The Importance of Judeo-Provençal
The word “Provençal” is ambiguous. In general, when people speak of the Provençal language, they are referring to the speech of a large area, perhaps a third of France, extending from the Alps to the Pyrenees. Since the province of Provence is a small part of this area in the southeastern corner of France, there is often confusion whether the name of the language refers to all of southern France or just to Provence. Since the word for “yes” in southern France was once oc, the name Langue d’Oc, language of oc, came into existence. It became the name of a province in the southwestern part of France, whose dialect is called Languedocien. The name Occitan has been suggested as the name for the entire family of southern French dialects, and this name is often used by scholars in France. But I will use the name Provençal for the language of southern France since it is more widely known, especially outside of France. Similarly, I will say Judeo-Provençal for the Jewish language of this area, despite the fact that many of its speakers lived in the area called the Comtat-Venaissin, which is adjacent to Provence but not part of it.
I feel this language is particularly important for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is the only Jewish language in which we find a women’s prayerbook with the blessing “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who made me a woman.” The book was written in the 14th or early 15th century in Judeo-Provençal or perhaps simply in Provençal spelled out in the Hebrew alphabet. This book antedates the invention of printing in 1436, and there is only one copy in the world, as far as I know. It is in the Cecil Roth collection in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, England. It was apparently written as a wedding present to someone’s sister, since the title page has the Hebrew words meaning, “My sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands,” which is similar to the blessing given to Rebecca in Genesis 24:60. The verse in Genesis says “our sister” rather than “my sister.”1
Jews lived in Provence at least as early as the first century C.E. They were expelled from France in 1306, readmitted in 1315, expelled again in 1322, readmitted in 1359, and expelled in 1394 for a period that lasted until the French Revolutionalmost 300 years. Provence was not yet ruled by the kings of France in 1394. This changed in 1481, and there was pressure to expel the Jews from there as well, which happened in 1498 but was not completely enforced until 1501.2 Perhaps if Jewish life had continued in France, the blessing “who made me a woman” would have entered printed prayerbooks. But this is conjecture. There are no “would-haves” in history. In the 16th century, prayerbooks for women were printed in Italy, but none included this unusual blessing. The Judeo-Italian prayerbooks were written following the same tradition as our Judeo-Provençal example. They were written in the Hebrew alphabet in Romance languages that did not exactly correspond to any dialect of Provençal or Italian. These languages were not quite like the spoken Jewish languages that were still heard in southern France and Italy well into the 20th century, with many words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin. At a time of widespread illiteracy, Jewish women could read well enough to be able to use a prayerbook in a variety of their own Jewish language. On the other hand, they were not expected to know Hebrew well enough to read their prayers in the original. We have no data on how many women, and how many men, could read at all, but the existence of these women’s prayerbooks is evidence that there was a demand for such books. The Judeo-Provençal language is important not merely because of the existence of a unique prayer but because it was a very early example of a tradition of translating the prayers into a local language.
The city of Avignon in Provence became the residence of the Popes in 1309. Avignon and the neighboring area, the Comtat-Venaissin, belonged to the Holy See and did not become part of France until two years after the French Revolution, in 1791. The Jews in the Papal States were not affected by the expulsions from France and Provence. Isolated Jewish communities existed in four towns: Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon, and l’Isle-sur-Sorgue. After the last Jews had been expelled from France in 1501, the Papal States became an island with a Jewish minority surrounded by a France without Jews. An isolated community is likely to develop eccentric linguistic features or to preserve archaisms that are lost elsewhere. In most of Europe, the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter ת (thav) was once like the English th sound in think, represented by the phonetic symbol θ. This pronunciation has disappeared pretty much everywhere, although it was preserved by the Romaniote Jews of western Greece until the Holocaust. In southern France, the letters ת (thav), ס (samekh), צ (tsadi), and שׂ (sin) all merged and were pronounced with the th sound. Eventually, this sound became an f sound. We know that f and th are acoustically similar; they sound alike. It is not unusual for there to be confusion or merger of these sounds; such a merger has taken place in certain non-standard varieties of English, where people say mouf instead of mouth. And so, the Jews of southern France said Ifrael rather than Israel and emef meaning “true.”
If the letters that sounded like s merged with θ and then f, we would expect the voiced equivalent of s, which is z, to become a voiced th sound [đ], like the th in this, and then eventually to become v. That is precisely what happened. As a result, Judeo-Provençal words borrowed from Hebrew with the letter ז (zayin) have a v sound, like mamver, from Hebrew mamzer, meaning “bastard,” and vonah from Hebrew zonah, meaning “prostitute.”
The existence of the f sound for a merger of s and θ shows that the letter ת (thav) really was pronounced θ in a part of Europe where the sound did not exist in the local language, as it did and does in Greek. It also links Judeo-Provençal with Ashkenazic pronunciations, since the same three Hebrew letters merged in both communities. The Ashkenazic s for ת (thav) must certainly have come from the same θ that produced f in Judeo-Provençal. Today the f is gone. Had the Jews of the Comtat-Venaissin not been isolated for centuries, they might have lost this unique feature long ago. Judeo-Provençal is important because it provides evidence that the θ pronunciation is the ancestor of the Ashkenazic s.
