Jewish Language Research Website



Description by Miriam Sharon


The Judeo-Portuguese language was spoken and written by Jews in Portugal before the sixteenth century (Peninsular Judeo-Portuguese), as well as in various countries of the post-dispersion diaspora (Emigré Judeo-Portuguese). Texts were written in Hebrew letters (Portuguese Aljamiado) or in Latin letters.

Judeo-Portuguese developed differently from Judezmo, partly due to the distinct historical circumstances of Jews in Spain and Portugal. While all Jews who refused Christianity were expelled from Spain in 1492, Portuguese Jewry was never expelled but was converted to Christianity by force, by a mass baptism decreed by King Manoel in 1497. These New Christians, also called Conversos or Marranos, continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism in various degrees of religiosity. Portuguese Jews accommodated to the new conditions and created viable forms of crypto-Judaism that survived for centuries. Emigration started only four decades later with the introduction of the Inquisition to Portugal in 1536. The flow of emigrants was continuous between the second half of the sixteenth century and 1778, when legal distinctions between Old and New Christians were abolished in Portugal.

The Portuguese Marranos who emigrated some decades after conversion had only weak ties with Judaism. They looked and behaved like Christians and practiced only a few remnant traditions in secret. The language of these Portuguese Marranos developed on the basis of the majority norms of standard Portuguese, but it also included elements of older varieties of Judeo-Portuguese, as well as Judezmo (Wexler 1985).

Peninsular Judeo-Portuguese

Little is known about the spoken language of the pre-dispersion Jews. I.S. Revah (1961) states that the language was different from that used by the Christians only in the addition of Hebrew words to the lexicon. However, several examples of pre-dispersion texts exist and are available for analysis.

Texts in Hebrew Script

Medieval Judeo-Portuguese texts can be found in libraries all around the world. The oldest known document is a treatise on the art of manuscript illumination dating from 1262, written in Portuguese with Hebrew characters – O livro de como se fazem as cores. It is a document of prime importance for the history of Hebrew manuscript illumination, as the instructions contained in the text were used for the illumination of an elaborate Bible manuscript in Corunna, Galicia, in 1476 (Blondheim 1929-1930).

The oldest known liturgical text is a Spanish Mahzor in Hebrew script, published in Portugal around 1485, which includes ritual instructions in Portuguese Aljamiado (Metzger 1977). Other old texts include the following:

For more early sources, see Wexler 1985.

Non-Jewish Sources

The famous fifteenth-century Portuguese dramatist Gil Vicente presents a Judeo-Portuguese passage in his play Farca de Inês Pereira where a distinctive form of Portuguese is used: "Alça manim dona, o dona, ha." Manim appears to be the Spanish mano with the usual Hebrew masculine plural suffix -im (Heb. dual yadayim 'hands'). Spanish words in Judeo-Portuguese are common. Thus we see that Gil Vicente has presented in a single word two non-Portuguese influences in the language of Portuguese Jews (Artola and Eichengreen 1948).

Emigré Judeo-Portuguese

Emigré Judeo-Portuguese developed in the early sixteenth century in places where the Portuguese Marranos re-assumed Judaism and developed flourishing Jewish communities: Northern Germany, Holland, France, Italy, England, the Caribbean, and North and South America. Judeo-Portuguese was called the language of the Portuguese Nation (Nação Portuguesa) and was the official language spoken and written in the diaspora communities. In Western Europe it was used in numerous domains: the home, commercial transactions, administration, formal ceremonies, greetings, sermons, speeches, legal exchanges, registrations, tomb inscriptions, community reports, etc. Only after 1850, with the introduction of public schools, did its use diminish, becoming limited to home use, sometimes only on the Sabbath.

In Emigré Judeo-Portuguese communities, liturgical writings translated from Hebrew were generally in Spanish. But in the seventeenth century many Judeo-Portuguese secular texts appeared in the domains of philosophy, moral literature, drama, and poetry. These texts were published in Italy and Germany, as well as Amsterdam, which became a center of Jewish literary and scientific activity. A compilation of Judeo-Portuguese texts published in Amsterdam can be found in Mendes dos Remedios (1911).

Little research has been done on the linguistic features of Emigré Judeo-Portuguese. According to Germano's (1968) study of texts from Amsterdam and Hamburg between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the Jewish variety included more archaic forms than the standard Portuguese of that time. The Portuguese linguist B.N. Teesma (1975) calls the eighteenth-century language of Mendes-Franco (1975[1772]) a "fossilized Portuguese" and an "Ibero-Galic-Dutch hodge-podge." Mendes-Franco's text, written in Latin letters, includes numerous Hebrew loanwords, mostly from the semantic fields of Jewish tradition and community life. The Hebrew words appear either in Hebrew characters or in transliteration. The transliterations allow insight into the Judeo-Portuguese norms of pronunciation, as we can see in the following examples:

M-F spelling Pronunciation Mod. Heb. Gloss
<jesiba> yeziba yeshiva 'religious school'
<theba> teba teva 'box'
<ros> rosh rosh 'head'
<rassim> rasim rashim 'heads'
<queila> kejla kehila 'community'

Column 1 gives the words as Mendes-Franco spelled them, Column 2 presents the likely pronunciation, based on Portuguese orthographic norms of the time, and, for comparison, Column 3 gives the pronunciations in contemporary Modern Hebrew. Some points of interest include the voicing of intervocalic /s/, the realization of intervocalic <vet> as bilabial [b], and the deletion of intervocalic [h].

There is much work to be done on Judeo-Portuguese. Future research should define the nature of the Hebrew component, clarify the relationship between Peninsular and Emigré Judeo-Portuguese, and examine the many undescribed texts (see Miranda de Boer 1986).

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)