Judeo-Italian: Italian Dialect or Jewish Language?

The answer is both, of course. Judeo-Italian is an Italian dialect, or rather, a group of Italian dialects, varying from one part of Italy to another, but containing a number of words of Hebrew origin and a few lexical items from other sources. Most of the vocabulary is Italian; most of the grammatical rules may be found somewhere in the complex system of Italian dialects.

Judeo-Italian is also a Jewish language, like Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, etc. It was written in the Hebrew alphabet for most of its history. As in all Jewish languages, words for items connected in some way with religion come from Hebrew: According to the orthographic system used by Bene Kedem (1932), following Italian orthographic practices but with the addition of ch for the voiceless velar fricative and ' for the velar nasal consonant, we find sciabad or sciabadde 'sabbath', chadan 'groom', cala 'bride', ta'anid 'fast day', all of which have analogs in Yiddish, using the standard YIVO transcription system: (shabes, khosn, kale, tones). The Judeo-Italian word for synagogue is scola generally distinguished from scuola 'school', just as Standard Yiddish distinguishes shil 'synagogue' from shul 'school'(Many, perhaps most, Yiddish dialects do not make this distinction.) In the United States, a new distinction has arisen in the English of East European Jews: shul and not shil is 'synagogue', which is distinguished from school, simply the English word.

A fusion language, the stock of which was mostly Greek, but in which the "mistakes" vis-a-vis standard Greek are systematized, and it is therefore necessary to speak of a separate language of Jews, however similar to Greek. (Weinreich 1980, 62)

Ladino and Yiddish are considered languages rather than dialects because they have been separated, by and large, from Spanish and German, and have evolved in separate directions. They were written in the Hebrew alphabet for most of their history, although Ladino has generally used the Latin alphabet since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk switched both Turkish and Ladino from the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets respectively to Latin script early in the 20th century. Judeo-Italian shares with Yiddish and Ladino the fact that it was written in Hebrew characters until the 20th century. It has produced a literature of its own. Unlike Yiddish and Ladino, however, it has never lost contact with the language that provided most of its vocabulary and most of its grammar.

Judeo-Italian is not simply a variant of Italian with a few borrowed words. It is a family of dialects, none of which quite coincide with the local dialects of Italian. In Roman dialect, for example, the masculine singular definite article is er. In Judeo-Roman, it is o, a form found in various parts of Southern Italy, but not itself Roman. It is often said that any local Judeo-Italian dialect corresponds to the Italian dialect of somewhere south of where it is spoken. The only problem is we can never locate the "somewhere." Different phonetic and grammatical features that are found together in the same Judeo-Italian dialect are not found together in other Italian dialects. Furthermore, there are sounds that are decidedly non-Italian: an initial velar nasal consonant, e.g. in 'ainare 'to look at'; and a voiceless velar fricative that can occur in consonant clusters, e.g., sciachtare 'to slaughter according to Jewish ritual'.

The gap between Jewish and local dialects is most striking in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. Judeo-Mantuan and Judeo-Ferrarese have no front rounded vowels. In this respect, though certainly not in all respects, they are closer to central and southern Italian rather than to their northern neighbors. In Mantuan, as in many north Italian dialects, subject pronouns are reinforced; there is an unstressed form of the pronoun following the stressed form: e.g. mi a gh'eva, ti at gh'evi, lu al gheva "I was having, you were having, he was having' instead of the simple Judeo-Mantuan mi gh'aveva, ti ghavevet, lu gh'ghaveva (Massariello Merzagora 1977, 28. See also Colorni 1970). In Piedmont, on the other hand, front rounded vowels are heard in both Piedmontese and Judeo-Piedmontese pronunciation.

Our written sources for Judeo-Italian fall into two categories: prayer books and translations of books of the Hebrew Bible, dating from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, written in Hebrew characters; and plays and poems of the 20th century, spelled out in Latin characters following the spelling rules of Italian, with digraphs or diacritics used for sounds that do not occur in Italian. For example, Bene Kedem (1932) uses ch for the voiceless velar fricative and apostrophe (') for the velar nasal consonant, as mentioned above.

