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Early Northwest Semitic (ENWS) materials are attested from 2350 BCE to 1200 BCE, the end of the Bronze Age. At this early state, Biblical Hebrew was not highly differentiated from the other Northwest Semitic languages (Ugaritic and Amarna Canaanite), though noticeable differentiation did occur during the Iron Age (1200–540 BCE). Hebrew as a separate language developed during the latter half of the second millennium BCE between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an area known as Canaan.
The earliest distinctively Hebrew writing yet discovered was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa and dates to the 10th century BCE. The Israelite tribes established a kingdom in Canaan at the beginning of the first millennium BCE, which later split into the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south after a dispute of succession.
The kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, its higher classes exiled and the first Temple destroyed. Later the Persians made Judah a province and permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild the Temple. In this period of turmoil, the Hebrews began their first recorded language shift towards the Aramaic language. Aramaic became the common language in the north, in Galilee and Samaria, though Hebrew remained in use in Judah with Aramaic influence.
Alexander conquered Judah in 332 BCE, beginning the period of Hellenistic (Greek) domination. During the Hellenistic period Judea became independent under the Hasmoneans, but later the Romans ended their independence, making Herod the Great their governor. One Jewish revolt against the Romans led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the second Bar-Kochba revolt in 132–135 CE led to a large departure of the Jewish population of Judea. Biblical Hebrew after the Second Temple period evolved into Mishnaic Hebrew, which ceased being spoken and developed into a literary language around 200 CE.
Various reasons lead to the development of distinctive Jewish varieties of the languages of their surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. Jews have often had limited exposure to non-Jewish society, and as a result Jewish languages may develop separately from non-Jewish varieties. The influence of the Jewish religion has led to the influence of Hebrew and Aramaic on Jewish languages, while also promoting the avoidance of the use of native words for non-Jewish religious concepts and non-Jewish liturgical languages (e.g. Latin). In addition, frequent persecution and expulsion of Jews has led to different language development, as Jewish languages have often been exposed to different neighboring languages and dialects than their corresponding non-Jewish varieties.
In the early 20th century, secularism among Jews, nationalism among non-Jews, and large population shifts prompted the beginning of a shift from Jewish to non-Jewish languages. Even so, the majority of Jews in Eurasia and Africa, and many immigrants in North America and Palestine, still spoke Jewish languages. However, the Holocaust brought about a significant drop in the use of Jewish languages, especially Yiddish.
Jewish languages vary in how similar they are to related non-Jewish languages. For example, Judeo-Yemeni Arabic is quite similar to some non-Jewish Arabic varieties, while Eastern European Yiddish shows a high degree of dissimilarity.
Due to continued liturgical and literary use of Hebrew and Aramaic, Jewish communities were naturally in a state of bilingualism, and Hebrew-Aramaic is the only adstratum shared by all Jewish languages. On the other hand, there are Jewish languages which have not borrowed a significant amount from Hebrew-Aramaic, for example Judeo-Arabic and Karaite.
Some Jewish languages show the effects of the history of language shift among the speakers, including Hebrew-Aramaic influence. Yiddish exemplifies such a language. Some Jewish languages may become marked as distinctively Jewish because some shift affected some parts of the language as a whole. For example, Judeo-Baghdadi Arabic was originally used by all groups in Baghdad, but the Muslim residents later adopted Bedouin dialects of Arabic. Similarly, a dialect may be perceived as Jewish because its Jewish speakers brought the dialect of another region with them when they were displaced. In some cases this may cause a dialect to be perceived as "Jewish" in some regions but not in others.
Some of what have been referred to as Jewish languages may not qualify as separate spoken languages. In some cases, as with Ladino, a register may be developed for Biblical translation and exegesis in which Hebrew-Aramaic patterns are frequently calqued, though the number of true loan words may be low. Another possibility is that Jews may speak the same language as their non-Jewish neighbors, but occasionally insert Hebrew-Aramaic or other Jewish elements. This is a transitory state in the shift from use of a Jewish to a non-Jewish language. This occurred, for example, with Yiddish-speaking Jews who transitioned to German. This variety of German, used between 1760 and the end of the 19th century, was written with the Hebrew alphabet, and contained a small number of Hebrew and Yiddish loans.
Among the most widely spoken Jewish languages to develop in the diaspora are Yiddish, Ladino, and the Judæo-Arabic group of languages. Yiddish is the Judeo-German language developed by Ashkenazi Jews who migrated to Central Europe, and Ladino, also called Judezmo and Muestra Spanyol, is the Judeo-Spanish language developed by Sephardic Jews who lived in the Iberian peninsula.
