Vernacular Voices:
Language and Identity in Medieval French Communities

by Kirsten Fudeman
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. xi, 254 pp.

What is the vernacular examined in Vernacular Voices? Is it Old or Middle French? Is it Judeo-French? Are there examples of both? Is there indeed a Judeo-French language or dialect? Kirsten Fudeman never tells us. “In this volume I use the term ‘Hebraico-French’ to refer to Old and Middle French texts written in Hebrew letters” (5). Did French Jews have a name for the language of these texts? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaqi) glossed Hebrew words into what he called la`az. Did he mean French or Judeo-French? Rashi’s dates are 1040-1105, but Fudeman tells us that “the earliest Jewish glosses in Old French originated sometime before Rashi, although we do not know precisely when” (103). Did Rashi think that there was a distinctive Jewish way of speaking French? He may have, but he never wrote anything to indicate that this was the case.

Jewish languages and identity can be touchy subjects, and Fudeman cites Menachem Banitt (1963) at some length, pointing out the following: “Banitt, whose published remarks suggest that he looked on Yiddish with scorn, argued that the Jews’ medieval French was pure and downplayed ways in which it differed from that of non-Jews” (29). She relates Banitt’s views on Yiddish with those of Friedrich Engels, who thought Yiddish was simply bad German and said “What a German!” He went on to talk of “peddler Jews, their lice and their dirt” (31). Fudeman agrees that “Banitt was right to reject the idea of a monolithic Jewish French dialect that spanned regions and centuries” (58), but then no scholar of Jewish languages has ever suggested that these languages have no regional variation and don’t change with time. She then recognizes that in effect there may well have been a Judeo-French: “To say that the Jews spoke the same language as their non-Jewish neighbors is not to say that they spoke it in an identical way” (58).

When did speakers of Jewish languages or dialects become aware that their speech differed from the speech of their neighbors? We don’t know. We do know that in 842 C.E., speakers of Old French knew that they were not speaking Latin, since the Oaths of Strasbourg, the first document in a Romance language, were administered at that time. The same oaths were also taken at that time in a dialect of Old High German. This simultaneous occurrence showed that Old French and Old German were both acknowledged as languages. Were all dialects considered equal? The first evidence that one dialect was respected more than the others took place in 1635, when Académie française, which standardized the French language, was established by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII.

In 1596, two centuries after the final expulsion of Jews from France that had taken place in 1394, a visitor from Switzerland to Avignon named Thomas Platter described what he felt was a Jewish dialect. Avignon, where the Popes lived from 1305 to 1378. Avignon and the surrounding area of the Comtat Venaissin were part of the Papal States until the French Revolution, and Jews there had not been affected by the expulsions from France. Fudeman informs us that Platter wrote, “A blind rabbi preaches there to women, in bad Hebrew, for the dialect of the Jews of Avignon is mixed with Languedocean words.” She goes on to explain that this dialect “was not Hebrew at all but rather Shuadit (Judeo-Occitan), a Romance language with many Hebrew loanwords” (43). If Shuadit, also known as Judeo-Provençal, was not identified until 1596, can it be that Judeo-French had not yet developed before the expulsion of Jews from France? However, we do know that a prayerbook for women in Provençal written in the Hebrew alphabet existed before the Soncino family set up its Hebrew printing press in 1483. Was this prayerbook—which is found in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, Cecil Roth Manuscript 32—written in Shuadit or in Provençal? We know it includes the word goya, meaning “gentile woman” (Jochnowitz 1981). Does it matter? Were the documents described by Fudeman written in Judeo-French? She informs us, “Medieval Jewish texts in French were written for and by Jews in Hebrew letters, and they contain distinctive lexical items, most of them from Hebrew” (35). That information tells us what we need to know about the language of the texts, whether or not French Jews or French Christians at the time they were written thought of them as examples of a Jewish language.

Phonological information provided by some of the Hebraico-French texts supports evidence that the sound [ʃ] did not exist in Old French. The letter ש is used for the sound [s]. Thus, the French word son (his, her) is written שוֹן, page 116. The French spelling ch at the time was probably pronounced [tʃ] or [ts]. In Hebraico-French we find צי, page 117, or ק̄, pages 46-47, as we might expect. The example on page 46, however, leads us to a different issue. The word including this sound is Old French tocher, meaning to play an instrument, generally a keyboard instrument or a string instrument that is plucked. In this case, the instrument is the shofar (ram’s horn), which doesn’t seem to go with the verb tocher. Perhaps the French verb was chosen and was spelled with a ק to reflect—to echo—the spelling of the Hebrew verb תקיעה .

