Along with Yiddish and Ladino, Judaeo-Arabic occupies a special place of significance among post-talmudic Jewish languages. A unique history of Judaeo-Arabic extends from ninth century to the present, thus making it one of those few languages with longest recorded history. It has had the widest geographical diffusion, extending from Iraq and Yemen in the East, to Spain and Morocco in the West during the Middle Ages. And finally, it was the medium of expression for one of the foremost periods of Jewish cultural and intellectual creativity. Throughout the past century, a considerable amount of scholarship has been produced as a result of various editions, translations, and interpretations of medieval Judaeo-Arabic literary and documentary texts, particularly those from the Cairo Genizah.

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Judaeo-Arabic is a religiolect spoken and written for the most
part by Jews on Jewish topics and for a Jewish readership. Judaeo (or Middle)
Arabic was probably spoken as early as the 7th century, and its written form
goes back to the 10th/11th centuries (no Jewish literary works composed in
Arabic prior to the ninth century have been preserved). It is common to
divide the history of Judaeo-Arabic into five main periods: Pre-Islamic
Judaeo-Arabic, Early Judaeo-Arabic (8th to 9th centuries), Classical
Judaeo-Arabic (10th to 15th centuries), Later Judaeo-Arabic (15th to 19th
centuries) and Modern Judaeo-Arabic (20th century). In general, texts from
these periods exhibit many more dialectal elements than attested in earlier
periods. According to B. Hary, one of leading experts of Judaeo-Arabic, Later
Judaeo-Arabic saw the writing of texts (mostly religious) aimed at the
general public and not only the elite. Towards the end of the 19th century
and during the initial period of Modern Judaeo-Arabic, a process of extensive
collecting of folk tales and other types of popular literature emerged, as
well as the tradition of the šarḥ, which is the translation of Hebrew
sacred texts into Judaeo-Arabic. There are several major features peculiar to
Judaeo-Arabic texts, which exhibit their uniqueness on the one hand and their
Jewishness on the other: it is typically written in Hebrew letters, and since
the Arabic alphabet is larger than the Hebrew one, additional diacritic marks
are added to some Hebrew letters when rendering Arabic consonants that are
lacking in the Hebrew alphabet (Judaeo- Arabic authors often use different
letters and diacritic marks to represent the same Arabic consonant. For
instance, some authors use ג (Hebrew gimel) to representج (Arabic jim) and גֹ to represent غ(ghayn), while others reverse the two. This inconsistency
increases the level of ambiguity of a given word, making the reading of
Judeo-Arabic texts a challenging task even for an Arabic speaker. For instance,
the letter י (Hebrew yod) sometimes
represents the letterي   (ya)); and the frequent occurrence of Hebrew and Aramaic words
and phrases, scattered among the Arabic text.

Whatever the amount of Hebrew words and phrases, they do not,
however modify the main structure of Judaeo-Arabic: with some rare cases, the
Hebrew words are infiltrated into the patterns of Arabic to the degree that
they almost entirely are adapted to its structure. Consequently, where the
ratio of Hebrew elements is high, Judaeo-Arabic texts can be considered as
treatises written in Arabic containing Hebrew phrases. The degree of Hebrew
component is determined by the personal style of the author, upon the
literary genre (texts belonging to the realm of religious studies and
addressed to a public versed in religious literature contain high percentage
of Hebrew words, phrases, and sentences), and upon the presupposed Hebrew as
well as Aramaic knowledge of the intended audience. Thus, the use of Hebrew
script and the occurrence of Hebrew words and phrases are the external
distinguishing marks of Judaeo-Arabic, the intrinsic character of which is
revealed in its appeal to Jewish communities and use of Jewish topics. In
addition to these features, Judaeo-Arabic texts contain a mixture of elements
of Classical and post-Classical Arabic, dialectal components,
pseudocorrections, and pseudocorrections that have become standardized. It
also possesses a number of specific additional sociolinguistic and
sociocultural features that set it apart.

Judaeo-Arabic is then the crossroad of Classical Arabic, Arabic
dialects, Hebrew and Aramaic. This very peculiar composition of linguistic
elements places Judaeo-Arabic in a special position to examine sociolinguistic
features such as continuglossia, language continuum, code-mixing, and
code-switching, registers and style, and language or dialects in contact.

Audio Resource

Resource activities

Practicing Judaeo-Arabic script

Two exercises will help students to get acquainted with Judaeo-Arabic script: to read and transcribe some basic sentences from Judaeo-Arabic to Arabic and vice-versa.


Activity questions

  • What are the main characteristics of Judaeo-Arabic religiolect?
  • What types of popular literary genres of Judaeo-Arabic emerged during Early Modern period?
  • How many major phases of Judaeo-Arabic are known to us?
  • List the languages which are somehow related to Judaeo-Arabic.

Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading