Endangered Language Alliance



Judeo-Median

Northwestern Iranian language varieties of Central Iran

Background

Jews have lived among Persian speakers and in the territory that is now Iran for millennia. The term “Judeo-Persian”, somewhat confusingly, refers to the written language used by Persian Jews for well over a millennium, typically employing the Hebrew alphabet. The Judeo-Persian of these texts is far from uniform, having been used over a long period of time from Cairo to western China as the lingua franca of a dispersed, mobile community. A vast literature exists in the language: poetry, Biblical exegesis, even newspapers. Most recently, 11th century manuscript fragments, many in Judeo-Persian, have turned up in Afghanistan, promising to greatly enhance our understanding of the complex history and wide reach of the language.

Separate from Judeo-Persian, the Jews of Iran also had several distinctive spoken languages, now grouped by scholars under the heading of “Judeo-Median”. Media was the traditional name for the northwest-central area of Iran, including the present-day province of Isfahan, where these languages are spoken. At least five varieties of Judeo-Median have been identified, named after the most prominent town or city where they were once spoken: Judeo-Isfahani (also called Jidi), Judeo-Yazdi, Judeo-Kermani, Judeo-Hamadani, and Judeo-Kashani. Although Judeo-Median speakers typically lived in the region’s towns and cities, the varieties show strong similarities to the rural dialects of Muslim speakers–in both cases, older forms abandoned by urban Muslims were maintained.

A Jewish “secret language” in use until recent times, called Loterai, separate from both Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Median, used Hebrew and Aramaic words and modified forms in place of Persian words.

Affiliation

The Judeo-Median languages are classified by linguists as being among the Central Plateau Dialects of Iran, belonging to what is sometimes called the South Median group of the Northwestern Iranian languages. These varieties are distinct from standard Persian to the extent that there is little mutual intelligibility and almost all speakers of Judeo-Median languages today have shifted to standard Farsi or other national languages in their daily lives. Further research, if possible, will be needed to illuminate the connections among the different Judeo-Median dialects themselves and with the other varieties of the Central Plateau Dialect region.

Endangerment

Judeo-Median appears to be largely moribund, and the extent to which there are still living native speakers and semi-speakers remains unclear. Already by 1970, according to researcher Habib Borjian, most Jews had left their traditional communities for Tehran and later overseas. Today, most Jews from the region now live in Israel and the United States, with only a fraction left in Tehran and major urban centers such as Isfahan and Shiraz. Many Persian Jews speak modern Persian, with language shift away from Judeo-Median having already begun two or three generations ago with urbanization.

Academic Work

The earliest work on Judeo-Median was undertaken in the late 19th century by Russian linguist Valentin Zhukovskii, whose Materialy collected his research on Judeo-Kashani and on several related Central Plateau Dialects spoken by non-Jews. The work of Ehsan Yarshater, notably in his 1974 article “The Jewish Com­munities of Persia and their Dialects,” laid the groundwork for much modern research. The research of Ruben Abrahamian and Haideh Sahim has shed further light on Judeo-Hamadani, as has Habib Bourjian’s work on Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Isfahani. All varieties remain very much underdocumented.

Language Structure

Judeo-Median dialects appear to be differentiated from each other largely on the basis of lexical differences (although clear isoglosses are often lacking), certain morphological traits (e.g. verb conjugation), and possibly certain syntactic features. One noticeable feature common to Judeo-Median dialects is a peculiar form of split ergativity in the past tense of transitive verbs, represented by agential suffixes that freely float through the sentence, yielding complex syntactic structures.

ELA’s Work

The Persian Jewish community in New York is centered in the suburb of Great Neck, although many in the community are originally from Mashhad and Tehran and have never spoken Judeo-Median varieties. Still, there appear to be isolated speakers with some knowledge memory of these dialects, particularly Judeo-Isfahani.

Up to this point, ELA’s Jewish Languages Initiative has begun work on Judeo-Kashani, working with Dr. Jack (Yaqub) Tabari, of Roslyn, New York, whose mother was born in Kashan. Habib Borjian, a researcher with ELA, has analyzed available materials and published on Judeo-Median, with a particular focus on Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Isfahani. We are actively seeking speakers of other Judeo-Median languages.