangered are trying to restore their use, which is why they ask about what they call the miracle of the rebirth of Hebrew. I tell them about the special conditions that made this possible and warn them how hard a task they are facing.
We have followed the addition of languages to the Jewish sociolinguistic ecology historically and regionally: the adoption of Hebrew in Canaan; the addition of Aramaic and Greek in the ancient world; the spread of Greek and addition of Latin in the Mediterranean Diaspora, and of Judeo-Persian in the eastern; the spread of Arabic to Jews as well as others as a result of the Muslim conquest; the development of Judeo-Romance varieties in Western and Southern Loez; the process from German dialects to Yiddish in Ashkenaz and further east; and the period of Judeo-Slavic (Knaanic) before Yiddish took over in eastern Europe.
This survey took us through the ancient and medieval worlds, with surprisingly little variation in pattern as Jews, usually forced to migrate by conquest or persecution, added new languages to their repertoire, modified them when isolated by internal or external pressure, and, throughout, generally maintained Hebrew as their heritage, sacred, and literary language. In Renaissance Europe, the expulsion of Jews in 1492 from the Iberian Peninsula did not just spread Judezmo as far as Turkey, but also was associated with a flurry of translations by Jews of Classical texts via Arabic to western languages. Essentially, in the next two chapters we trace the next stage of development in what might be called the modern world, remembering that modernization, industrialization, political emancipation, and westernization came to different parts of that world at different times; earliest in Germany, and never in some Islamic nations, whose Jews were emancipated as citizens only after their escape to a western Diaspora or to the new State of Israel.