In a Familiar Hand

From Dennis Gottfried comes this query:

“Since European Jews used the Hebrew alphabet to write Judeo-German or Yiddish, and Spanish Jews used it to write Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, I wonder whether other Jewish populations in the history of the Diaspora — ones speaking Persian or Arabic, for example — did the same thing.”

They did. It can be stated as a general rule that prior to the late 19th century, Jews who put the Jewish dialects or languages that they spoke into writing did so in Hebrew characters. This is as true of Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Persian as it is of Yiddish and Ladino — or, for that matter, of what should properly be called Judeo-Aramaic, since we tend to forget that Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, was once also the language of millions of non-Jews, who spoke it differently from Jews and wrote it with different characters from the Hebrew ones we are used to.

Why did Jews always use the Hebrew alphabet to write the languages they spoke? A better question might be, why shouldn’t they have used it? Not only was it an alphabet that most Jews were familiar with, but it also was probably the only alphabet in the world that a high ratio of any people was familiar with. Until modern times, let us remember, literacy was extremely low everywhere. It existed only among the wealthy and educated classes, who were a small elite in all societies and probably never comprised more than a few percentage points of their populations. An overwhelming majority of people, whether living in Catholic Europe, the Muslim Middle East or the Buddhist, Hindu and Confucian Far East, could neither read nor write.

To this, Jews — or at least Jewish males — were the great exception. Although literacy in Hebrew was never universal among Jews, it was always very high, since without it they could not recite the prayers in the prayer book, much less study the Bible or other Jewish texts as Judaism demanded that they do. (Christianity and Islam, by contrast, made no such demands on their followers, and Catholic or Muslim prayer was far briefer than its Jewish counterpart and easily memorizable.) A Jew who used the Hebrew alphabet to write his dialect of German or Arabic could count on other Jews to be able to read what he wrote. A Jew who used the Latin or Arabic alphabet, on the other hand, not only could not have counted on other Jews to read it, but also could not have counted on non-Jews to do so. Why, then, bother mastering non-Jewish alphabets, let alone using them to record Jewish speech?

True, there were presumably always Jewish merchants who used the Latin or Arabic alphabets in their dealings with Christian or Muslim merchants, but this was not something that concerned the average Jew. Even when Jewish intellectuals wrote books of general interest that non-Jewish intellectuals might have wished to read, too, they wrote them in Hebrew characters that precluded this. Much has been made, for instance, of the fact that Jews were so well integrated in the medieval Muslim world that a great Jewish philosopher like Maimonides wrote “The Guide for the Perplexed” in Arabic; what is ignored, however, is that “The Guide” was written in an alphabet that no Muslim could have read. Clearly, what Muslims thought of him or his work was of no interest to Maimonides. Indeed, writing in a Hebrew-lettered Arabic had the advantage that he could make — as he did, not in “The Guide,” but in other writings — severe criticisms of Islam without having to fear a Muslim reaction.

The coming of modernity and, with it, of compulsory schooling and high rates of literacy, approaching 100% in many Western countries, changed all this. Now, Jews had to learn to read the non-Jewish languages and alphabets of the countries they lived in, because — on street signs, in shop windows, in newspapers, in official forms, in dozens of other ways — so much of daily life depended on them. And as they did learn to read them, their attachment to their own languages and alphabets weakened. The first Jewish language to begin to appear in a non-Jewish alphabet was Ladino, in which a newspaper in Latin characters began coming out in Romania in 1886. Subsequently, more and more Ladino publications followed suit until, by the mid-20th century, Hebrew characters were hardly being used for the language at all. A model for emulation for Ladino speakers was Kemal Ataturk’s Latinization in the 1920s of Turkish, which until then had been written in the Arabic alphabet.

A corresponding Latinization of Yiddish, on the other hand, never occurred in Eastern Europe. The one country in which, in recent years, Yiddish has undergone a considerable degree of Latinization is the United States — and to this I hope to devote my next column.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to


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In a Familiar Hand

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