Endangered Language Alliance





Juhuri

a Southwest Iranian (Tatic) language of Caucasian Jews from Azerbaijan and Russia


Background

Juhuri, also called Judeo-Tat, is spoken by several thousand Caucasian, or Mountain, Jews, who call themselves Juhuro or (in Russian) Kavkazi EvreiGorsky Evrei. Until recent decades, the Juhuro were concentrated primarily in the towns and villages on the eastern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, primarily in Dagestan (part of the Russian Federation), Chechnya, and Azerbaijan. Today, with a global population estimated between 100-200,000, they live primarily in Israel and the U.S., although thousands remain in Dagestan and Azerbaijan.

Affiliation

Juhuri is classified by linguists as belonging to a distinct Tat branch of the Southwestern Iranian languages, closely related to Muslim Tat and, at a greater distance, to Classical, Middle, and Modern Persian, with which it is not mutually intelligible. Tajik-Israeli researcher Michael Zand has identified at least four distinct dialects spoken in Derbent, Quba, Makhachkala-Nalchik, and Vartashan (now Oguz). Influences from Hebrew are apparently manifest in the lexicon and phonology of the language, while neighboring Caucasian languages and more recently Russian have also significantly influenced the language.

Endangerment

Most Juhuri speakers are fluent, if not native speakers of Russian and often of the Azeri language of Azerbaijan as well. Young speakers in the Juhuro communities of Israel and United States are increasingly likely to speak and live in Hebrew and English, respectively. Quba, a traditional center in Azerbaijan, is reported as having one of the few Juhuro communities where the language is still being transmitted to most children. Elsewhere the language’s future is in jeopardy from the national languages where the Juhuro live and from Russian as a lingua franca between generations and communities.

Written with semi-cursive Hebrew letters until the early Soviet period, Juhuri books, newspapers, textbooks, and other materials were later printed with a Latin alphabet and finally in Cyrillic, still most common today. During the Soviet period, early official support for the language, especially in Dagestan, gave way to a policy of Russification after the 1930s. Famous poets, playwrights, and prose writers have included Yono Semyonov, Mishi Bakshiyev, and Danil Atnilov, among others. The Theater of the Eastern Caucasus, the only Juhuri-language theater in the world, was founded in Derbent in 1923 and re-established in Israel in 2001.

Academic Work

Juhuri has not been the focus of any sustained linguistic documentation, although there have been reports on the language for over a century, largely in Russian-language sources. Studies by B.V. Miller and A.L. Grujnberg during the Soviet period represent the earliest analyses of dialectology, the connection between Juhuri and Muslim Tat, and other issues. In 1997, Mikhail Agarunov, a Juhuro professor of chemistry in Azerbaijan, published the first Juhuri-Russian dictionary in Moscow, based on the Quba dialect with approximately 9000 entries, followed by Mikhail Dadahsev’s more extensive dictionary in 2006. There are few detailed analyses of Juhuri grammar or professional multimedia recordings focused on the language.

Language Structure

Although largely consistent with other Persic languages, the sound system of Juhuri also incorporates influences from Arabic, Hebrew, and other neighboring languages. One conspicuous sound change in the history of Juhuri is the rhoticization of medial (similar to what happens in spoken English), thus the endonym juhuro < Persian juhu:dha:, meaning “Jews”.

ELA’s Work

The Juhuri-speaking community in New York is largely centered in Flatbush, Brooklyn around the Kavkazi Jewish Congregation (Or HaMizrekh) on Ocean Parkway. The Lezginka Dance Company, based in Brooklyn, preserves and continues community dance traditions through teaching and performance. The language is still spoken by many middle-aged and older people, who were born in the Caucasus, and is maintained in some families and some spheres of daily life.

ELA’s Jewish Languages Initiative is recording Juhuri speakers talking about their lives and the histories and customs of the community, in collaboration with leaders at the community synagogue in Brooklyn. These are among the first professionally made, multimedia recordings of the language to be made publicly available.