From Judeo-Provençal to
Judeo-Piedmontese and
Western Yiddish

This paper is about questions rather than about answers. My first question is about “graduated equilibrium,” a term used by biologists rather than linguists, but extremely relevant to any discussion of linguistic change and language shift. Graduated equilibrium means that changes do not proceed at a steady pace but that there are alternating periods of stability, or equilibrium, and of change. Judeo-French seems to have disappeared quickly in Germany after Jews were expelled from France in a series of expulsions between 1306 and 1394. Similarly, Judeo-Greek disappeared from Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire. A variety of Jewish English was created among Modern Orthodox American Jews in an apparently short period of time in the United States in the 20th century (see Benor 1998).

On the other hand, Judezmo survived for centuries with little change in the Ottoman Empire, as did Yiddish in Eastern Europe, and various forms of Judeo-Italian in parts of Italy. In northwestern Italy, however, Judeo-Piedmontese shows more signs of change than other Judeo-Italian dialects, which leads to my second question, about whether Judeo-Piedmontese reflects signs of language shift from Judeo-Provençal.

My third question concerns the differences between Western Yiddish and Eastern Yiddish. The former has a higher percentage of words of Romance origin, which leads me to wonder whether Jews expelled from France, and especially from Provence, arrived in German-speaking areas after speakers of Eastern varieties of Yiddish had already left for Eastern Europe. These three questions are interrelated and perhaps are all aspects of the same question.

Jews were expelled from northern France at various times during the 14th century, as we have seen above. They were expelled from Provence, which was incorporated into France until 1481, in 1498, but the expulsion order was not completely enforced until 1501. Before the expulsions, we can imagine Jewish languages with a variety of dialects spoken in different parts of France. After the expulsion, however, Jews remained in a small area, the city of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, roughly coextensive with the contemporary department of Vaucluse, ruled by the Pope and therefore not part of France. Jews were found in four towns: Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon, and L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The Jewish language of these towns has been called Judeo-Provençal, Shuadit, Chuadit, Chouadit, among other names.

Max Weinreich has written, "Western Loez [Judeo-French] and southern Loez [Judeo-Italian] stand apart, but they are nevertheless closer to each other than to the other two. On the other hand, Dzhudezmo and Chuadit are more related to each other, and they can be placed in the Sephardic subgroup of Loez languages" (101).

According to at least one criterion, however, Shuadit is closer to Judeo-Italian and to Ashkenazic than we might have expected. The article in Encyclopedia Judaica entitled "Hebrew Grammar" includes a chart labeled "Hebrew consonants as pronounced by various communities” (Table 3, 85-86). Italian Jews distinguish תּ and ת; the former is [t] and the latter [d]. Perhaps Italy is the only part of the world where ת is voiced. The pronunciations [šabad] or [šabadde] and [taled] or [taledde] 'prayer shawl' are typically Judeo-Italian. This voiced pronunciation is further evidence that the merger of ת and תּ is by no means general in Hebrew. My own view is that Shuadit, Judeo-Italian, and Western Yiddish all share certain traits that link them with each other.

One of these traits is the word for ‘prayerbook.’ In Eastern Yiddish, the daily prayerbook is a sider and a holiday prayerbook is a makhzer. Shuadit, Judeo-Italian and Western Yiddish all have words from a different source. According to Paul Wexler, “A Judeo-Italian Hebraism (of Judeo-Greek origin?): tfile ‘prayerbook’ (< Hebrew tfillāh ‘prayer’). The Hebraism with this innovative meaning is also found in Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Italian and Balkan Judeo-Spanish—all areas historically in contact with Greek—vs. the use of Hebrew maħzor for prayerbook in Judeo-French” (138).

We must add another language to the list where tfile is found: Western Yiddish, where it coexists with the form pfile.

In addition to a few words or distinctions shared by all Judeo-Italian dialects and Shuadit, I would like to stress that the variety of Judeo-Italian spoken in a 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 Shuadit rather than the result of linguistic evolution.

The Italian component of Judeo-Italian, needless to say, forms the largest component of Judeo-Italian. Yet in any given location, the Judeo-Italian dialect seems to reflect the speech of some other part of Italy—a part that can never quite be located (see Jochnowitz 1972). In northern Italy, local dialects have the front rounded vowels ü and ö, as well as a syntactic feature of pronominal iteration or subject clitics. Most northern Judeo-Italian dialects do not have either of these features. The northern dialects, according to Vittore Colorni, preserved archaic features: “[T]anto i due suoni lombardi quanto la detta perculiarità morfologica non esistessero e siano penetrati in epoca posteriore alla segregazione degli ebrei in un quartiere separato” (157). Thus, the Jews were able to preserve archaisms within the walls of the ghetto.