The French letter c before e or i was once pronounced [ts] but is now pronounced [s]. Fudeman writes that “in the thirteenth century, /ts/ simplified to /s/ in Old French, and because the Jews’ pronunciation of Hebrew letters was influenced by their pronunciation of French, tsade came to have the phonetic value /s/” (113-14). In a poem she cites, the Old French words celi (that one—modern French celui) and liçon (lesson, manual—modern French leçon) are spelled צילי and ליצוֹן respectively (116). In the very same poem, as we saw above, the French word son is spelled שוֹןֹ. Perhaps these spellings reflect an older tradition, as spelling often does. To this very day the spelling of celui and leçon reflect the [ts] sounds in the words that existed eight centuries ago. Perhaps they indicate that when the poem was written in 1279, Jews still kept the older pronunciation. Be that as it may, the poem certainly suggests that in the 13th century, the letter tsade was pronounced [ts] and the change from [ts] to [s] either had not occurred yet or had not reached the Jewish community. One certainly would not expect a letter-for-letter transliteration of Old French words.

The Hebraico-French spelling of celui is additional evidence that the letter u in French was pronounced [y] in the 13th century. The absence of a Hebrew letter for the [y] probably shows that the closest vowel was [i], and so it didn’t need to be written next to another [i].

The phonological information provided in Vernacular Voices is not conclusive. The sociological information is clearer. A chapter of the book is devoted to wedding songs, which typically have verses or stanzas alternating between Hebraico-French and Hebrew. The wedding night is described as an act of violence. For example, one song ends with words translated as “your noble strength will be of no avail, you will leave your pledge [virginity] here!” (142). Fudeman informs us that in French texts of the period, “sexual violence is romanticized” (143). Who would have guessed that this example of chivalric hooliganism had made its way into Jewish culture? Or was it all a joke?

A much more familiar aspect of medieval Jewish culture in France is illustrated by a verse translated as “Raise the bridegroom and the bride upon the throne!” Fudeman goes on to explain, “It seems from this that at song’s end, the bride and groom were place on a special chair or ‘throne’ that reflected the special, almost royal status enjoyed by bride and groom on their wedding day” (133). To this day at Jewish weddings it is a custom for the bride and groom to sit in chairs that are lifted up by guests during the wedding feast.

When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they brought their language with them to the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere. Judeo-Spanish, now usually known as Ladino, survives to this day. Jews were expelled from France in 1306. There were readmissions and subsequent expulsions. We learn from Fudeman, “In 1361 the Jews were again allowed to return to France, and while scholars believe their numbers to have been extraordinarily small, they were expelled again in 1394-1395” (148). We don’t know how long their language remained alive. Occasional words from regional varieties of Old French survive in Yiddish—for example, cholnt (Sabbath stew). An occasional given name seems to be of Old French origin—such as Beyle, from belle (beautiful). We don’t know how many texts were destroyed or lost.

The world remembers the expulsion from Spain. There seems to be no public memory whatsoever of the expulsions from France. Rashi’s commentaries on the Hebrew Bible are well known and studied today, but few people are aware that he was part of a living Jewish community in France. Now that Vernacular Voices has appeared, more texts than ever before are available in print. Perhaps our knowledge of the history, language, and culture of French Jewry will be better known.

The texts described by Fudeman are a treasure. Most of them have never before appeared in print. They will provide information for future researchers concerning the phonology of Old French as spoken by both Jews and Christians, the sounds of the Hebrew language in France, the variety of different regional and cultural dialects, the dating of various linguistic changes, and the cultures of the centuries when they were written.


Banitt, Menachem. Une langue fantôme: Le judéo-français. Revue de Linguistique Romane. 1963;27:245–94.

Jochnowitz, George. 1981. “… Who Made Me a Woman.” Commentary 71 No. 4 (April), 63-64.

A different version of this review appeared in Journal of Jewish Languages
Volume 1, Issue 1, 2013