Jewish Language Research Website

Judeo-Iranian

Researchers

Description by Thamar Gindin [adapted from Gindin (2003)]

Iran – a land of dialects and languages. Besides Persian, the official language of the state, almost every small community has its own dialect, understood only by its own members. This includes religious minorities – Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Mandaeans – as well as ethnic minorities – Kurds, Azaris, etc. – and small communities of Iranian Muslims living in villages and remote cities. In the large cities, and increasingly in smaller communities as well, Persian is the dominant language variety, and the local dialects are endangered.

The Iranians are said to speak to their God in Arabic, to their horses in Turkish, and to their loved ones in Persian (Netzer 1981:27). These languages represent the three major language families spoken within the political borders of present-day Iran – Semitic (mainly varieties of Arabic and Aramaic), Altaic, and Indo-European (mainly varieties of Iranian languages). Linguistic Iran stretches from northern India in the south and Afghanistan in the east, through Bukhara, to Eastern Turkey and Iraq in the west, and to the Caucasus in the north.

This survey concentrates on the non-Persian Iranian dialects spoken by Jews in present-day political Iran. Most of these dialects are nearly extinct, due to massive emigration to Israel, to the United States, and to Teheran. The few Jews remaining in other cities also speak more and more Persian, leaving the local dialects to face extinction.

The Iranian language family, a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European, divides roughly into two major sub-groups – East and West Iranian. The political borders of present day Iran include mainly West-Iranian dialects, roughly dividing into south, north, and central dialects. For more detailed subdivisions see Windfuhr (1989c: 294-295).

Jewish Iranian languages contribute greatly to the linguistic research of Iran, as these dialects have changed very little over the many years of Jewish history in Iran. Wherever Jews migrated, they adopted the local dialect of the city, with a very small Hebrew and Aramaic component compared to European Jewish languages. Over the years, while the locals forgot or changed their dialect, the language spoken by Jews remained similar to the original local dialect. For example, Judeo-Shīrāzi resembles the language of 14th century national poet Hafiẓ, much more than does Standard New Persian. Most Jewish dialects preserve characteristics long gone from New Persian, such as the ergative construction of past verbs, regular in Middle Persian (extinct by the 8-9th century CE), e.g. Judeo-Yazdi šer-in 'I went' (intransitive verb, person rendered by suffix) em-xā 'I ate' (transitive verb, person rendered by prefix equivalent to the oblique case enclitic pronoun).

The only Jewish dialects documented and studied are those of Esfāhān, Yazd, Kermān (the last two very similar, as Kermani Jews came from Yazd in the 19th century), Shīrāz, Hamedān, Kāshān, Khunsār, Nehavand, Borujerd, and Golpāygān. In addition, there has been research on Luterā'i, a secret jargon composed mostly of Hebrew lexical items.

The relatively small Hebrew component includes mainly words for religious referents, such as tūrā ('Torah'), tefilin (Yazdi – tafílim) ('phylacteries'), sisit ('ritual fringes'), gūyim ('gentile', both as adjective and a noun in the singular), owen ('sin', Hebrew 'avon), mešimeδ (Esfāhāni – 'a naughty boy', from Hebrew mešumad – 'a Jew who converted'). The word berāxā (Hebrew 'blessing') serves in many dialects as numerative for Jews, e.g. Esfāhāni – di berāxā pir 'two sons'. Many Jewish Yazdis begin stories with bešem ašem nase onaslia ('in the name of the Lord, we will do and be successful'). Some other Hebrew words that do not exist in Judeo-Persian or other Jewish Iranian dialects still found their way into these dialects: nešāmā ('soul'), āšir ('rich'), ani ('poor'), saudā/seudā ('meal'), etc.

Iranian Jews who immigrated to Israel and still speak their original dialect add many Hebrew words, better defined as an "Israeli component" rather than a Hebrew one, e.g. Israeli Yazdi – kóno leátxil ko ('begin now').

The dialects differ greatly and are generally mutually unintelligible. Firstly, the accents vary: Esfāhāni Jews, and some Shīrāzis and Kāshānis pronounce s and z as θ and δ respectively. In some of the cities closer to Iraq (e.g. Hamedān and Golpāygān), Jews pronounce the phonemes <ḥ>, <'>, and <q> in Hebrew and Arabic words as in Arabic, and sometimes add them (in Persian, Hebrew and Arabic words) where they do not exist. In other cities these phonemes are pronounced [h], ['], and [γ] respectively, as in Persian. The stress in Judeo-Yazdi is generally penultimate, as opposed to ultimate in Persian and other Jewish Iranian dialects. Yazdis pronounce Hebrew schwa as [a], while others render it [e].

