GS/HUMA 6222 3.00 Jews, Language, and Society

Humanities 6222: Jews, Language, and Society

HNE 401 Wednesday, 4-7

Prof. K Weiser,

Office hours, Wednesday 2.30-3.30 or by appointment, 754 York Research Tower

Course Description

Hebrew, the language of the Torah and much of Jewish legal and religious writing for thousands of years, has come to be closely associated with Jews despite the fact that this Canaanite dialect was not uniquely used by Israelites or Jews and ceased to be a spoken language for roughly 2000 years. Over time, Jews came to speak a multitude of vernaculars closely related to non-Jewish languages and to honour Hebrew and Aramaic, a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, as their sacred tongues. This pre-modern model of language use - Hebrew/Aramaic alongside a diasporic vernacular - prevailed for centuries until the breakdown of traditional Jewish society and the beginnings of Jewish integration into European and other societies. With the advent of nationalism, Jewish language use took on new directions as language-centric movements, usually tied to political movements, began to arise. In the 21st century, Jewish language practices are again rapidly changing. Most traditional Jewish vernaculars, with the exception of Yiddish, are headed toward disappearance. More than half of today's Jews speak Hebrew as their mother or dominant tongue. Yet, despite the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language and symbol of nationhood, English is the language which unites most Jews for secular functions in an age of globalization. And, perhaps paradoxically, Hebrew is a language of everyday life for many non-Jews while Russian has in some contexts become an emblem of Jewish life. Finally, Jews, particularly in North America, may be on their way to creating new Jewish vernaculars.

Drawing on the disciplines of linguistics, sociology, and history, this course will examine the use of language among Jews from antiquity through the contemporary era. The focus will be on understanding the transition from models of language and identity in the pre-modern era until the Enlightenment and beyond. In particular, attention will be given to the effects of nationalism and social integration into non-Jewish society on Jewish language use from the 18th century until today.

This course will examine questions such as the following: do Jews speak differently than non-Jews in all eras and what marks speech as Jewish? What constitutes a Jewish language and why are some languages used by Jews seen as Jewish and others not? How does Jewish language use compare with that of other ethno-religious communities? What can we learn about Jewish/non-Jewish relations through language use? What role does language play in Jewish identity? How does language serve different purposes, e.g. secular and religious? How does language help to construct identity and create community boundaries? What can language tell us about patterns of migration and cultural exchange? What is the relationship between language and power within Jewish societies?

Required Books and Readings

John Myhill, Language in Jewish Society. Towards a New Understanding. Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, Ltd., 2004

Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986

Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: post-vernacular language and culture Berkeley: UCLA Press, 2006

All other readings will be made available by the instructor and are subject to change with advance notice. Primary sources will be announced weekly. For more information and course updates, see my webpage:


Raymond Scheindlin, A short history of the Jewish people: from legendary times to modern statehood. New York: Macmillan, 1998



  1. 1. A critical review essay , 5-6 pages (30%).

Reviews should be critical and evaluative.  Be sure to summarize the content of the book and the author’s theses as well as convey the essential conclusions of the work.  Include your appraisal of the author’s methodology, use of sources, and conclusions.  Consider also what the book’s strengths and weaknesses are, who its intended audience (e.g. experts in the field, laymen, individuals interested in specialty X) is, its structure, and how, if you can determine, this work may fit into a broader academic field.  

  1. 2. A research paper treating a theme of this course, 20-30 pages (50%). It is recommended (but not necessary) that this paper build on themes explored by the academic book review. The writing of the paper will be in stages:

1. submission of proposed topic and sources (due 21 October); 2. outline (due 11 November); 3. final paper (due at end of semester)

  1. 3. Oral presentation of one’s research in progress (10%).
  2. 4. Regular participation in class discussion and introduction of readings (10%).

