Parallel Developments:
Judeo-Italian and Xiao’erjing
(Mandarin of Chinese Muslims)

Italy and China are both countries with many varieties of speech that are called dialects, although some of them are mutually unintelligible. In both these countries, however, the percentage of people who speak languages other than Italian or Chinese is small. In the case of China, 8% of the citizens are speakers of non-Chinese languages. This is still a large number in a country as big as China. An article in China Daily USA on June 29 reported that 134 languages are spoken in China, some of which are at the point of extinction (Mu Qian, 9).

Max Weinreich cited an unidentified speaker as saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy (A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot), despite the fact that Weinreich studied Jewish languages and always called them “languages” (Weinreich, 13). Another definition of a language might be a dialect with its own recognized writing system. Jewish languages for most of history have been written in the Hebrew alphabet. Alphabets and religion often go together. Hindi is written in the Devanagari alphabet and Urdu in the Arabic alphabet. It is probably because of their different writing systems that they are considered separate languages. Similarly, Serbian is written in Cyrillic and Croatian uses the Latin alphabet. Sometimes Serbo-Croatian is considered a single language, but nowadays, since Serbia and Croatia are independent countries, we tend to speak of the Serbian and Croatian languages. Serbia and Croatia today have their own armies and navies, but these post-date the recognition of their linguistic varieties as languages rather than dialects. The armies and navies are the effect rather than the cause of the independent languages.

In China there are several different Muslim communities. The best known is that of the Uighurs, who live in Xinjiang Province and speak a Turkic language. There is another and probably larger group called the Hui (pronounced [hwe]) who live in almost every part of China, are generally thought to look Chinese, and who speak a language very closely related to Mandarin Chinese—or else simply speak Chinese. The character for the Hui people is the same as for the very familiar word hui meaning ‘return’.

I became aware of the Hui minority when I first taught at Hebei University in Baoding, China, during the spring semester of 1984. Baoding is about 100 miles southwest of Beijing, and is definitely in a Mandarin-speaking area. One of the professors in the foreign language department was named Jiang Jing and taught English. He invited my family and me to the Baoding mosque to see the services for Eid-al-Fitr, at the end of the month of Ramadan. He informed us that the university had a dining room serving halal food, so that Muslim students could eat there without violating their religious restrictions. He was the person from whom I first learned that the Hui community used to write Chinese using the Arabic alphabet, although apparently that knowledge had been lost during the period of the anti-religious restrictions under Chairman Mao.

It frequently happens that a country, especially a multi-ethnic country, may have different legal categories for citizenship and nationality. Jews were a nationality in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the USSR, and elsewhere. The Chinese government recognizes the Hui as an ethnic group. Its members may be called Huimin ‘Hui people’ or Huizu ‘Hui nationality’ (Dillon, 2). In China, the Hui are not particularly distinctive, but are one of the largest minorities. The 1990 census reported a population of 8,602,928, of whom 185,000 lived in Beijing (Dillon, 1). One province of China is the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region. It is located in northwestern China, adjacent to Inner Mongolia.

According to census figures, China has 4 million Catholics (who belong to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a pro-contraception, pro-abortion denomination) and 10 million Protestants, but neither the Christians nor anybody else considers China’s Christians a nationality. Although Christians, like any identifiable group, need words to use within their own community, they do not feel they have their own dialect, and certainly not their own language. There are no echoes of the situation that led to the separation of Serbia and Croatia.

Mao Zedong and Kemal Ataturk differed in many ways, but both ended systems of writing based on religion. Turkey switched to the Latin alphabet in 1928 when the country redefined itself as a secular nation. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided that not only Turkish but Ladino should be written with Latin letters. Today, most Ladino speakers in Israel are from Turkey or descended from Turkish Jews; consequently, in Israel, which uses the Hebrew alphabet, Ladino is written with Latin letters despite the fact that for almost all its history it was written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Under Mao, “minority schools and colleges were closed down, the use of minority scripts was restricted or even banned and many cadres of minority nationality were replaced by Hans” (Dillon, 164). Today, different writing systems thrive in China. Inner Mongolia uses the Mongolian alphabet, although the independent country of Mongolia, also called Outer Mongolia, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The Mongolian alphabet, interestingly, is derived from an extinct Uighur alphabet, which was replaced by the Arabic alphabet in the 16th century, another example of the connection between alphabets and religion.

Ataturk was the only person in history, to my knowledge, who ordered a change of alphabets for a Jewish language. The Soviet Union may have done the same for an Islamic language, according to Mair (see below). Judeo-Italian has been written in the Latin alphabet since the early 20th century, but that is because the language was disappearing and writers were trying to capture and preserve the spoken language and make it available to readers. To an extent, Yiddish is written with the Latin alphabet today, but newspapers and books are published every day in the traditional writing system. The USSR ordered a change in the way Yiddish was spelled, eliminating final variants of letters and spelling words of Hebrew origin phonetically according to Yiddish rules rather than using the traditional Hebrew spelling. Many Communist countries have modified their writing systems. China introduced simplified characters under Mao and still uses them, although Taiwan uses the traditional characters. One might argue that Marxism is functioning as a religion, albeit an atheist faith. Now that Mongolia is no longer a Marxist country, there has been an attempt to go back to the Mongolian alphabet, but Mongolian citizens have gotten used to Cyrillic and most of them don’t want to change.

Members of the Hui minority are colloquially called Huihui. They traditionally called their language Huihuihua. Hua means “speech” or “language.” There is another officially-recognized language called Huihuihua. The two characters in this language transcribed as hui are written differently, and the tones are not the same. It is also called Tsat, and is a member of the Austronesian language family. It is spoken on Hainan Island (Ross Perlin, personal communication).

