As far as we know, language revitalization began in the 19th century, when Jewish communities looked to their ancestral language, Hebrew, for cultural survival. And though the language had been dormant for nearly 2,000 years, it was well-preserved in literary works of Jewish religion and philosophy — so activists studied and taught their children, raising the first native speakers in a hundred generations. Today, it’s the mother tongue of five million Jewish people and a second language for millions more. However, while Hebrew is thriving, other Jewish languages are quickly fading from view.
In the centuries between Hebrew’s extinction and revival, Jewish communities wove the language into local vernaculars, creating dozens of new, uniquely Jewish languages in the process — languages like Yiddish and Ladino. These Jewish diaspora languages express the vast geography of Jewish history, as well as the rich history of Hebrew’s use in Jewish daily life. But genocides, ethnic cleansing, and forced migrations in the 19th and 20th centuries drove Jewish diaspora languages into decline. Today, many are endangered and poorly documented. If we fail to protect these languages, we will lose them forever. Now is the time to act.
Language extinction is not inevitable. People abandon mother tongues because economic exclusion, political oppression, or systematic violence prevent them from teaching their languages to their children. Conversely, when people have the freedom and the resources to keep their languages alive, they do. In other words, language revitalization is possible, and it begins with rigorous, accessible mother-tongue resources — something that most Jewish languages lack. Wikitongues is working with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the Jewish Language Project at Hebrew Union College to safeguard the potential of Jewish linguistic diversity. We’re helping the last living speakers and their descendants create oral histories and dictionaries for the next generation.
How many Jewish languages are there?
At least two dozen Jewish diaspora languages have been attested over the past 2,000 years, including Yiddish, Ladino, Haquetía, Juhuri, Bukhari, Qwara, Kayla, Judeo-Malayalam, Jewish Algerian Sign Language, Judeo-Italian, Yevanic (or Judeo-Greek), Judeo-Occitan, and the Judeo-Arabic languages. The majority of these languages are at-risk or critically endangered. With the exception of Yiddish and Ladino, they also lack resources for the next generation to study.
Want to learn more about the history of Jewish languages? Check out our event from October 17th:
How can I help?
If you or a relative speaks a Jewish language, or you’re a researcher with existing materials that you’d like to archive with us, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to support this work, please donate here. Your contribution goes to the research, outreach, and archival work necessary to safeguard Jewish languages for the next generation.
What have you done so far?
In 2021, we archived over 50 hours of recordings in Jewish languages, including at least 15 hours of Judeo-Malayalam, 12 hours of Judeo-Italian, 3 hours of various Judeo-Iranian languages, 4 hours of Ladino, and 2 hours of Western Yiddish.