Class Schedule

I. Introduction

9 September

Jews, language, and communities: an overview

Steven Lowenstein. The Jewish Cultural Tapestry, 1-48 Steven Lowenstein

Bernard Spolsky and Sarah Bunin Benor. “Jewish Languages.” Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 120-124 (available as e-resource)

John Myhill, Language in Jewish Society, 1-29

Introduction to linguistics and the sociology of language


Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 1-53Wardaugh

George Yule, The Study of Language, 27-40, 43-49, 54-59, 182-191, 195-203, 205-214, 217-225

Primary sources:

R. Akiba Joseph Schlesinger, “An Ultra-Orthodox Position.” The Jew in the Modern World, 202-204

Ehud Banai, “Hebrew Man”

II. Jews and language in antiquity: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin

16 September

What is a Jewish language?

Chaim Rabin, “What Constitutes a Jewish Language?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30 (1981): 19-28 Chaim Rabin

Joshua Fishman. “The Sociology of Jewish Languages from a General Sociolinguistic Point of View,” Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, 3-20 Fishman

Uzzi Ornan, “Hebrew is not a Jewish Language,” Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, 22-24 Ornan

Myhill, 29-57Ornan

Jews and language in antiquity

Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, “Yiddish in the Framework of Other Jewish Languages,” 45-74Weinreich%201

Myhill, 58-69, 109-118

Bernard Spolsky, “Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century: An Essay in Historical Sociolinguistics,” Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, 35-50 Spolsky

Richard L. Goerwitz, “The Jewish Scripts.” The World’s Writing Systems, 487-499Goerwitz


Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language 1-15, 50-56, 76-86, 112-129Saenz-Badillos%201

Primary Sources:

Genesis 10:1-32; Genesis 11:26-32, 12:1-9; Genesis 31:43-50

Deuteronomy 26:5-10

For on an online translation of the Hebrew bible:


III. Jews and language in medieval and early modern society

23 September

Jewish languages and Diglossia

Charles Ferguson, “Diglossia” Word 15 (1959): 325-340Ferguson

Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, 74-174Weinreich%201a

Lowenstein, 54-67Lowenstein%20languages

Benjamin Hary and Howard I. Aronson, “Adaptations of Hebrew Script.” The World’s Writing Systems, 727-734 and 741-742Writing%20system%202

Norman Stillman, “The Judeo-Arabic Heritage,” Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, 40-54Stillman

David Bunis, “Judeo-Spanish Culture in Medieval and Modern Times,” Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, 55-75Bunis

Jonathan Decter, “Literatures of Medieval Sepharad,” Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, 76-100Decter


Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Articles on Judeo-Berber, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Provencal at

30 September

Language and Religion.

Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, 175-246 (the way of the SHaS)Weinreich%202, 351-4 (merged Hebrew)Weinreich%20merged%20Hebrew

Myhill, 62-69

Lowenstein, 49-54

Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, 202-209Medieval%20Hebrew

Norman Stillman “Language Patterns in Islamic and Judaic Societies.” Islam and Judaism: 1400 Years of Shared Values, 41-55Stillman%20patterns

Dovid Katz, Words on Fire, 79-111Katz%20Words_0001_NEW_0001

David Bunis, “A Comparative Linguistic Analysis of Judezmo and Yiddish,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30 (1981): 49-70Bunis%20Comparative

Shaul Stampfer, “Heder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification in Traditional East European Jewish Society,” Studies in Jewish Education, 3 (1988): 271-289Shampfer%201

IV. The Crisis of Modernity

7 October

The breakdown of traditional society and its linguistic impact

Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred

Lowenstein, 69-83Lowenstein%20names

21 October

The Jewish “National Renaissance” and the quest for monolingualism

Hebrew and Haskalah

Myhill, 126-140

Primary Sources

The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) among Eastern European Jews


Language and Nationalism: Yiddish, Judezmo, Esperanto, Hebrew

Yael Chaver, What Must Be Forgotten, 1-44Chaver

Yisrael Bartal, “From Traditional Bilingualism to National Monolingualism.”Hebrew in Ashkenaz, 141-149Bartal

