Sacred Texts and Standardization:
The Example of Judeo-Italian

Jewish prayerbooks for women and translations of the Bible into Judeo-Italian are the earliest texts that exist in Judeo-Italian. They are written in a relatively uniform variety of Judeo-Italian that is often called the koine by scholars of the language. When we consider the koine, the written Judeo-Italian of the Renaissance, we do find that there are some differences, but the differences are minimal when compared with the spoken languages as we know them today.  In addition to being a language used for translations and prayerbooks, the koine was used for poetry—frequently elaborate puns designed to mean something in Hebrew and something else in Italian when read aloud. A language that has been deliberately created is not very likely to have regional variations.

The study of Jewish languages may contribute a great deal to our knowledge of the history and sociology of language standardization. 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. It may have taken place before the language had a name and before there was consciousness that it existed.

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 white dialects of New York and Detroit are to each other. When African Americans adopt the local white pronunciations, their New York and Detroit accents sound strikingly different from each other.

We find a parallel phenomenon in Judeo-Italian. The spoken Judeo-Italian of Mantova or Ferrara, to the extent that it survives, is certainly different from the Judeo-Italian of Rome or Florence, but the differences are small. The local dialects of northern and central Italy, on the other hand, are not mutually intelligible, or are only marginally so.

Nevertheless, the koine has a life of its own. Standard languages also evolve.  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, nevertheless has a life of its own, continually renewing itself "continuamente rinovantesi" (p. 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.

Nevertheless, the evolution of language, inevitable though it may be, is itself an obstacle to communication. The Tower of Babel story in Genesis (11:1-9) is evidence that people have always feared linguistic change. Societies everywhere have prescriptive rules to slow or prevent the development of barriers of unintelligibilty caused by natural linguistic evolution. Any descriptive grammar is incomplete if it fails to note the prescriptive rules honored, if not always observed, by the speakers of the language.

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.

Italy was not a unified country during the Renaissance. As for 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).

The impulse to standardize shown by the existence of the koine did not mean the adoption of the standard language of Italy. The Jewish koine included non-standard features, among them the loss of gender distinctions in the plural, where a single definite article, li, existed instead of standard masculine i and feminine le; the absence of the standard Italian cluster -nd-, giving us quanno rather than standard quando (when); and the cluster pl- where standard Italian has p+yod, as in the form plu where standard Italian has più.

The first two features are found in 20th-century Judeo-Italian. Can it be that the reason Italian Jews in the 20th century said quanno instead of quando and li donni instead of le donne meaning “the women” because they continued to use these forms in their prayers and in their study of the Bible? 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.

We do know, however, that there were times when even the Hebrew alphabet was not chosen. The inscriptions on tombstones dating from the Roman Empire could be in any alphabet, with Greek being the most common. In the early 20th century, when plays and poems in the everyday language of the Jews were being composed, they were written in the Latin alphabet. Today, in the age of email, Yiddish messages are being written in the Latin alphabet.

One variable we must consider is the fact that the prayerbooks were written for the use of women. Adjectives and nouns referring to the person praying were in the feminine gender. Were women less likely to know standard Tuscan than men? Did they live in a more Jewish environment? Among Hasidic Jews today, it is women who are more likely to speak better English and function in the outside world (see Jochnowitz 1968).

The existence of prayerbooks in Judeo-Italian for women but not for men suggests that women were less likely to know Hebrew than men were, which fits in with our knowledge of both religious communities and the world before the 19th century. We have no knowledge of how many Jewish women could read at all and how their numbers compared with women in the general population.

An interesting aspect of the Judeo-Italian koine is that it contains very few words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin.  Today, we can debate whether Judeo-Italian still exists. On the one hand, the grammatical peculiarities are gone.  Nobody says li donni any more. Many Italian Jews don’t even recognize the fact that such a construction once existed. On the other hand, words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin still exist. Sometimes they are needed to refer to religious rituals, such as minkha for the afternoon prayers. In at least one case, a word needed to refer to a religious custom comes from Yiddish: the word is ortsai, from Yiddish yortsayt, meaning “anniversary of a death.” Other words survive, albeit marginally, to refer to unpleasant phenomena. Thus, just as American Jews who don’t speak Yiddish may still use the word ganef meaning “thief,” so may Italian Jews call a male thief un ganavve, a female thief una ganavessa, and may say ganavviare meaning “to steal.”

The standardization of Judeo-Italian has meant the preservation of grammatical forms and phonological features not found in standard Italian. Our old texts, however, tell us nothing at all about the local pronunciation of Hebrew. Words of Hebrew origin, the few that we find, are spelled the way they always were.  We don’t know how old the Italian practice of pronouncing the word for “Sabbath” as shabad or shabadde is—a pronunciation different from both Israeli shabat and Ashkenazic Hebrew shabes. Similarly, we don’t know the age of the Judeo-Provençal sabaf. The only standardization of Hebrew pronunciation that seems to have taken place is taking place today, where local variants are being replaced by Israeli pronunciation.

The pronunciation of merged Hebrew in Judeo-Provençal is unique. The letters samekh, sin, and sav are all [f]. Thus, 'horse' is [fuf] or [fyf]. shin is [s]. A new sh sound entered  the language from yud. Thus, we have the word for 'wine' spelled chayin or chain in the Latin alphabet. Intervocalic and final dalet are often [z]. The Passover song has been recorded as both had gadya and haz gadya. "Talmud" is [talmuz]. The existence of all these f sounds suggests an earlier θ, resulting from a merger of thav—which is what we find in Judeo-Greek and Judeo-Arabic and which is preserved in English words like Sabbath—with the older s sounds.

The medieval and renaissance standardization of Judeo-Italian, in all likelihood, led to the preservation of unique grammatical and phonological features into the 20th century, when they could be recorded and preserved. The current standardization of Hebrew pronunciation is leading to the eradication of variant forms that have existed for centuries or millennia. We think of standardization as a force leading to uniformity. In the case of Judeo-Italian, the internal uniformity led to the preservation of many non-standard features that otherwise would have vanished without leaving a trace.


Colorni, Vittore.  1970.  "La parlata degli ebrei mantovani," Rassegna Mensile di Israel (Scritti in memoria di A. Milano) pp. 1109-164.

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

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

Jochnowitz, George.  1968.  "Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture Among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children."  American Speech 43.3, 188-200.  Reprinted in Never Say Die: A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters, ed. Joshua A. Fishman.  The Hague: Mouton, 1981, pp. 721-737.

---.  1981.  "... Who Made Me a Woman."  Commentary 71.4 (April), 63-64.

Saboly, N.  1824 (new ed.)  Noué Juzioou (Jewish carols). Avignon.

Silberstein, Susan Milner.  1973.  The Provencal Esther Poem Written in Hebrew Characters
c. 1327 by Crescas de Caylar
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This paper was read at the Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies
Jerusalem, August 2-6, 2009