Endangered Language Alliance



Judeo-Median

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

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, many of them 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.

Separate from Judeo-Median, but likewise conservative in preserving older features lost in the shift ot Persian among Muslim populations, is Judeo-Shirazi, the distinct language variety of another major historic Jewish community of Iran, from Shiraz. Judeo-Shirazi is part of the Southwest Iranian branch to which Persian also belongs. but may be in effect a direct descendant of Medieval Shirazi. In addition, 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 in their daily lives to today’s standard Persian or the other national languages of where they currently live. 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.

 

(Specify “Jewish” when finalizing the donation process or contact us to ensure your donation will go directly to support further documentation of the languages of the Jews of Iran.)

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 varieties having already begun two or three generations ago with urbanization.

 

(Specify “Jewish” when finalizing the donation process or contact us to ensure your donation will go directly to support further documentation of the languages of the Jews of Iran.)

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 Borjian’s work on Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Isfahani. All varieties remain very much underdocumented.

Borjian, Habib. “Judeo-Iranian Languages,” in Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, eds., A Handbook of Jewish Languages, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015, pp. 234-295.

Borjian, Habib. “What is Judeo-Median—and How Does it Differ from Judeo-Persian?” Journal of Jewish Languages 2/2, 2014, pp. 117-142.

Borjian, Habib. “Judeo-Kashani: A Central Iranian Plateau Dialect,” Journal of the American Oriental Society (JAOS) 132/1, 2012, pp. 1-22.

Sahim, Haideh. 1994. “The Dialect of the Jews of Hamedan.” In Irano-Judaica iii: Studies Relating to the Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages, eds. S. Shaked & A. Netzer. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 171–81.

Schwartz, Martin . 2012. “Loteraʾi.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/loterai

Yarshater, Ehsan. 1974. “The Jewish Communities of Persia and Their Dialects.” In Mélanges Jean de Menasce, eds. P. Gignoux & A. Tafazzoli. Louvain, 453–66.

 

(Specify “Jewish” when finalizing the donation process or contact us to ensure your donation will go directly to support further documentation of the languages of the Jews of Iran.)

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.

 

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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.

For the last several years, ELA’s Jewish Languages Project has made it a priority to work with any and all speakers of Judeo-Median varieties, as well as Judeo-Shirazi speakers (who also have a substantial community in Brooklyn). Habib Borjian, a researcher with ELA, has analyzed available materials and published grammar sketches on Judeo-Median, with a particular focus on Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Isfahani. A number of subtitles have also been released in both Judeo-Kashani (based on work with Dr. Jack (Yaqub) Tabari, of Roslyn, New York, whose mother was born in Kashan) and in Judeo-Isfahani (with Dr. Nasser Baravarian). Recent work has also focused on Judeo-Shirazi. The Jewish Languages Project is actively seeking speakers of all Jewish languages of Iran.

 

(Specify “Jewish” when finalizing the donation process or contact us to ensure your donation will go directly to support further documentation of the languages of the Jews of Iran.)