“Let my people go” may be one of the most recognizable Jewish phrases, but Moses likely said it in a language that most Jews wouldn’t even recognize today, said Harvard comparative literature professor and linguistic scholar Marc Shell.
After all, Shell told the audience of 25 in attendance at the Seattle Yiddish Group’s June meeting, Moses spoke Egyptian throughout the first 40 years of his life, and probably some sort of Midianite language during the next four decades once he fled to the desert. Returning to Egypt and communicating through his brother Aaron would have been a challenge for Moses, because in addition to his compromised speech noted in the Biblical story, he’d been away for quite some time.
“What language does Moses speak when he speaks to Pharaoh?” asked Shell, who proved to be a master of the rhetorical question throughout his remarks. “Does he speak Egyptian, does he speak Midianite, or does he speak Hebrew?”
Shell is the co-director of the Lilly Center for Jewish Language and Literature at Harvard, co-founder and co-director of the Longfellow Institute for the Study of Non-English Languages, and a MacArthur fellow.
He has taught several languages, including Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Iranian, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Malayalam, and Judeo-Chinese.
The SYG invited Shell to try and answer the larger question of how globalization might affect the survival of Jewish languages.
“What is happening to the Yiddish language?” asked Murray Meld, co-chair of SYG as he introduced the topic. “We all know it has a lot of diversity, but with globalization, is it going to be used?”
From his vantage point, Meld sees a resurgence of curiosity for the Yiddish language from a variety of people.
“American Jews, young and old, are being caught up in the revival of interest in Yiddish language and culture,” he told JTNews.
Shell said that among the nearly 6,700 languages spoken throughout the world today, globally Jews speak dozens of variations of some form of the original Hebrew beyond the more commonly used Eastern European Yiddish and the Mediterranean Ladino.
To illustrate his point, he used examples from his own background.
“Among my Jewish friends,” recalled Shell, “the language in the home could be Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, two or three kinds of Judeo-Greek, three branches of Judeo-Kurd, all of them different from each other, and one or two kinds of Yiddish, one inflected toward the Slavic element, and one inflected towards the Germanic element, and other languages, as well.
“So, for me, a Jewish language does not mean Yiddish, nor does it mean even principally Yiddish because you can see in this list, which might go on, that Yiddish plays only a small role.”
Languages are influenced by their geographic location, their placement in a historical period, and their “linguistic uniqueness,” he said. A Jewish language, he added, is a language that has elements of Aramaic or Hebrew, where Hebrew somehow plays a role in its defining characteristic.
“Take, for instance, Judeo-Persian,” said Shell. “When Persian was first written down, it wasn’t written using the Persian alphabet, it was written down using the Hebrew alphabet. Judeo-Malayalam is one of the three Judaic languages of the Indian subcontinent. It’s one of the only Jewish languages which are not written in the Hebrew alphabet.”
Jewish languages have covered the globe, he said, mainly because of the consistent writing system that has allowed Judaic languages to flourish and to last over time.
“Judeo-Chinese is a humanistic language,” continued Shell. “On the one hand, Chinese goes vertically. On the other hand, Hebrew goes horizontally, so there’s a meeting point. Also, Chinese is a representational writing system or alphabet, whereas the Hebrew alphabet is essentially nonrepresentational.”
Ladino, which is a form of Judaic Spanish, he said, developed in the Iberian Peninsula, and was exported into many parts of the world.
That, he said, is also the history of Jewish languages. They develop within a culture and get “exiled” to other lands, far beyond their original borders.
Cultural and social factors can also foster the development of a language.
“When women, for example, knew the Hebrew alphabet but were barred from writing Hebrew, they’d use the Hebrew alphabet to write down the words of local language,” said Shell. “This was very often the origin of a Judeo language.”