Vocabulary contributes greatly to the mutual incomprehensibility. For example, the word for 'large (Persian bozorg, colloquial also gonde) is masar in Hamedāni, masār in Khunsāri, mas or gondo in Yazdi, gunda in Shīrāzi (this instance, being the original pronunciation of Colloquial Persian gonde, demonstrates the conservatism of Shīrāzi), Kāshāni gōdi, and Esfāhāni bele. The word for 'cat' (Persian gorbe) is gorba in Shīrāzi, Yazdi gorbo (doubtful), and in Hamedāni, Khunsāri, Kāshāni and Esfāhāni meli. Another great difference among the dialects lies in morphology. 'I eat' is in Esfāhāni xer-úne, Khunsāri xor-on and Yazdi á-xor-in. 'I ate' Esfāhāni bé-m-xort, Yazdi ém-xā (the dashes separate morphemes without any hiatus in speech).

In some cities multiple Jewish dialects coexisted. In Yazd, for example, Judeo-Yazdi was spoken only in ūn ma:le 'that neighborhood', the northern neighborhood of Yazd, while the neighbors in īn ma:le 'this neighborhood', across the road from the south, spoke Persian with a Yazdi accent. This situation results from the Jews of īn ma:le coming to Yazd from Hamedān centuries after ūn ma:le Jews settled there. Other cities, where Jews settled relatively late, have no unique Jewish dialect. The Jews speak Persian or the dialect of their city of origin: in Rasht, a city in the northern province of Gīlān, Jews spoke Esfāhāni, Kāshāni, and Siāhkali (a Gilāni dialect). In Teheran almost all Jewish dialects – Iranian as well as non Iranian – are represented.

All Jewish Iranian dialects face the same future: extinction, with or without documentation. Not only are they threatened by migratory trends, but their social status is diminishing as well. Jews, especially the younger generation, regard their ancestors' language as inferior. They refuse to speak it and in many cases do not understand it at all.

Luterā'i – The Secret Jargon of Iranian Jews

In addition to their everyday language, Iranian Jews also had a jargon that allowed them to talk secretly in the presence of strangers. This jargon, called Luterā'i, consists of a considerable Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary used with Persian (or local dialect) syntax. Luterā'i, like the dialects, changes from place to place, and so does its name: in most places Luterā'i or Loterā'i, Luflā'i in Kashan, Lutra'i in Golpaygan, and Lutru'i in Kermanshah.

Iranian Jews interpret the jargon's name as lu-tūrā'i (< Heb. lo tora'i), 'not [the language] of the Torah', i.e. not Hebrew. Some scholars regard this as a folk etymology, pointing out that references to "Lūtrā'i" as an artificial secret language or nonsense language apparently used by non-Jews can be found in non-Jewish poetry as early as the 10th century CE. Other scholars, however, hold that these early references may be to a language spoken by Jews, or that the gentiles may have borrowed the name of the secret jargon from the Jewish one.

Unlike Persian and local dialects, where the Hebrew component is very small and serves mostly in compound verbs, in Luterā'i the Hebrew and Aramaic words hold the meaning, and the Persian component is minimized to conjunctions and grammatical morphemes. Examples include the following:

Some plural Hebrew words actually denoted a singular (the following examples are from Borujerd Luterā'i):

Other words were used in the construct form or with a possessive suffix:

And some words have shifted semantically:

The following story illustrates the use of Luterā'i when a non-Jewish thief entered a Jewish home. It is presented in Hebrew, as the text from which it is taken is not vocalized:

מספרים על בית יהודי שחדר אליו גנב בזמן שבעל הבית ישן. האישה הרגישה בגנב ושרה לילדה שבעריסה שיר בלותראי: "להלה באבאי (אבי), שם טוב גנב היזי (בא) בתוך ביתו. אגר בזואם (אם אומר) מיכודונה (יהרוג), אגר נזואם (אם לא אומר) מילכונה (יוליך)". הבעל כמובן התעורר בצעקות "אי דוז אי דוז" (הוי גנב הוי גנב) וגירש את הגנב.

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)