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Judeo-Arabic: The Language of Arabic-Speaking Jews

Thursday, January 20, 2011
5:00 AM
Alumni Center, 200 Fletcher

presented by Benjamin Hary, Emory University

Judeo-Arabic is a religiolect that has been spoken and written in various forms by Jews throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Judeo-Arabic literature deals for the most part with Jewish topics, and is written by Jews for a Jewish readership. Several important features distinguish it linguistically and culturally from other varieties of Arabic. These include a mixture of elements of Classical and post-Classical Arabic, dialectal components, pseudocorrections, and pseudocorrections that have become standardized. Judeo-Arabic is written in Hebrew characters, and employs elements of Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary and grammar. In other words, it is a typical mixed language variety.

In this colloquium we will review the history of the religiolect and analyze its structure. We will then discuss the language continuum employed by users of Judeo-Arabic and trace its diachronic evolution. The presentation also tackles some terminological issues, especially with respect to the denotation of Arabic-speaking Jews. Finally, we will discuss the state of Judeo-Arabic today as it is an endangered religiolect, perhaps on the verge of extinction. Although the SIL International Ethnologue project maintains that as of the mid-1990s there were close to 500,000 Judeo- Arabic speakers, that number has declined today to just under 400,000 speakers, and it is estimated that the last native speaker of the variety will die this century. Therefore, I view the research on Judeo-Arabic language, culture, and history as a “salvage operation” to record and preserve one of the most fascinating phenomena in Jewish, Arab, and Middle Eastern cultures.

Benjamin Hary is the Winship Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities and a professor of Hebrew, Arabic, and Linguistics at Emory University. He is spending this semester at the Frankel Institute, working on his book on translations of sacred texts into Judeo-Arabic. Hary is the author of Multiglossia in Judeo-Arabic (1992) and Translating Religion (2009). He is also the editor and co-editor of Judaism and Islam (2000), Corpus Linguistics and Modern Hebrew (2003), and Esoteric and Exoteric Aspects in Judeo-Arabic Culture in 2006. He also published over 50 articles and book reviews on Judeo-Arabic, as well as Arabic and Hebrew linguistics, and has lectured widely in Europe, Israel, and North America. His research interests include, among other things, Jewish languages in general and Judeo-Arabic in particular, corpus linguistics, dialectology, and sociolinguistics. He has recently focused his research on issues such as why and how Jews (and for that matter, Christians and Muslims as well) speak and write differently from people who are not Jews (or Christians and Muslims).