The Absence of Northern Features in the Judeo-Italian of Lombardy and Emilia

There are several puzzling questions about the dialects of Jews and non-Jews in northern Italy. To begin with, why were the dialects of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, and Piedmont ever considered Italian in the first place?  These dialects are sometimes called Gallo-Italian because the population of the area — not including Liguria — was partly Gaulish before it was conquered by the Roman Empire. Gallo-Italian dialects and standard Italian, which is based on the dialects of Tuscany, are not mutually intelligible. There are sounds in Gallo-Italian that do not occur in Italian, among them the front-rounded vowels [ö] and [ü]. Front rounded vowels also occur in French and Provençal, which are sometimes called Gallo-Romance languages. The question of whether these vowels existed in Gaulish has been raised, but by and large, Romance linguists believe that that they occurred after Gaulish had disappeared, with “after” left undefined (see e.g. Devoto and Giacomelli 1972:55).

In addition to phonological differences, there are grammatical innovations that took place in northern Italy that did not occur anywhere else in the Romance-speaking world.  In particular, there is the existence of pronominal iteration, or subject clitics, extra words that reinforce the subject pronouns. Let us compare  a bit of the conjugation of the verb passare ‘to pass’ in Standard Italian, Mantuan, and Judeo-Mantuan (see Colorni 1970:125-126):

English Italian Mantuan Judeo Mantuan
I pass io passo mi a pasi mi pasi
you pass tu passi ti at pasi ti páset
he passes lui passa lü al pasa lu pasa
she passes lei passa

lé la pasa

lé pasa

Colorni gives us examples of differences between Judeo-Mantuan and Mantuan dialects covering articles, prepositions, pronouns, and the complete verbal system.  His description of Judeo-Mantuan is a treasure. We see that Judeo-Mantuan is clearly different from both the Gallo-Italian dialect of Mantua and the central Italian dialects that gave us standard Italian. In general, Judeo-Mantuan falls somewhere between northern and central Italian, which is also true for Jewish dialects in the rest of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. The situation in Piedmont is different. Judeo-Piedmontese is closer to Piedmontese than its neighboring Jewish dialects are to their respective surrounding dialects.

The subject clitics, in effect, the repetition of the subject pronouns, are a major grammatical innovation that sets Gallo-Italian apart from other Romance languages. Gallo-Italian is as different from Italian as Provençal is from French or Catalan is from Spanish. The Jewish dialects that lack this feature and other northern features like front-rounded vowels are closer to the Judeo-Italian of central Italy than non-Jewish northern dialects are to standard Italian.        

Minority languages have dialects just as majority languages do. Frequently, however, the minority language shows less dialectal variation than the coterritorial language.  We see this in African-American Vernacular English, or Black English. The Black English spoken in New York is significantly closer to the variety used in Detroit than the dialects used by the whites of New York and Detroit are to each other. When African Americans adopt the pronunciations of the local white populations, their New York and Detroit accents sound strikingly different from each other.

Similarly, the variety of Western Yiddish spoken in Switzerland agrees with other dialects of Western Yiddish and differs from Swiss German in having /i/ and /k/, as Yiddish does, instead of /y/ and /x/, as in Swiss German, e.g., iber and  kind rather than Swiss German über and xind. (Fleischer 2005:7).

We find a parallel phenomenon in Judeo-Italian. The spoken Judeo-Italian of Mantua or Ferrara, to the extent that it survives, is certainly different from the Judeo-Italian of Rome or Florence, but the differences are relatively small.  Gallo-Italian and central Italian, on the other hand, are not mutually intelligible, or are only marginally so. An interesting example of the unity of Judeo-Italian is one grammatical feature found in all Judeo-Italian dialects and in very few Italian dialects: the merger of gender in the plural.  The plural definite article is typically li in Judeo-Italian, although it is i in Judeo-Mantuan. Li for both the masculine and feminine plural article is found only in scattered communities in Sicily and southern Italy today (see Jochnowitz 1972:425).

This is not to say that there countless local differences, even within the Judeo-Italian of a single region. The Hebrew noun hen ‘grace’ becomes an adjective when the Italian suffix –oso (masculine) –osa is added. Nevertheless, within the Emilia-Romagna area, we find both canosa and hanoza (Mayer Modena 2004b:318). Other such examples are cited in the same article.

But by and large Judeo-Italian dialects are more uniform than Italian dialects.  One possible explanation for the relative uniformity of Jewish dialects is the fact that there was a more or less uniform written language during the Renaissance (see Freedman 1972). This language is often called the koine and was used for prayerbooks for women, for biblical translations, and occasionally for poetry — frequently designed to mean something in both Hebrew and Italian. In the case of the koine, the differences are even smaller than among the spoken languages.

The koine is something of an artificial creation, and a language that has been deliberately created is not very likely to have regional variations.  Nevertheless, the koine had a life of its own. Luisa Cuomo points out that the language used in translations, which follows the Hebrew text very closely and exhibits a syntax not found in any variety of spoken Italian or Judeo-Italian, evolves just as spoken languages do, continually renewing itself "continuamente rinovantesi" (Cuomo 1988:109).

Even an artificial language changes. Linguistic change is inherent in the fact that language is learned, that we are not born speaking any particular language. Furthermore, linguistic development is a prerequisite for human existence. We human beings have no fangs, claws or armor. We cannot run very fast. We have survived because it is natural for us to be unnatural — to invent and use tools, to develop specialized skills and consequently to divide labor, to do things that have not been done before and to communicate these innovations to our contemporaries and our posterity. Human language must be designed to produce sentences that have never been said before, which can happen not only because grammatical rules are recursive, but because languages have processes to augment the lexicon and the grammar. Any descriptive grammar is incomplete if it fails to note the prescriptive rules honored, if not always observed, by the speakers of the language.

Language standardization is widespread and quite old. The Indian grammarian Panini, who lived in about 400 B.C.E., gave us 3,995 rules concerning the Sanskrit language. Standardization apparently took place in Judeo-Italian as well. The relative uniformity of the Judeo-Italian koine is evidence that standardization existed even in a minority community with no political structure. It reflects the universality of prescriptivism.

Since Italy was not a unified country during the Renaissance, why should Jews in the Gallo-Romance area have adopted translations into a central Italian dialect as their own? Did they feel there was such a thing as Judeo-Italian? We don't even know whether it had a name, although there are prayerbooks with names like Tefillot latini and Tefilot vulgar. We have no attestation for the spoken variety, which some have argued did not yet exist (see Freedman, 1972; Colorni, 1970).

Did the anonymous translators of the Hebrew prayerbooks choose to create a Jewish standard? Did they recognize a pre-existing Judeo-Italian and try to maintain the tradition? Did they try to write in the variety of Italian that would be easiest for a Jewish reader to comprehend? These are important questions.  Before the 16th century, Italian Jews were relatively assimilated according to the practices of the time. The 14th and 15th centuries are described in the Encyclopedia Judaica as "a period of unprecedented cultural activity, and the Jewish scholars, poets, physicians, and codifiers, who at the same time cultivated secular disciplines and languages, are significant more for their number than for individual excellence" (EJ 9, 1122). Jewish texts could have been written in the language of Dante — in the Hebrew alphabet, of course. Was a conscious decision made not to write in Tuscan Italian that was accepted as the lingua franca of the Italian Peninsula? What would have been easier for Italian Jews to do? We don't know.

In the early 20th century, the standardization did not exist. Mayer Modena reprints and discusses the poem L’Amilchamà  ‘the war’ by Annibale Gallico (2004a). The dialect of the poem is essentially the same as the one described by Colorni, and is not the same as the works written in Judeo-Roman or Judeo-Florentine during the same period. All of these 20th-century creations, by the way, are written in the Latin alphabet.

It is entirely possible that the standardization represented by the koine played no role whatsoever in the development of Jewish dialects in the Gallo-Italian areas that were lacking in northern features. Jewish isolation no doubt was a factor.  The ghetto of Venice, the first in Europe, was established in 1516; the ghetto regulations in Rome ended in 1870, the last city in Europe to have them until ghettoization was reintroduced by the Nazis. Before and after those dates, Jews tended to live in their own neighborhoods and associate with each other.  We would expect a difference to exist between Jewish and non-Jewish dialects.

In northern Italy, there is an additional factor: Jews arrived relatively late. According to Cecil Roth, “Venice, for example, the great trading city, showed an almost spiteful spirit of antagonism. Not content with admitting no Jewish settlers, in 945 she forbade vessels sailing in Oriental waters to take Jews or any other foreign merchants aboard, or even to transport their wares from port to port” (Roth 1946: 67). Approximately two centuries later, when Benjamin of Tudela visited Genoa in 1160, he found only two Jews in the city (Roth, 74). Jews began to move to northern Italy from the south in the last quarter of the 13th century. They were joined by immigrants from Germany who fled persecution (Roth, 116-17).

These immigrants, who were probably speakers of Yiddish, introduced the word orsai ‘yortsayt’ into Judeo-Italian. Otherwise, they left little trace of their language in Judeo-Italian. As for the immigrants from other parts of Italy, their language remained relatively untouched by the speech of their neighbors from the 13th century until the dialects faded out 600 or 700 years later. Perhaps the front rounded vowels and subject clitics that characterize Gallo-Italian dialects had not yet developed when Jews started moving into the area. We know a lot about the history of standard Italian and about the nature of the various dialects of Italy, but much less is known about the history of the dialects. It may be that the introduction of subject clitics and front rounded vowels took place after the Jews were forced into ghettos. However, I suspect the changes antedate the ghettos.

Why were there so few Jews in northern Italy before  the last quarter of the 13th century? There seem to be two major villains. One was St. Ambrose of Milan, whose preaching inspired the conversion of St. Augustine and who died in 397. Ambrose defied the laws of the Roman Empire that prohibited the burning of synagogues. In 388, he forced Emperor Theodosius I to give way on this issue (Baron 1952, II:189). The second villain was Perctarit, the first Catholic ruler of the Langobards, who forced the Jews in his kingdom to adopt Christianity in the year 661. “Those who refused were exterminated at the point of the sword” (Baron III:32-33).

Judeo-Piedmontese, spoken in northwestern Italy — to the extent that it is still spoken at all — is rather different from other Judeo-Italian dialects, which leads me to believe that Judeo-Piedmontese reflects signs of language shift from Judeo-Provençal. Jews were expelled from northern France at various times during the 14th century. The final expulsion took place in 1391. They were expelled from Provence, which was incorporated into France until 1481, in 1498, but the expulsion order was not completely enforced until 1501.

Except for a few words or distinctions shared by all Judeo-Italian dialects, the variety of Judeo-Italian spoken in the part of Italy bordering on France, namely Piedmont, is unique among Judeo-Italian dialects in several ways. Perhaps these differences are the result of language shift from Judeo-Provençal rather than the result of linguistic evolution. Piedmont was the destination of many of the Jews who were expelled from southern France.

In Piedmont, the Judeo-Italian dialects agree with the surrounding dialects, possessing both front rounded vowels and subject clitics. Front rounded vowels occur in words of both Hebrew and Italian derivation. Thus, the Judeo-Piedmontese analog of the Yiddish khazeray is pronounced [hazirüd].

Although Provençal has front rounded vowels, it does not have subject clitics.  Judeo-Piedmontese could not possibly have acquired this grammatical feature from Jews who fled there in 1501. However, since the refugees could speak neither Piedmontese, Judeo-Piedmontese, nor Italian, they were ready to learn the local form of speech.  Their own Judeo-Provençal could not help them. We don’t know how many Piedmontese Jews came from other parts of Italy and how many came from southern France.  A mixed population could easily lead to language shift based on the language of the surrounding communities.

We must add, however, that the Judeo-Piedmontese dialects never quite corresponded to the dialect geography of Piedmontese. Even if a language shift took place in the 16th century, there was enough isolation of Jewish communities and enough internal migration within Piedmont to create the same sort of gap between Judeo-Piedmontese and Piedmontese that we find in other parts of Italy.

There is a bit of lexical evidence to link Judeo-Provençal with Judeo-Piedmontese.  My informant Armand Lunel, whom I interviewed in 1968, said his parents used to say “Daber davar devant lou nar” (‘Say nothing in front of the boy’) when they didn’t want him to understand. In Judeo-Piedmontese, dabra davar means ‘don’t speak’ according to Bachi (1929:31).

We know that Jewish languages include Hebrew words. We know that they differ somewhat from the surrounding dialects. But it is not at all clear why the Judeo-Italian of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna should be so very different from the surrounding dialects.


Bachi, R. 1929.  “Saggio sul gergo di origine ebraica in uso presso gli ebrei torinesi verso la fine del sec. XIX.”  Rassegna mensile di Israel 4, no. 2, 21-35.

Baron, Salo W. 1952 (2nd edition). A Social and Religious History of the Jews.  New York and London: Columbia University Press, and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Colorni, Vittore.  1970.  "La parlata degli ebrei mantovani," Rassegna Mensile di Israel 36, Nos. 7-9: 109-181 (=Scritti in memoria di A. Milano) pp. 109-164.

Cuomo, Luisa.  1988. Una traduzione giudeo-romanesca del libro di Giona.  Beihefte zur Zeitschrifte für romanische Philologie, Band 215.  Tübingen, Max Niemayer Verlag.

Devoto, Giacomo and Gavriella Giacomelli. 1972.  I dialetti delle regioni d’Italia. Florence: Sansoni.

Fleischer, Jürg. 2005.  Westjiddisch in der Schweiz un Südwestdeutschland. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Freedman, A.  1972. Italian Texts in Hebrew Characters: Problems of Interpretation.  Wiesbaden.

Jochnowitz, George. 1972. “Forme meridionali nei dialetti degli ebrei dell-Italia centrale.” La Rassegna mensile di Israel 424-29.  Translated from and antedating “Formes mėridionales dans les dialectes des juifs de l’Italie centrale.”  Actes du XIIIè Congrès internationale de linguistique romane. Quebec 1976, 527-42.

Mayer Modena, Maria Luisa.  2004a. “Novant’anni fa: gli ebrei Manovani fra guerra e pace nella poesia di Annibale Gallico,” Una manna buona manna buona Mantova, Man Tov le-Man Tovah: Studi in onore di Vittore Colorni per il suo 92 compleanno, a cura di Mauro Perani. Mantova: Olschki, 609-628.

--- 2004b.   “L’interferenza linguistica nel giudeo-italiano di area emiliano-romagnola.” L’interculturalità dell ebraismo, a cura di Mauro Perani.  Ravenna: Longo, 315-323.

Roth, Cecil.  1946.  The History of the Jews in Italy. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America.