Today the word “Huihui” is sometimes considered pejorative. It is not found in my Chinese-English dictionary. However, Huihuihua apparently survives as the name for their language. Their Arabic script is called either xiaojing or xiaor jin, translated respectively by Dillon as ‘Small Classic’ or ‘Little Brocade’ (Dillon, 155). The Chinese character found in Dillon for jing is translated in my dictionary as ‘path’, which makes more sense to me. On the other hand, the Wikipedia article uses a character for jing that means ‘scripture,’ which seems to reflect a distinction between Arabic (major scripture) and Huihuihua (minor scripture). In any event, this system of writing is on the verge of extinction in China, although it survives among Hui people whose ancestors moved from China to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (Dillon, 73), where the speakers are called Dungan, which according to Dillon (73) “is a Turkic name for the immigrants … but it also has connotation in Chinese of Eastern Gansu” (dong is Chinese for “east” and gan is half the name of Gansu Province). However, this view is contradicted by Victor Mair, who says that in these former Soviet areas, a Cyrillic writing system was introduced in 1953, replacing a Roman writing system.

It is not surprising that the language and its writing system survived in an area where the neighbors spoke an entirely different language. This is analogous to the fact that Yiddish vanished, more or less, in German-speaking areas, as did Judeo-Italian, spoken only in Italian-speaking areas, whereas Yiddish in Eastern Europe and Ladino in Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia were very much alive at the beginning of World War II. Judeo-Italian was probably much more alive on the Greek island of Corfu before World War II than it was in Italy. Seth Jerchower is currently at work on a study of the Judeo-Italian of Corfu.

A counter-example to the rule that a minority language is more likely to survive when surrounded by an entirely different language is provided by the Jews of Kaifeng, China. Their variety of Judeo-Persian died more than 200 years ago. In the case of Kaifeng, the entire community came close to disappearing. Kaifeng also had a Hui community, and it has been suggested that the Jews merged and intermarried with the Hui much more than they did with the ethnic-Chinese Han majority, although there is no convincing evidence one way or the other (Dillon, 183). In Kaifeng, interestingly, the Muslims were called the bai mao ‘white-hat’ Huihui and the Jews were the lan mao ‘blue-hat’ Huihui.

The Hui historian Huang Tinghui has suggested that 20-30% of the Hui vocabulary in conversation consists of words of Arabic or Persian origin (Dillon, 154). This figure is considered quite exaggerated by other scholars. However, Hui speakers in Hunan Province and probably elsewhere greet each other by saying seliamu, from Arabic salaam [sƏljamu] as in salaam a’aleikum, just as Yiddish speakers may say sholem aleykhem. Non-Muslims are referred to as kafeile, from Turkish kafir ‘infidel’ (Dillon, 155). We would expect the language of a religious community to have a word analogous to goyim. My own former colleague, Jiang Jing, said that the words halal and halam (from Arabic haram) were used for foods that were, respectively, permitted or not permitted, obviously analogous to kosher and treyf. Mr. Jiang pronounced these words with final consonants, despite the fact that this violates the rules of Mandarin Chinese.

I would guess that Huihuihua has words of Arabic or Persian origin for ‘wedding’ and ‘funeral’, and I would be curious to know whether such a word exists for ‘thief’, as is almost always the case in Jewish languages.

Judeo-Italian dialects typically seem to come from someplace south of the location where they are spoken, except that there are features from different regions making it impossible to pinpoint a particular place in the south (Jochnowitz). The Judeo-Italian dialect of Mantua lacks some of the northern features found in the area (Colorni). The Germanic component of Yiddish cannot be precisely located among the different dialects of German. This may be analogous to the fact that the Hui and Han minorities living in Urumqi, the capital of Uighur-speaking Xinjiang Province, have trouble communicating with each other, since they typically speak different sub-dialects of Mandarin. The Hui population living in Urumqi is divided between those who come from Qinghai and those who come from Shaanxi, although the Shaanxi variant of Mandarin dominates among speakers of Huihuihua. The split between two distinct varieties of Huihuihua is analogous to the split found in Corfu between Judeo-Venetian and Judeo-Pugliese (Massariello Merzagora, 40). Most of the Han Chinese in Urumqi are from Gansu Province, and their Mandarin is noticeably different from the speech of the Hui community. The Huihuihua spoken in Xinjiang Province has words of Arabic and Persian origin, as we would expect, but also has borrowings from the neighboring Uighur language (Dillon, 160).

Jewish languages and Huihuihua share a heritage of a religious-based alphabet, loan words from both liturgical languages and other sources, and a pattern of dialects that are different from co-territorial varieties. This is a topic in need of further study.


Colorni, Vittore. 1970. “La parlata degli ebrei mantovani,” La Rassegna mensile di Israel 109-164.

Dillon, Michael. 1999. China’s Muslim Hui Community: Migration, Settlement and Sects. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Jochnowitz, George. 1972. “Forme meridionali nei dialetti ebrei dell’Italia central,” La Rassegna mensile di Israel 424-429.

Massariello Merzagora, Giovanna. 1977. Giudeo-Italiano (Profilo dei dialetti taliani No. 23).

Mair, Victor. 1990. “Two Non-Tetragraphic Northern Sinitic Lanuguages,” Sino-Platonic Papers No. 18.

Mu Qian. 2010. “Finding their voice,” China Daily USA, June 29.

Weinreich, Max. 1945. “Der Yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt.” Yivo-bleter Vol. 25 No. 1.

This article appeared in WORD, Volume 61, 2015 - Issue 4