From Judeo-Greek to Karaim, Oxford to Offer Rare Jewish Languages

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In April, the language learning app Duolingo added its 40th language to its arsenal of programs: Yiddish. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a traditional non-Jewish language program to offer a large and comprehensive course in Yiddish. But Duolingo’s addition of Yiddish only reflects increased global interest in learning a language that once had as many as 12 million speakers.

Ladino, a Romance language of Sephardic Jews still spoken by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, has also garnered a lot of interest in recent years. Ladino lessons, both online and in person, are widely available to future learners.

But while these two Jewish languages ​​experience a cultural renaissance, many more – those spoken in Crimea, Baghdad, Baku and beyond, which miraculously survived and succumbed to tumultuous periods in world history – have remained. largely inaccessible to interested learners.

This month, that changes.

The Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages ​​in the UK has launched its first semester of classes in 12 Jewish languages, belonging to the Aramaic, Arabic and Turkish language families. They vary in number of speakers, from millions to none.

Classes, which started this week, run for one hour per week online and are free to all students.

“There are currently many brilliant research projects and platforms online regarding Jewish languages,” said Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, chair of the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Oxford and creator of the new program. “What is missing is the possibility for the growing number of interested students to learn these languages, let alone in an academic setting.”

This is why she considers the OSRJL format – online and free – to be important: it ensures that the courses are accessible to an international pool of students.

A YOUNG Polish Jew reads a book in Yiddish in the Jewish Library of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH90)

Yiddish is one of 12 Jewish languages ​​offered by OSRJL – and with around 1.5 million speakers worldwide, it is the only language offered by the program that is neither endangered nor extinct. In fact, Yiddish is more and more number of speakers.

“People outside of the Yiddish-speaking world have this distorted idea that Yiddish is disappearing,” said Kalman Weiser, the Silber family professor of modern Jewish studies at York University in Toronto. “It’s not. It’s only growing. Judeo-Greek, on the other hand, is a language that is going to disappear.

Weiser’s mother speaks Judeo-Greek, but unfortunately this language, originating in the Macedonian Empire, is expected to disappear with this generation without serious intervention. Most of the languages ​​offered by OSRJL experience a similar fate. Several, including Judeo-French, Classical Judeo-Arabic, and Classical Judeo-Persian, are already considered extinct.

The latter is a language that Daniel Amir, a doctoral student in Iranian Jewish history at the University of Oxford, intends to study at OSRJL. He also plans to take classes in Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, a language with around 60 speakers remaining.

“Knowing a language is one thing, but learning and improving with other people is exciting and motivating. All of these languages ​​are those with which I have a strong personal bond, ”he said.

Amir’s family speak a Judeo-Neo-Aramaic dialect which is in serious decline, and he wants to do his part to stop the downward trend. “Most of my experience with the dialect is speaking and listening to my family, so having the chance to officially study it is a great privilege,” he said.

Studying any Jewish language, whether heritage or not, opens a window into the diverse history of the global Jewish community, Weiser noted. He mentioned a theory proposed by sociolinguist Max Weinreich in “The History of the Yiddish Language”, which suggests that there is an unbroken chain of Jewish languages ​​from ancient Hebrew until today, where Yiddish is the last link.

“Once you take this approach, any Jewish language becomes a vital part of Jewishness,” Weiser said. “You start in one place, but then you start to see the big picture. “

While the chances that Karaim (a Turkish language with around 80 speakers) or Judeo-Italian (a Romance language with 250 speakers) are the original language are low today, studying them can be a powerful exercise in understanding. the wider Jewish experience. Olszowy-Schlanger told JTA that OSRJL intends to strengthen the bond students feel with their cultures, both through language classes and by offering a variety of other online content, including blog posts on outstanding books and a series of 16 Yiddish music lectures.

The ripple effects of a program like this are not isolated in the Jewish realm – Weiser mentioned that many previous Jewish language initiatives were in tandem, influenced by, or would continue to influence other programs in native language.

The faculties that raised Hebrew from the dead also influenced the revitalization of indigenous languages ​​such as Lushootseed and Sami, and helped inspire initiatives to preserve Irish and Cornish.

“These communities deserve and deserve our research, our curiosity and our admiration, both in their past and in their present,” Amir said. “And language is a great starting point.


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