In Piedmont, on the other hand, the Judeo-Italian dialects agree with the surrounding dialects, possessing both front rounded vowels and pronominal iteration. Front rounded vowels occur in words of both Hebrew and Italian derivation. Thus, the Judeo-Piedmontese analog of the Yiddish khazeray is pronounced [hazirüd]. Piedmont was the destination of some of the Jews who were expelled from southern France. Primo Levi, in his memoir “Argon,” lists some Jewish surnames—Bedarida, Foà, Cavaglion, Momigliano, Migliau—which correspond to the names of towns in southern France—Bédarides, Foix, Cavaillon, Montmélian, and Millau. He also mentions that the town Lunel, which suggests the Italian word luna meaning ‘moon,’ has produced the Judeo-Piedmontese surname Jarach, based on the Hebrew word for ‘moon’ (4).

Although Provençal has front rounded vowels, it does not have pronominal iteration. 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 Shuadit 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. B. Terracini points out that Piedmontese unstressed e is realized as a in Judeo-Torinese and suggests that it reflects the dialect of the province of Emilia, but grants that other explanations, including a Judeo-Provençal substratum (176). 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 Shuadit 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 (31). To be sure, Hebrew elements may be borrowed at any time in any Jewish language. Benor gives examples of expressions which exist in Yiddish but whose pronunciation among Modern Orthodox Jews suggests they were not borrowed from Yiddish: to be over ‘to transgress.’ The Yiddish equivalent is oyver zayn (36). Nevertheless, dabra davar may possibly indicate a Shuadit substratum. Another example refers to the name of the language. Unlike Eastern Yiddish, where loshn koydesh ‘holy language’ means ‘Hebrew,’ Judeo-Piedmontese uses lason akodesh to mean the local Jewish language. The same term, spelled lassan akodes, meaning Shuadit, is found in a 1795 comedy, Harcanot et Barcanot, a play that is a self-conscious attempt at capturing and preserving Shuadit (see Pansier, 143; Jochnowitz 1978, 65).

This name for a local form of speech leads to my third question: Are some of the differences between Western and Eastern Yiddish the result of later expulsions from France, including the expulsion from Provence? A similar name is used by the West Yiddish speakers of Switzerland, who refer to the secret language of cattle-dealers as loshn ekoudesh, which is different from yidishdaytsh, the ordinary form of Western Yiddish (see Guggenheim-Grünberg, 51). On the other hand, Roman Jews, unlikely to have been influenced by speakers from Provence, have called their language Scionaccodesce (see De Benedetti).

The letters ת, שׂ and ס are all pronounced [s] in Ashkenazic Hebrew. There is no other type of whole Hebrew today in which these consonants merge. In Shuadit, however, the Hebrew-Aramaic component of the language, i.e., the merged Hebrew, these letters are all pronounced [f]. We can assume that the sound was originally realized as a voiceless interdental fricative [θ]. [f] and [θ] are acoustically similar, even though the former is a labiodental rather than an interdental sound. [θ] > [f] is not an unusual phonetic development; the same change has occurred in African American Vernacular English (Ebonics). Although [f] is different from [s], this three-way merger is a striking example of similarity between Shuadit and Ashkenazic Hebrew.

If the letters that represent the [s] sound are pronounced [f] in Judeo-Provençal, we should expect ז to represent [v], as indeed it does. mamver 'bastard' and vona 'prostitute' have been recorded in Romanized Judeo-Provençal. The hole in the pattern caused by the shift of ז to [v] is filled by a new [z] from intervocalic or final [d]. This sound change occurred in Provencal as well. A new [s] entered Judeo-Provençal from the letter שׁ. And a new [š] entered from initial י. The initial sound of Shuadit, a name of the language attested once, reflects the shift of י to [š]. So does [šayin] 'wine', from Hebrew [yayin]. We have here a chain shift, related sound changes forming a system in which A changes to B, which changes to C.

Szajkowski has found the pronunciation bef for בּ (50) and the transliteration “Baru`h sem kevod mal`hufo leolam vaed” in an 1843 Romanization (52-53). This shows the change ת > f but not ד > z. Nevertheless, there is no surviving Judeo-Provençal tradition of pronouncing whole Hebrew. The synagogues in Carpentras and Avignon simply follow a Sephardic tradition that reflects the North African origin of most of the Jews living there nowadays. We can assume, however, that the surviving words of Hebrew origin reflect a whole Hebrew tradition. The existence of parallel three-way mergers in Yiddish and Shuadit proves nothing, despite the fact that some of the Jews expelled from Provence went to Germany and from there to Eastern Europe.

We have seen that in Provençal and Judeo-Provençal, [d] became [z] in medial position and in final position. Is it possible that Jews from Provence brought the pronunciations [yuz] and [lamez], for the Hebrew letters י and ל with them to Germany, where the final sounds unvoiced, leading to the [yus] and [lames] we find in Western Yiddish? There are other possible explanations for these pronunciations; for example, they could derive from Judeo-French [đ] (voiced interdental fricative). The fact that the names of these letters are different in Western and Eastern Yiddish could possibly indicate that these pronunciations arrived in Germany after Eastern Yiddish speakers had already moved to the region of Poland-Lithuania.