Joshua Fishman, Ideology, Society & Language, 38-71Fishman%20Birnbaum

Aaron Rodrigue, “The Ottoman Diaspora: The Rise and Fall of Ladino Literary Culture,” Cultures of the Jews, ed. David Biale, 863-885Rodrigue

Sarah A. Stein, "Asymmetric Fates: Secular Yiddish and Ladino Culture in Comparison," The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Fall 2006) 498–509 96.4stein

Norman Berdichevsky, “Zamenhof and Esperanto,” Ariel 64 (1986): 58-71Zamenhof


Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1789

Sarah A. Stein, Making Jews Modern. The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires

28 October

The Interwar Period: the contested linguistic sphere and language authorities

Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, 3-62Mendelsohn

Todd Endelman, “Assimilation.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 81-87Assimilation

Barry Trachtenberg, "Ber Borochov’s 'The Tasks of Yiddish Philology'," Science in Context 20/2 (2007); 341–352Trachtenberg

Ber Borochov, "The Tasks of Yiddish Philology," Science in Context 20/2 (2007): 341–352Borochov.

Chone Shmeruk, “Hebrew-Yiddish-Polish; a trilingual Jewish culture.” The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al, 285-311

Shlomo (Solomon) Birnbaum, "Jewishness and Yiddish," Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, ed., Voices from the Yiddish, 122-128Birnbaum

Kalman Weiser, “The ‘Orthodox’ Orthography of Solomon Birnbaum,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry XX (2004): 275-295Weiser

Yosef Klauzner, "Ancient Hebrew and Modern Hebrew," Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, 208-215 Klausner

Benjamin Harshav, “Language. Multilingualism.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 991-996Language Multilingualism

Rakhmiel Peltz and Mark Kiel, “The Soviet Yiddish-imperye.” Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Soviet National Languages: Their Past, Present and Future, ed. Isabelle T. Kreindler, 277-309Peltz

Recommended: Lucy Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time

VI. Language use in contemporary Jewish life

4 November

Post-World War II: the case of Israel

Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, 153-180Harshav Hebrew

Ghilad  Zuckermann, “’Abba, why was Professor Higgins trying to teach Eliza to speak like our cleaning lady?’" Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, prescriptivism and the real sounds of the Israeli language.” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 19 (2005): 210-231abba

Philologos, "Hebrew vs. Israel"

Ghilad Zuckermann, "Let my people know!"

Lewis H Glinert, “Holy land, holy language: a study of an ultraorthodox Jewish ideology.” Language in Society 20,1 (1991): 59-86Glinert Shilhav

Joshua Fishman, “Language Planning for the ‘Other Jewish Languages’ in Israel.” Language Problems and Language Planning 24.3 (2000): 215-231Fishman%20Israel

Muhammad Amara, “Arab language education in the Hebrew State."New Perspectives and Issues in Educational Language Policy (2001), 155-170 Amara

Ami Elad-Bouskila, "Arabic and/or Hebrew: The Languages of Arab Writers in Israel." Israeli and Palestinian Identities in History and Literature (1999),Elad-Bouskila 133-158

11 November

Yiddish and Jewish identity in Anglo-North America

Jeff Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland

18 November

Death and birth of Jewish languages

Tracy Harris, “Reasons for the Decline of Judeo-Spanish,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 37 (1982): 71-97Harris 1

Neil Jacobs, Yiddish: a Linguistic Introduction, “Post-Yiddish Ashkenazic Speech,” 306Jacobs

Chaim Weiser, Frumspeak, excerptChaim Weiser

David Gold, “Jewish English.” Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages, 280-298Gold

Sarah Bunin Benor, “Do American Jews Speak a "Jewish Language"?: A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness,” Jewish Quarterly Review 99/2 (Spring 2009): 230-26999.2.benor

Deborah Tannen, “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30 (1981): 133-149Tannen

Anna Verschik, “Jewish Russian and the Field of Ethnolect Study.” Language in Society 36/2 (2007): 213-232Verschik

Yona Sabar, “Burying My Mother Tongue”

