Languages of the Jewish People


So, before this video I made a video giving
some background on the ancient history of the middle east, but to briefly recap: Sumerian,
Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Aramaic. Good? OK, so last we left off, the land of Israel
had just been conquered by the Neo-Babylonian empire, and there was a really large community
of Jewish people who had been exiled from Israel and were living all across the empire,
particularly in the city of Babylon. Depending on what you are or aren’t willing to believe
as a valid source of history, we may or may not know very much about the Jewish people
before this point, which is why I’m starting the video here. The Neo-Babylonian empire,
like the Neo-Assyrian empire before it, mostly spoke Aramaic, so although the Babylonian
jews continued to use their ancestral language of Hebrew for liturgical purposes and to record
theological texts like the Hebrew bible, they gradually started speaking Aramaic in every
day life, and this marks the beginning of a long trend of Jewish people picking up the
language of the land they’re living in while still holding on to Ancient Hebrew. This is
also the first time the Jews really needed to define themselves as a people. Before they
all lived in the same place as spoke the same language, but now they lived all over the
place, mixed in with plenty of non-jews, and usually spoke the same language as everyone
else, so this was a defining moment for the Jewish people, the moment when they first
had to firmly establish who is and isn’t a Jew. Because so many people spoke Aramaic
as their native language at this pivotal moment in Jewish history, Aramaic would go on to
become a sort of Jewish ancestral language alongside Hebrew.
Any way, in 539BC the Persians, under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, and sense a lot
of their new Empire incorporated former Babylonian territory that used Aramaic, they decided
to pick up Aramaic as an official language. Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return
to Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, earning him an honored place in Judaism and
making him the only non-jew to be called “messiah.” So the Jews went back to their homeland, but
when they returned they didn’t suddenly start speaking Hebrew again. They actually
continued to speak Aramaic in every day life while using Hebrew for religious or scholarly
purposes, just as they had in Babylon. In 332BC Alexander the great conquered the
entire Persian Empire and spread the greek philosophical ideas of Socrates, Plato, and
especially Aristotle over the entire region. Alexander’s empire fractured into a number
of small kingdoms after his death which became known as the “hellenistic kingdoms,” one
of which, the Seleucid empire, would stay in control of Israel, but the ideas that Alexander
the Great spread would stay in all these places, and had a lasting affect on all of the people
he conquered, including the Jews. Many jews, especially those that had migrated to the
Ptolemaic Kingdom, another hellenistic kingdom that controlled Egypt and parts of Anatolia,
sought to combine traditional Jewish theology with Greek philosophical ideas, a movement
known as Hellenistic Judaism. Linguistically, the Hellenistic jews spoke a dialect of Greek
known as Koine Greek, which was the lingua franca of most of the hellenistic kingdoms,
and they’re famous for translating the Hebrew bible into this dialect of Greek in a translation
known as the Septuagint. Because they wrote down so much, we can actually tell that the
version of Koine greek that the hellenistic Jews spoke was a little different from the
version that everyone else spoke. Not too much, just some minor differences in syntax
that would have made Greek easier for someone who’s native languages was a Semitic language,
and sometimes it wasn’t even there at all, sometimes they did use perfect standard Koine
Greek grammar, particularly if they were writing for a non-Jewish audience. It seems kind of
small and unimportant, but Jewish people adopting the language of the people they’re living
with and then modifying it in small ways to be more like Hebrew and Aramaic is going to
be another big running theme of this video. Israel eventually rebelled against the Seleucid
empire and formed its own kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty called the Hasmonean kingdom,
but only about fifty years after its independence it began to be plagued by civil war, and during
this civil war the Romans invaded and took over in 63BC. About eighty years after that
was when Christianity was founded, but that’s not what this video is about, so I’m not
going to get into it. As one might expect by now, the Jews eventually
revolted against the Romans. Three times actually. The first time was between 66 and 73AD and
although the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and although the Romans ransacked and burned
the entire city of Jerusalem and although a lot of Jews were exiled or sold into slavery,
a lot of Jews still stayed in Israel. The second time they revolted was the Kitos war
from 115-117, but it was fought mostly in the Jewish diaspora across the roman empire,
particularly in Libya. It was only after the Bar Kokhba revolt from 132-136 that the last
of the Jews in Israel were either killed, exiled or sold into slavery.
Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews are usually divided into two groups based on where
they migrated afterward: the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardi Jews. Linguistically, pretty
similar things happened to both of these communities. There had probably been a few Jews who had
migrated to some new place centuries ago, possibly as long ago as the original Babylonian
exile, and when those first immigrants got there they learned and started speaking the
language of the people they had just moved in with. But then, as more and more jews started
moving in, particularly after the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Jews in the region formed their
own, comparatively insular community, and since a lot of the Jews who were moving in
spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, the dialect these communities spoke wound up being fundamentally
the same as that of everyone else in the region but with a lot of lone words from Hebrew and
Aramaic, especially for religious ideas. As time went on, because the Jewish communities
tended to isolate themselves from non-jews a fair amount, their dialect slowly drifted
from the dialect of the rest of the region as both evolved in different directions over
the centuries. The first place this happened was the Iberian
peninsula, modern day Spain and Portugal. The Jews who moved here became known as Sephardi
Jews, and to this day a lot of Jews descended from Jewish migrants from the area still speak
a language sometimes called Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called Judezmo and sometimes called
Ladino. The language is really similar to modern-day Spanish, but you can also see how
similar it is to other romance languages of the Iberian peninsula, like Portuguese, Catalan
and Aragonese. The vast majority of Sephardi Jews were exiled from Spain during the inquisition,
so most of them are, more recently, from the lands they fled to, including Muslim areas
and Southern Europe, where their language picked up a fair amount of vocabulary from
Arabic, Turkish, Greek and various Slavic languages.
The other group, the Ashkenazi Jews, developed the language that, next to Hebrew, is probably
the most well known as a Jewish language: Yiddish. This language is descended from the
Middle High German, but it also has a fair amount of influence from old Italian, Old
French and old slavic languages, probably because a lot of the Jewish immigrants to
Germany around this time went through France, Italy and Southern Europe to get there and
had learned those languages in-between. From Germany, a lot of Ashkenazi Jews migrated
into Eastern Europe, so Yiddish became widespread among Jews in these areas too.
Now, those two languages are the most famous of the modern Jewish languages, but there
are other groups of Jews who migrated to other places, the biggest of which would be the
Mizrahi Jews, a bit of a catch-all term for Jews who have historically lived in the Middle
East and North Africa. These Jews also often spoke their own dialect, different from their
neighbors, but it was usually just barelly it’s own dialect, not different enough for
anyone to ever call it its own language like Judeo-Spannish or Yiddish. Usually these are
dialects of Arabic, like Judeo-Iraqi Arabic and Judeo-Yemeni Arabic.
Many of these jewish languages are currently dwindling into extinction. The hardest group
hit by the Holocaust was the Ashkenazi Jews: of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust,
five million spoke Yiddish, reducing the world population of Yiddish speakers from 12 million
to about seven million. Alright, I’m really worried that I won’t be able to deal with
topics involving a lot of violence in the recent past with the reverence they deserve,
so how about we move on to the next period of Jewish history-
UUUUUgh, how was I supposed to know Israel would invade the Gaza strip right after I
started working on these videos?!?!? *sigh* OK, guys, I know a lot of us have really strong
opinions about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I know I’m struggling to not just turn this
video into one big rant on the topic. But even though this might not be the best time
to ask this, I would appreciate it we could try to put our disagreements aside and appreciate
the fact that something really, really interesting has happened here linguistically. That thing
being: Hebrew is a thing again! I mean, yeah Hebrew
had been preserved by Jews this whole time and used in religious writings, but no one
had actually spoken it in every day life since the Babylonian Exile! During the Zionist movement,
as millions of Jews started migrating to Ottoman Palestine during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, the language that wound up becoming the lingua-franca of all these
new people from all over the world was Hebrew. And this wasn’t just because Hebrew was
the only language that they all had in common so of course they started using it to communicate,
they could have just as easily used Arabic, the language of the people who already lived
there, or Yiddish, the most widespread modern Jewish language, or hell it would have been
just as easy to bring back Aramaic. But no, they brought back Hebrew, and they did it
mostly because a lot of them believed that Hebrew was the best language for the Jewish
people to speak when they returned to Israel. As Hebrew became the dominant language of
this region, millions of people started growing up with it as children, creating a whole new
generation of native Hebrew speakers. So Hebrew went from having zero native speakers for
one and a half thousand years to having about five million native speakers today. That is
freaking unheard of!!! To give you some perspective, the number of times people have taken a completely
dead language with no native speakers and created a community of people of any size
made up mostly of native speakers of that language is exactly one. This is the only
time anything like this has happened ever anywhere. And yeah, modern Hebrew is really,
really different from ancient Hebrew, in fact grammatically it might actually be more similar
to Yiddish, but you know what it still counts! A lot of people today want to do similar things,
like getting everyone to speak Esperanto or Lojban or revive Proto-Indo-Euorpean, and
although those languages becoming widespread in modern times is pretty seriously unlikely,
at least in the near future, the example of Hebrew shows us that if enough people really
want to make it happen, it can be done. Language usually changes and evolves according to its
own rules and laws almost as if it’s changing completely on it’s own, but Hebrew reminds
us that language is a thing people do, and if enough of us want to, we can do it how
ever we want. Catch me latter for more linguistics videos! Oh, and one more thing, just a quick message
that in all likelihood few people will understand and no one will care about. To people who
are, like me, enthusiasts of a particular tv show about a particular group of six colorful
equines and will be attending a certain large gathering that will be held in Baltimore this
weekend, you may wish to know that I . . . will not be attending. But Fancy Pants will.

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