22 November 2009

Fragile Jewish Diaspora languages.

Photo: Antropoturista (tomke_lask).View from a window of a synagogue in Quba (Qıbə), Azərbaycan.
An article (Tom Colls, “The death of language?,” BBC News, 19 October 2009) made me think about the eventual deaths of various Jewish languages. Hebrew as an everyday spoken language is often rightly cited as an example of a triumph in the revival of dying languages, but often overlooked are the Diaspora languages that Hebrew rather intentionally displaced, many of which are now in decline or even seriously endangered. In a comment on the article, M.D. noted
The flip side of the revival of Hebrew…is the probably imminent demise of Yiddish and Ladino (Judaeo‐Spanish), two previously vibrant Jewish languages…. The movement to transform Hebrew…into the national language of Israel had as much to do with 19th‐century Zionist romanticism as anything else. Yiddish and Ladino were considered ghetto languages by Zionist intellectuals, and so not only not worthy of preservation, but deserving of oblivion. [T]he speaking of languages other than Hebrew (but especially Yiddish) was actively discouraged.

My own two ethnic Diaspora languages, Yiddish (ייִדיש) and Juhuri (ז׳אוּהאוּראִ) are both listed in UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger as “definitely endangered.” Yiddish is spoken by more than three million people including many children, but is apparently in decline, and the overwhelming majority of Ashkenazim worldwide have no fluency in it. Juhuri has fewer than 100,000 speakers, and while I have no concrete information, I suspect it is gravely endangered outside of insular populations in the Caucasus. Mountain Jewish children and young adults across the globe are probably more likely to speak Russian, Hebrew, Azeri or English than Juhuri. It might even qualify as “severely endangered” were it not considered a dialect of Tati rather than a language unto itself.

Related: Steve Caruso, “The death of language?,” The Aramaic Blog, 21 October 2009.

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