The pronunciation [dales] for the letter ד is also heard in Western Yiddish. It is unlikely that it came from [dalef], but could reflect the earlier pronunciation, [daleθ].

Yiddish includes words of Romance origin, most of which have religious implications. In Yiddish dialects not influenced by the standard language, leyenen means 'read from the Torah', as opposed to secular lezn, 'to read'. tsholnt 'Sabbath stew' < Middle or Old French chalent 'hot', like leyenen, reflects a northern French origin. On the other hand, Western Yiddish o:rn 'to pray’ is more likely than not to have come from Italian orare or Provencal orar, which coexist with pregare and pregar. It is, of course, possible that o:rn comes from French orer, which is not current in the modern language but was used in the Middle Ages. What is especially interesting, however, is the fact that o:rn, like lames and yus, exists only in Western Yiddish and reflects Provençal forms. It would make sense for a 15th century migration from southern France to Germany, after an Ashkenazic population had already been established in the east, to be reflected in Western Yiddish lexical items. On the other hand, orar may not have been all that common in Judeo-Provençal. Silberstein's study of a Judeo-Provençal poem lists pregar but not orar in its glossary (294-329).

The Judeo-French word for 'bless' is bendir (Levy 38). Yiddish bentshn 'to bless' seems closer to Provençal benezir, which coexists in Provençal with benedir. Unlike o:rn and lames, bentshn is pan-Yiddish. Using the names of Hebrew letters for numbers is found both in Western Yiddish cattle-dealer dialect and in Judeo-Piedmontese. Bachi lists “BET,” “GHIMEL,” and “JOD” meaning ‘two,’ ‘three,’ and ‘ten’ respectively (27). In Judeo-Italian, "synagogue" is scola, as opposed to "school," which is scuola. The use of words for "school" to mean "synagogue" dates back to the Roman Empire.

Leo Fuks has suggested that the Romance words in Yiddish, and bentshn in particular, went directly from Judeo-Roman to Yiddish: “[T]he Jews remained in the Roman cities of Loter [western Germany and eastern France], lived there in peace under the Merovingian kings and slowly changed their Romance vernacular to a Germanic one, much like the other inhabitants of those cities” (24). This theory implies that Judeo-Greek was no longer spoken in the area or never had been.

The Romance element in Yiddish is extremely small. Robert D. King goes so far as to say, “It is time we faced up to a certain fact about the so-called ‘Romance component’ (or ‘Loez determinant’) of Yiddish: there is none” (88). If we are talking about the size of the Romance contribution, we would have to agree that it is too small to be called a component. On the other hand, the Romance words are central to the Jewish experience. One of these words, bentshn, has entered Jewish English, where it usually means ‘to say grace after meals.’ Whether we want to speak of a component or merely of borrowings, there is no question that the number is higher in Western Yiddish, and the important word o:rn ‘to pray’ is part of that number, together with other words referring to the Jewish experience such as tfile or pfile ‘prayerbook,’ reflecting a Romance choice of a word of Hebrew origin. Wexler writes, “The fact that most of the [Romance] words are found in the Yiddish of southwest Germany and Switzerland suggests a rather recent dating—certainly several centuries after the birth of Yiddish” (136).

We know that in Rome, Florence, Leghorn, and elsewhere, the letter ע is pronounced as a velar nasal consonant, which I shall write ng. We know that in a Judeo-Roman version of Had Gadya, the three fathers are Avram, Yitzhak e Yangakov (Jochnowitz 1985). Is this reflected in Yiddish Yankev? In Central Yiddish ma:nse ‘story’? Was Yiddish part of a continuum that included Italy and perhaps even Spain? Sephardim in Amsterdam, I have been told, also pronounce ע as ng. It is somewhat surprising that in the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem, I heard a pharyngeal fricative rather than a velar nasal for ע, no doubt the result of contact with Jews from Arabic-speaking countries who had moved to Israel.

Ashkenazic Jews began to move into Poland at least as early as 1098, when persecutions in Bohemia at the time of the First Crusade caused Jews to flee. If there were Jews there at an earlier time speaking Judeo-Polish, they have left us no evidence of their language. We know that the Judeo-Greek language retreated to a small area in northwestern Greece after the arrival of Jews from Spain. A similar language shift may have occurred in Poland. At the times of the various expulsions of Jews from France, Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities presumably existed in Eastern Europe. If they were joined by later arrivals from Romance territories, these immigrants would have learned the language of their predecessors. In Piedmont, and perhaps also in Western Germany, later arrivals formed a sufficiently large community to influence the local language, although not to replace it.

My three questions remain questions. Under what circumstances does a Jewish community, or any community, shift its language? Did an influx of Jews from Provence lead to the creation of a Judeo-Piedmontese language that doesn’t quite fit in with other Judeo-Italian dialects? And do Western Yiddish words like pfile and pronunciations like yus, lames, and perhaps dales reflect the influence of Shuadit? The questions remain open.


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A different version of this article appeared in WORD, Vol. 63, No. 3 (September 2017).