Help Preserve Judaeo-Arabic

| י׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (04/07/2017) | 0 Comments
University of Haifa Mother Tongue Project aimed at preserving pieces of our linguistic heritage. The phenomenon of language death is not unique to the Jewish people. The loss of languages and cultures is a global concern, and many national and international projects worldwide are dedicated to addressing it. However, regarding Jewish languages, most of whose speakers are concentrated in Israel, very little has been done. Therefore it is our duty as Jews and Israelis to take the initiative and act immediately to preserve these dialects. Sadly, some Jewish languages have already been lost after the last of their speakers passed away. This is why we need to emphasize yet again the importance of immediate and speedy action to document the remaining Jewish tongues.  

Background

Living for centuries among the nations of the world, the Jews became a multilingual people. Hebrew served as their language of religion, prayer and learning, while the local vernaculars – Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. – served as their spoken languages. It was the fascinating encounter between Hebrew and the local vernaculars that gave rise to the Jewish languages. These tongues, which carry with them invaluable cultural assets – of poetry, prose, halacha u-minhag, folklore, etc. –  and which were passed orally from one generation to the next, have unique characteristics in terms of their grammar, vocabulary, semantics and syntax, as well as their cultural content. The Jewish languages, dozens in number, belong to various language families: Semitic, Hellenic, Romance, Germanic, etc., and often preserve unique and ancient features of the local tongues. Socially isolated, the Jews preserved linguistic trends and characteristics that vanished from the speech of the general population. German Jews, for example, preserved central German dialects even after migrating to far regions of eastern Europe; similarly, Jewish Spanish (Ladino) preserves an ancient Catalan dialect which continued to be spoken in Turkey, the Balkans, Morocco, and every other country to which its Jewish speakers migrated. The same is true for the Arabic of the Jews of Baghdad, which is clearly distinct from the dialects spoken by the city’s Muslim and Christian residents. All signs indicate that the Jewish dialect echoes the language spoken in the city during the Middle Ages, while the languages of the Muslims and Christians changed under the influence of other dialects. Following various historical developments and catastrophes of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century (pogroms, the Holocaust, migrations, Zionism and immigration to the Land of Israel), the Jewish languages declined and many of them ceased to be spoken, so that today these languages face a very real danger of extinction. It should be noted that Israel is home to a large and unique concentration of speakers of these languages; hence, the main goal of the project proposed here is to record and preserve as much as possible before these speakers pass away and the languages and their cultures are lost forever. The value of these languages cannot be overstated, for, as noted, they contain unique linguistic and cultural features of great importance, which were passed down orally and were never recorded in writing. These spiritual treasures are still alive here in Israel, and we must save and preserve them before the tide of history sweeps them away.  

Endangered languages

The phenomenon of language death is not unique to the Jewish people. The loss of languages and cultures is a global concern, and many national and international projects worldwide are dedicated to addressing it. However, regarding Jewish languages, most of whose speakers are concentrated in Israel, very little has been done. Therefore it is our duty as Jews and Israelis to take the initiative and act immediately to preserve these dialects. Sadly, some Jewish languages have already been lost after the last of their speakers passed away. This is why I emphasize yet again the importance of immediate and speedy action to document the remaining Jewish tongues.  

The Jewish languages

Below is a list of critically endangered Jewish languages that must be recorded with great urgency in order to preserve them. It should be borne in mind, however, that each of the languages on the list represents a number of different regional dialects   Hence, in planning the recordings, the unique characteristics of each country of origin must be taken into consideration, in order to best take advantage of the available speakers from each community. The languages are:
  1. Judeo-Arabic, with its various dialects: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
  2. Judeo-Persian: Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan (Bukhara), Tajikistan and the eastern Caucasus.
  3. Judeo-Aramaic: Kurdistan (western Iraq, western Iran and southern Turkey).
  4. Judeo-Georgian.
  5. Yiddish (Non-Haredi).
  6. Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).
 

The importance of the project

The recording and preservation of the Jewish languages is of immense importance, both from the academic perspective and from the public, social and individual perspectives. From the academic point of view, it is a supremely important enterprise of documenting ancient languages and dialects from across the world. It will greatly enrich the study of world languages, past and present, and will thus have considerable impact on linguistic research in Israel and worldwide. Obviously, the study of Hebrew in particular will benefit, for the Jewish tongues often contain a significant Hebrew component, which bears the clear imprint of ancient traditions, while also exhibiting linguistic creativity and change arising from the centuries-long contact with the local languages. Other fields of study, such as literature, culture, anthropology, folklore, and others, will benefit as well from this rare treasure that has never been systematically recorded. As for the public, social and individual level, , Israel’s melting-pot policy and other factors have caused many of its citizens to become estranged from the ancient traditions of their communities of origin. Documenting and preserving these traditions can contribute greatly to reestablishing familiarity and affinity with these Jewish cultures, which nurtured the founding fathers and first citizens of the state. It will also contribute to consolidating and strengthening the identity of Israelis whose communities of origin have barely been studied and do not have a dominant presence in Israeli society.  

