In 2,000 years, there have been at least thirty Jewish languages, each reflecting unique histories of migration and resilience. However, Jewish linguistic diversity was nearly destroyed by violence in the 20th century, as ancient communities across Europe, Africa, and Asia were displaced. Today, with the exception of Hebrew and certain varieties of Yiddish, Jewish languages are spoken by aging populations, with few public resources to keep these languages alive. In other words, Jewish linguistic diversity—and all the history it represents—is critically endangered, with little time to safeguard it for the next generation. If not now, when?
However, endangered languages need not be endangered forever. As the 19th-century revival of Hebrew teaches us, at-risk and even dormant languages can be saved by focused, community-led efforts. Wikitongues has partnered with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to produce freely-available materials in the languages of the Jewish diaspora. Working with the last living speakers and their descendants, we will produce rigorous, freely available materials that support revitalization programs: up to eight hours of annotated oral history videos and a 3,000-word online dictionary for every endangered Jewish language.
To mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19, we will minimize travel by staggering our work in phases, starting locally in New York City and the surrounding Northeast, where Wikitongues is based and speakers of up to a third of all Jewish languages can be found. Over a twelve-month period, we will rigorously document at least five Jewish languages. Concurrently, we’ll leverage social media to engage young Jewish people around the world, organizing free webinars in the fundamentals of language documentation. This will make it possible for them to contribute remotely, widening the potential scope of this first phase.
After this initial phase, as vaccines are made available, we will expand within the regional reach of our staffers in the U.S. Northeast, Canada, and Northern Europe: Montreal, which is home to languages spoken by North Africa’s historic Jewish communities, and pockets of Europe where the Karaim, Krymchak, and Judeo-Italian languages are spoken. In a third phase, we will expand to Israel, where elders who speak almost every Jewish language are found, especially the languages of Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. Over the course of this project, we anticipate building capacity and resources to directly support young Jewish people seeking to learn and revitalize their ancestral languages.
If you speak a Jewish language or know someone who does, or you would like to volunteer your time as a field linguist, please Back this project
These videos were recorded by volunteers from around the world as part of our grassroots language documentation initiatives.
CC BY-NC 4.0