Many ancient and distinct Jewish languages, including Judaeo-Georgian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Krymchak and Judeo-Malayalam have largely fallen out of use due the impact of the Holocaust on European Jewry, the Jewish exodus from Arab lands, the assimilation policies of Israel in its early days and other factors.
Yiddish was the language spoken by the largest number of Jews in the 1850s, but today the three most commonly spoken languages among Jews are English, modern Hebrew, and Russian—in that order.
Kol Israel (Israel's public service broadcaster) has long maintained daily short news and features programming in many Jewish languages and dialects. For domestic audiences it broadcast in Iraqi Jewish Arabic (Yahudi) on its Arabic network. While producing: Yiddish, Ladino, Moroccan Jewish Arabic (Mughrabi or Marocayit), Bukharian (Central Asian Dialect) and Judeo-Tat for both to domestic and overseas shortwave audiences in relevant areas. In addition, for over two decades from the late 1970s a daily 30 minute shortwave transmission was made to Yemen in Yemenite Jewish Arabic.
In the United States there are some local radio programs in Yiddish as there are also in Birobidzhan in Russia.
Judaeo-Marathi (Marathi: जुदाव मराठी) is a form of Marathi spoken by the Bene Israel, a Jewish ethnic group that developed a unique identity in India and in Pakistan. Judæo-Marathi is, like other Marathi, written in the Devanagari script. It may not be sufficiently different from Marathi as to constitute a distinct language, although it is characterized by a number of loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic as a result of influence from the Cochin Jewish community, Judæo-Malayalam and Portuguese and also some influence from the Urdu language.
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The Hebrew alphabet has also been used to transcribe a number of languages including Arabic, English, French, Spanish (as opposed to Ladino), German (as distinct from Yiddish) and Greek. While not common, such practice has occurred intermittently over the last two thousand years.
For centuries Jews worldwide spoke the local or dominant languages of the regions they migrated to, often developing distinctive dialectal forms or branching off as independent languages. The usual course of development for these languages was through the addition of Hebrew words and phrases used to express uniquely Jewish concepts and concerns. Often they were written in Hebrew letters, including the block letters used in Hebrew today and Rashi script.
Conversely, Ladino, formerly written in Rashi script, since the 1920s is usually written in Turkey in the Latin alphabet with a spelling similar to that of Turkish, and has been occasionally printed in the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets. Soviet authorities tried to promote the Cyrillic alphabet for Yiddish in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
Also, some Yiddish-speakers have adopted the use of the Latin alphabet, in place of the Hebrew alphabet. This is predominantly to enable communications over the internet, without the need for special Hebrew keyboards.
- Waltke & O'Connor (1990:6–7)
- Waltke & O'Connor (1990:8–9)
- Sáenz-Badillos (1993:1–2)
- Feldman (2010)
- Shanks (2010)
- Steiner (1997:145)
- Sáenz-Badillos (1993:112–113)
- Wexler (1981:104)
- Sáenz-Badillos (1993:166, 171)
- Wexler (1981:102–103)
- Wexler (1981:101)
- Wexler (1981:119)
- Wexler (1981:120)
- Wexler (1981:105)
- Wexler (1981:106)
- Wexler (1981:107)
- Wexler (1981:117)
- "Jewish Languages". Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. Retrieved 2008-07-03.
- REE programs in Ladino
- Verba Hispanica X: Los problemas del estudio de la lengua sefardí, Katja Smid, Ljubljana, pages 113-124: Es interesante el hecho que en Bulgaria se imprimieron unas pocas publicaciones en alfabeto cirílico búlgaro y en Grecia en alfabeto griego. [...] Nezirović (1992: 128) anota que también en Bosnia se ha encontrado un documento en que la lengua sefardí está escrita en alfabeto cirilico. The Nezirović reference is: Nezirović, M., Jevrejsko-Spanjolska knjitévnost. Institut za knjifevnost, Svjeálost, Sarajevo, 1992. This inscription shows the influence of Spanish orthography: more correctly, in Ladino orthography it would have been written: "Es interesante el echo ke en Bulgaria se imprimieron unas pokas publikasiones en alfabeto siriliko bulgaro y en Gresia en alfabeto griego ...
- Feldman, Rachel (2010). "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
- Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1993). A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1.
- Shanks, Hershel (2010). "Oldest Hebrew Inscription Discovered in Israelite Fort on Philistine Border". Biblical Archaeology Review 36 (2): 51–6.
- Steiner, Richard C. (1997), "Ancient Hebrew", in Hetzron, Robert, The Semitic Languages, Routledge, pp. 145–173, ISBN 0-415-05767-1
- Waltke, Bruce K.; O'Connor, M. (1990). An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0-931464-31-5.
- Wexler, Paul (1981). "Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework". Language 57 (1): 99–149.
- Jewish Language Research Website from Jewish-languages.org