Changes in the Sociolinguistic Ecology of Jewish Communities

Reference work entry


Jews offer a noteworthy example of the geography of language. Beginning with the migration of Jews from ancient Palestine to other areas in the Middle East and continuing through contemporary migrations to and from the State of Israel and the Americas, Jews have dispersed throughout many parts of the world. In most of these migrations, Jews have, within a generation or two, adopted a variant of the local language, yielding such Jewish language varieties as Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Malayalam. Much of their linguistic distinctiveness has involved lexical influences from the Hebrew and Aramaic of Jews’ sacred texts, but there are also lexical and grammatical influences from former languages and other sources. We analyze Jewish communities as existing on a continuum of linguistic distinctiveness: some have spoken varieties almost identical to those of their non-Jewish neighbors, with only the addition of a few Hebrew words, and others have revealed significant differences in pronunciation and grammar. In the cases of the two best known diaspora Jewish languages, Yiddish and Ladino, Jewish communities maintained a language for several centuries following migration, enriching it with influences from the new local languages with which they were in contact. Contemporary Jews continue the age-old practice of Jewish linguistic distinctiveness, creating new language varieties like Jewish English, Jewish Swedish, and Jewish Mexican Spanish. This chapter describes the history of Jewish migrations through the lens of language, adding to our understanding of the role of migration and language contact in language ecology.


Jewish languages Jew Language contact Diglossia 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Contemporary Jewish StudiesHebrew Union CollegeLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Bar-Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael

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