The goals of the project

The project has immediate and urgent goals, as well as long-term goals. The first and most urgent goal is the establishment of a broad, comprehensive and efficient apparatus for recording speakers of the Jewish languages from across the state of Israel. The importance of this goal cannot be understated, because time is working against us and rich languages and cultures are rapidly vanishing as the speakers pass away. Another goal, which emanates from the first, is to record and preserve the oral cultural tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. Hence, in the process of recording, emphasis will be placed on documenting materials of cultural importance such as poems, ballads and laments, midrashim, folktales and legends, personal and communal histories, etc. The center will also undertake to find and collect other relevant recordings and materials that are in the hands of the public for the purpose of copying and preserving them. As stated, these languages are rapidly disappearing and there is a real concern that in the near future they will no longer be understood. Hence, the center will undertake to transcribe and translate the collected materials, so as to render the recordings accessible and comprehensible. Donations for the project and the website are more than welcome and every penny will be used to record and preserve the endangered Jewish languages. The donation can be accompanied by a dedication.
 

Videotape or record your family members – it’s easy and extremely important.

[from the project’s website] By following the three-step instructions below, you can contribute to the important project of preserving the Jewish languages. If you find steps 2 and 3 technically daunting – don’t worry, we will do them for you (see details below, under “alternative method”). The important part is step 1 – making the recording! Step 1 – documentation – making the video or audio recording You can use the camera in your phone or any other electronic recording device. Don’t worry about low video quality – that is not crucial for the purpose of this project. We also recommend taking a look at the “tips” below. Step 2 – publishing – uploading the video/audio to YouTube At this stage we ask you to upload your video to YouTube. Uploading is easy and requires no more than creating a free Google account. Step 3 – preservation – uploading the YouTube video to this website First, create an account on this website. Once you have an account and are logged in, go to the add a recording page and fill in the details as you know them. You can also add a dedication to your recording (commemorating or honoring relatives, friends or communities dear to you). That’s it! The rest is up to us – we will check the details you entered, contact you if any questions arise, and make the recording available on this website. The recording and the accompanying information will be displayed on a separate page with a unique address you can share with family and friends. Alternative method: As mentioned, those who find steps 2 and 3 difficult may send the recording to us at leshonhabayit@gmail.com, along with the details listed in the  make a recording page, and we will handle the rest of the process. Important: When sending in a recording, do not forget to provide your name and phone number so we can contact you with questions if needed. Tips for making a good recording
  • Choose a quiet place with a minimum of background noise (television set, electrical appliances, traffic, people talking, etc).
  • Before starting, make sure the battery on your device is fully charged.
  • Record only one or two speakers at a time.
  • If you are using your phone, make sure to place it close to the speaker/s (not more than 2 meters away). This gives the best audio quality.
  • People are different – some are naturally talkative and like to speak and share, whereas others are more reserved. You can help by suggesting topics for conversation and by asking questions (for ideas, see topics of conversation).
  • We especially recommend explaining the purpose of the recording and its importance and necessity, and the significant contribution they are making both as individuals and as representatives of their family and community.
  • Before starting the full recording, it is recommended to make a short trial recording to make sure everything is working properly.
The topics of conversation listed above are meant to enrich the recordings and optimize the documentation, but let us stress that they are merely suggestions. If you cannot address them all – don’t worry. Your recording is still invaluable. Any documentation is helpful! Why is it so important to document the Jewish languages? The languages spoken by the Jewish communities were rich and varied; they are a treasure trove of unique forms and of ancient traditions and culture. These languages were handed down from generation to generation for centuries, and today it is our turn to pass them on – but we are no longer fluent in these languages. Sadly, the generation of our parents and grandparents is slowly passing away, and their treasures are vanishing with them. Some are no longer with us, but some are still here, and it is our duty to document and preserve their invaluable knowledge before it is irretrievably lost. This is our opportunity to seize a historic moment that will never return! The action required is simple (but urgent) and any one of us can undertake it at home, in his or her free time. All that is required is to record and/or film our loved ones speaking in their native tongues. The required devices are readily available, and possible topics of conversation are many (see above). You can ask the questions in Hebrew (or some other language), as long as the speaker answers in the language of his community. Together we can record these unique languages before it’s too late and the window of opportunity closes forever. Making a recording is a fascinating family project that has many advantages and benefits on the individual, family and inter-generational levels. We must record these languages before it’s too late! If you require help at any stage of making the recording, we will be more than happy to assist – contact us.

Category: Judaeo-Arabic, Personal History

Leave a Reply