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Struggling To Preserve an Iranian Jewish Language Before It Goes Extinct

Jews from Iran to India once spoke their own languages. The few remaining speakers are now the ends of those linguistic lines.

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Isaac Yousefzadeh. (Iris Mansour)
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A couple of the remaining Judeo-Kashani speakers tried to put together a list of words and their translations, Yousefzadeh said, but very few people have shown any interest. “No one will buy it,” he said.

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As the last speakers of Judeo-Kashani—as well as other endangered Jewish languages—are entering their twilight years, the need to document them, as a way to preserve not only the language but also the window onto Jewish life, has become more urgent. Linguist Sarah Benor puts this loss into stark terms: “Language is so intimately tied to culture,” she said, “that any particular group that loses its language also loses its sense of cultural distinctiveness.”

Jewish languages are living artifacts that give us clues about Jewish life—everything from jokes to songs to poems to personal memories. “We can draw general conclusions about the history of a people or a place by studying the language,” said Borjian. Once the languages are gone, they take much of that information with them.

The Endangered Language Alliance, in which Borjian plays an active part, has recently established a project to document the Jewish languages spoken in New York. Yet there is a difference between documentation and preservation. The ELA can film and record interviews with speakers telling stories, speaking, or singing songs. Its researchers can transcribe what they hear, draw out the grammar, figure out how verbs are conjugated and sentences put together, but they cannot stop a language from dying. “Preservation can be only done by the speakers themselves,” Borjian said, “not much can be done by an outsider.”

Not all Jewish languages have been discovered, and some may have already passed away unnoticed. Benor, a professor at Hebrew Union College who specializes in Jewish languages, puts the number of endangered Jewish languages at around two dozen. And she notes that the ELA is not the only place trying to keep records about these languages: In Israel, she says, there have been efforts to document Judeo-Malayalam, from southern India.

But the stakes are clear. “If we don’t have a record of these endangered languages, then we really won’t know much about these communities,” said Benor. “By documenting these languages we’ll get another window into the Jewish people.”

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Struggling To Preserve an Iranian Jewish Language Before It Goes Extinct

Jews from Iran to India once spoke their own languages. The few remaining speakers are now the ends of those linguistic lines.

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