Our 20th century works are self-conscious attempts to preserve dialects that are generally considered dead or dying. When Crescenzo Del Monte wrote in the 1920s, he was, among other things, trying to capture a language while it still could be done; when the theater group Chaimme 'a sore 'o sediaro e 'a moje, an oddly titled organization whose name means 'Chaim, the sister, the chairmaker and the wife', writes and performs plays in Judeo-Roman today, they are doing the same thing Del Monte was doing 70 years ago.

The contemporary works differ from the Renaissance texts in two significant ways: the alphabet, mentioned above; and the absence of words of Hebrew origin in the old religious texts. The Renaissance books were translations from the Hebrew, and every word had to be translated. On the other hand, despite a gap of several centuries, all Judeo-Italian dialects lack a distinction between the masculine plural and feminine plural. Other grammatical and lexical similarities apparently survived for centuries. The word for 'now' is mo not only in contemporary Judeo-Romance but in a prayerbook published in Bologna in the 16th century. The third-person plural suffix -eno is another example of a grammatical feature relatively rare and localized in Italian but widespread in Judeo-Italian.

In every Jewish language, words of Hebrew origin are sometimes combined with morphemes of other languages. In Judeo-Roman, a male thief is un ganavve; a female thief is una ganavessa; the verb 'to steal' is ganavviare, analogous to Yiddish ganvenen. Other times, morphemes of Hebrew origin are used as well: e.g. Judeo-Roman ganavimme 'thieves', Yiddish ganovim. In Yiddish, it is possible for a Hebrew suffix to be used with words that do not come from Hebrew, e.g. the plural of dokter 'doctor' is doktoyrim.

There was never a single name for the different varieties of Judeo-Italian. The Jews of Ferrara called their language ghettaiolo. I have never come across this name elsewhere. It is necessarily a word that postdates the establishment of the first ghetto, which happened in Venice in 1516. In Leghorn, the language was bagito, a word of unknown origin. Judeo-Roman and Judeo-Piedmontese, which are quite different from each other, share a name: Ă·Lashon Akodesh in Piedmont, Lescionacodesce in Rome. This name, meaning 'holy language' or 'language of holiness', is traditionally used to refer to Biblical Hebrew. The use of this term for a Jewish language reflects a somewhat startling semantic change. Although Jewish languages were used for prayer on occasion, the distinction between Hebrew and the local Jewish language was always one of great religious and cultural importance.

Although Yiddish and Ladino are almost certainly much younger languages than Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Italian has borrowed at least one word from each of them: Orsay 'anniversary of a death', is from Yiddish yortsayt; negro 'wretched' is from Ladino. In Judeo-Italian, negro has nothing to do with people from Africa, nor does it mean 'black', which is nero, of course. In Ladino, similarly, negro means 'wretched' and not black, which is prieto, from Portuguese.

The presence of a word meaning 'wretched' brings us back to words meaning 'thief' and 'steal'. Judeo-Piedmontese pegarie, an offensive way of saying 'to die, croak' is analogous to Yiddish peygern, with the same meaning and connotation (Jochnowitz, 114). The Hebrew component of the language is often used for things one doesn't quite want to talk about.

To get back to our question asked by the title, Judeo-Italian is a dialect, or rather, a group of dialects, of Italian. Most of its grammar, most of its phonology, and most of its vocabulary are Italian. Judeo-Italian is also a Jewish language. It resembles other Jewish languages in every detail, its use of the Hebrew alphabet for most of its history; its mixture of Hebrew and other, in this case, Italian, elements—often within the same word; the fact that its dialects have their own geographical patterns which do not agree with those of any other language; its Hebrew component including lexical items referring both to religious practice and to human foibles. There is no contradiction.

This essay appeared in The Most Ancient of Minorities: The Jews of Italy Edited by Stanisalo G. Pugliese, Greenwood Press, 2002.


Bene Kedem. 1932. La Gnora Luna. La Rassegna mensile di Israel 6:546-79.

Colorni. Umberto. 1970. La parlata degli ebrei mantovani. La Rassegna mensile di Israel, 36:107-64 (=Scritti in memoria di Attilio Milano).

Jochnowitz, George. 1981. Religion and Taboo in Lason Akodesh (Judeo-Piedmontese). International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30:107-17.