The Jews of southern France were obviously in close enough contact with their Christian neighbors to have adopted a variant of the Provençal language as their own. In Provençal, the sound d became z between vowels and at the ends of words. This change must have happened later than the change of ז (zayin) to v, since the z sounds from d never became v. Hebrew words were also affected by this change, and so we may find talmuz instead of Talmud. The final sound then unvoiced, giving us talmus. Perhaps this is the source of the names for three of the letters used by speakers of some varieties of Western Yiddish: dales, yus, lames. When the last Jews were expelled from Provence in 1501, they could have brought these Judeo-Provençal pronunciations with them to western Germany. The Jews who were expelled from most of the rest of France in 1394 might be the ancestors of those who moved farther to the east. The final s sound among Western Ashkenazim instead of the final d among eastern Ashkenazim might be evidence for stages of migration to different parts of Central and Eastern Europe from different parts of France.
The vocabulary of Judeo-Provençal is quite similar to what we find in other Jewish languages. The majority of the words are similar to, but not identical with, those of Provençal. This is analogous to the relationship of Yiddish with German or Ladino with Spanish. Then there are a large number of words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, referring to matters connected in some way with religionand also with subjects that are in some sense unpleasant. We have encountered the words mamver (bastard) and vonah (prostitute) above. A very familiar example is the word for “thief,” which in most Jewish languages comes from Hebrew; in Judeo-Provençal it is ganaud (the d is probably silent) or ganauin (apparently a confusion of the singular and plural).3
Judeo-Provençal shares with Judeo-Italian and Ladino a negative word that is of Romance origin. In Judeo-Italian and Ladino, the word is negro and means “bad, unfortunate,” and does not mean “black,” which is prieto in Ladino and nero in Judeo-Italian. In Judeo-Provençal the word is nècre, which is different from the Provençal negre for “black.” It is also different from the Judeo-Provençal negre meaning “foreigner” or “gentile,” and which comes from Hebrew nokhri, according to Pierre Pansier.4 I have my doubts about this etymology, since the vowels don’t correspond and I am not aware of another case where Hebrew o is realized as e in Judeo-Provençal. Be that as it may, we also find a more familiar word for “gentiles,” which is gouïen, obviously from Hebrew goyim.5
In Yiddish, loshn koydesh, literally “holy language,” means “Hebrew.” In Judeo-Provençal, lassan hakodes, literally “the language of holiness,” means “Judeo-Provençal.” Similar forms are found in Judeo-Italian and in Western Yiddish, where loshn ekoudesh is used as the name of the secret language of cattle dealers, not to be confused with yidishtaytsh, which simply means “Western Yiddish.” If the names of three letters of the alphabet in western Yiddish dales, yus, lames might come from Judeo-Provençal, so might the name of the cattle dealer dialect.
In addition to lassan hakodes, the seems to have been another name that the Jews of Avignon and the Comtat-Venaissin used for their language, a name that is variously spelled Shuadit, Chouadit, Chuadit, Chuadi etc.6 This name comes from the Hebrew yehudit meaning “Jewish.” The pronunciation of the letter י (yud) as sh is a bit unexpected. Let us return to the s sounds that merged with θ and eventually became f. When there was no s in the language, there was what linguists call a hole in the pattern. There was room for a new sound to become s, and that was the letter shin. We saw this in the pronunciation lassan hakodes. Once shin became an s, there was room for a new sh sound. Yud filled the slot, which is why the word for “Jewish” is Shuadit. The big mystery is why the language wasn’t called Shuazif. Maybe it was, but the pronunciation was not recorded. When a sequence of sound changes like the ones above takes place, it is called a chain shift.
To recapitulate, Judeo-Provençal, or Shuadit, if you prefer, is important for a variety of different reasons. It produced an early version of the daily prayerbook, and it is the source of a unique women’s blessing. The expulsion of Jews from southern France may possibly have introduced Judeo-Provençal words and expressions into Western Yiddish and Judeo-Italian. The isolation of the Jews in Avignon and the Comtat-Venaissin for a period of three centuries preserved some very eccentric pronunciations.
Then came the French Revolution in 1789. Two years later, the Papal States were absorbed into France. Jews, who used to be restricted to a single street in each of the four towns where they lived, could now move wherever they wanted to. They could even move to Paris, and many did. They no longer had to wear a yellow hat. They became involved in politics, and were disproportionately represented among the Sans Culottes, the revolutionary society of the time.7
The last speaker of Judeo-Provençal was Armand Lunel, a writer and also a librettist for his cousin, the composer Darius Milhaud. I met Lunel in 1968 and recorded him singing Had Gadya in his language. That was the first time I had heard there was such a language. I read as much as I could about Judeo-Provençal and went back to interview him in 1978, but he had died a few months earlier. His language died with him.
1. See my ...Who Made Me a Woman, Commentary, April 1981, pp. 63-64.
2. “Provence,” Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 13, columns 1259-64. See also “France,” EJ Vol. 7, columns 7-22.
3. Pierre Pansier, Une comédie en argot hébraïco-provençal, Revue des études juives 81, 1925,
4. Ibid., p. 144.
5. Ibid., p. 142.
6. Zosa Szajkowski, Dos loshn fun di yidn in di arbe kehiles fun Komta-Venesen (The Language of the Jews in the Four Communities of Comtat Venaissin), New York, published by the author and the Yiddish Scientific InstituteYIVO, 1948, p. 5.
7. H. Chobaut, Les juifs d'Avignon et du Comtat et la Révolution Française, Revue des etudes juives (new series) 2 (102), July-December 1937, p. 26.
A different version of this essay appeared in Midstream, July/August 2005