"Rise of Yiddish Scholar Elicits Kvetches From Traditional Yiddishists,”

VII. Summary and Conclusions

25 November

December 2

Seminar led by Dr. Sol Goldberg: “On the Secularization of the Hebrew Language and on Secularization as Such”

Gershom Scholem’s letter to Rosenzweig: “Confessions on the Subject of Our Language”Scholem,%20Confessions%20on%20the%20Subject%20of%20Our%20Language

Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”Benjamin,%20On%20Language%20as%20Such%20and%20on%20the%20Language%20of%20Man


Selected Bibliography of English-language sources

Benedict Anderson. Imagine Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. London, New York: Verso, 1991

Jean Baumgarten. Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature. Edited and translated by Jerold

C. Frakes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005

Simeon D. Baumel. Sacred Speakers. Language and Culture among the Haredim in

Israel. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006

Joan Bratkowsky. Yiddish Linguistics. A Multilingual Bibliography. New York: Garland

Pub., 1988.

David M. Bunis. Sephardic studies: a research bibliography incorporating Judezmo

language, literature and folklore, and historical background. New York: Garland

Pub., 1981.

David M. Bunis and Andrew Sunshine. Yiddish linguistics: a classified bilingual index to

Yiddish serials and collections, 1913-1958. New York: Garland Pub., 1994.

Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, New

York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Yael Chaver. What Must Be Forgotten. The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine.

Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lucy Dawidowicz. From That Place and Time. A Memoir 1938-1947. New York:

Bantam Books, 1989

Gennady Estraikh. Soviet Yiddish. Language Planning and Linguistic Development.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999

David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture. Pittsburgh: University of

Pittsburgh Press, 2005

Joshua A. Fishman, Ideology, Society & Language. The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum.

Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma Publishers, 1987

              Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill, 1985

Jerold C. Frakes, The Politics of Interpretation. Alterity & Ideology in Old Yiddish

Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 1989.

Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986

Lewis Glinert, Hebrew in Ashkenaz. A Language in Exile. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1993.

Tracy Harris. Death of a language: the history of Judeo-Spanish. Newark: University of

Delaware Press; London : Associated University Presses, 1994.

Benjamin Harshav. The Meaning of Yiddish. Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1990

              Language in Time of Revolution. Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1993

Joel M. Hoffman. In the beginning: a short history of the Hebrew language. New York:

New York University Press, c2004.

Miroslav Hroch, “The Social Interpretation of Linguistic Demands in European National

              Movements,” EUI Working Paper EUF No.94/1 (1994)

Neil G. Jacobs. Yiddish: a Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 2005

Dovid Katz. Words on Fire. The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books,


John Myhill, Language in Jewish Society. Towards a New Understanding. Clevedon,

Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, Ltd., 2004

Shmuel Niger. Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. Translated by Joshua A.

Fogel. Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1990

Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, Polish-Jewish Literature in the Interwar Years. Translated by

Abe Shenitzer. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003

Angelo Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language. Translated by John Elwolde.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings. Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of

Translation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006

Jeffrey Shandler. Adventures in Yiddishland. Postvernacular Language & Culture.

Berkeley: UCLA Press, 2006

Bernard Spolsky. The Languages of Jerusalem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993

Ilan Stavans. Resurrecting Hebrew. New York : Nextbook: Schocken, 2008.

Sarah A. Stein, Making Jews Modern. The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and

Ottoman Empires. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004

Barry Trachtenberg. The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Yiddish, 1903-1917. Syracuse:

Syracuse University Press, 2008

Max Weinreich. History of the Yiddish Language. ed. Paul Glasser, trans. Shlomo Noble.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2008

YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Gershon Hundert, ed. New Haven: Yale

University Press and YIVO, 2008

Zion Zohar, ed. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry; from the Golden Age of Spain to Modern

Times. New York: New York University Press, 2005


NOTE: For extensive references see

and individual articles in

Martin Goodman, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

Consult also RAMBI on the website of the Jewish National & University Library (