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Arabic Language Among Jews, Use of

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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The precise period of the first settlement of Jews in Arabia is unknown, and it is therefore impossible to say when the Arabic language was first employed by them. Historical data concerning the Jews of Arabia do not reach further back than the first century of the common era; but, judging by the important positions which they occupied then in parts of Arabia (compare Yakut, "Geog. Wörterbuch," ed. Wüstenfeld, 4:461 et seq.) and by the purely Arabic names which they bore, Jews must have already been settled in the country for several centuries.

Among the ante-Islamic poets there were a number of Jews; and a certain Sarah, a Jewess, wrote some Arabic verses, in which she poured forth her grief at the massacre of her tribe of Ḳuraiza (Nöldeke, "Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Poesie der Alten Araber," p. 54). A Jew, named Al-Samau'al, made himself as famous by his loyalty as by his poetry, andthe Arabs to-day still use the phrase, "as loyal as Al-Samau'al," to express unswerving fidelity (Freytag, "Proverbia Arabum," 2:828). The son of AlSamau'al, Shuraikh, also occupied an honorable place among ante-Islamic poets.

In adopting the Arabic language, the Jews introduced into it a number of Hebrew words and expressions which, in certain portions of Arabia, where Jews were numerous and influential—as in the Yemen district, for example—have entered into the native vocabulary. It is owing to this that the Himyaritic inscriptions abound in Hebraisms and words which are altogether unintelligible to Arabs of other localities.

Adopted by Eastern Jews.

With the conquests that began immediately after the death of Mohammed, the Arabic language crossed the frontiers of Arabia and spread rapidly among the Jews of other countries. In Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Persia, which were conquered by the second calif, Omar, the Jews soon learned to use the language of the conquerors and adopted it as their mother-tongue. As early as the beginning of the eighth century, scarcely fifty years after the conquest, a Babylonian Jew, Jawaih de Bassora, translated a medical work from Syriac into Arabic; it is thus evident that at that period the Babylonian Jews were already familiar with the Arabic language. As Babylonia then exercised a religious hegemony over the whole Jewish world, it became necessary for the Jews of other countries —at least for Jewish scholars—to understand the official language of Babylonia. Consequently, when Africa and Spain were conquered under Walid I., the Jews found no difficulty whatever in sustaining intercourse with the Arabs.

The adoption of the Arabic language by the Jews residing in Moslem countries had a salutary effect also upon the Hebrew tongue. The Arabs attached great importance to the correct use of their language; and thus the Jews, who always cherished a deep love for the Hebrew tongue, were led to turn their attention to the deplorable state into which their own language had fallen. They set about polishing it, as it were, and created a grammar for it, modeled after that of the Arabic. Hebrew poetry, which in the seventh century resembled nothing so much as a lyre with broken strings—it was without rime or meter—began, under the influence of the study of Arabic poetry, to assume elegant rhythmic forms, and soon surpassed the latter in sonorousness and polish.

Characteristics of Jewish-Arabic.

But upon the written or literary Arabic language the Jews likewise exerted a special influence which was not so wholesome. Jewish writers treating of subjects pertaining to religion and Judaism, were forced in some degree to conform to the culture of the people for whom they wrote, the great mass of whom, though speaking Arabic as their mother tongue, were not able to read it, and were unfamiliar with its niceties of style and complicated grammar. Jewish authors were therefore compelled to transliterate the Arabic into Hebrew characters and to simplify the grammar. The system of transliteration was as follows: for each Arabic letter the corresponding: Hebrew was given. The letters , which have no equivalents in Hebrew, were represented by , with dots above or below the letters. The vowel-points were rendered either by the same signs as used in the Arabic or by the vowel-letters . In regard to grammar, the Jews avoided whatever could embarrass a reader who was not well versed in Arabic literature. Thus, for example, the broken-plural forms, so numerous in literary Arabic, were reduced to a minimum, only such being retained as were familiar to all. The purely orthographic signs, like the alif in the third person of the plural, were generally omitted. Contrary to grammatical usage, the second or third radical letter of a weak verb was generally retained in the conditional and imperative moods, to indicate to the reader the three radical letters of which the verb was composed. The rules of syntax were very much relaxed; and the style of what may be conveniently termed "Judæo-Arabic" often presents the same characteristics of disorder and confusion that are met with in the Hebrew vernacular literature of the Middle Ages.

With the overthrow of the dynasty of the Almohades at the close of the thirteenth century, the Arabic language ceased to be spoken by the western Jews; but for many centuries it continued to be cultivated by Jewish scholars of all countries for the sake of the many beautiful literary relics which Jewish authors have left in that language. It is still spoken by the Jews of Algeria, Morocco, Tunis, Egypt, Tripoli, Yemen, and Syria.

  • Steinschneider, in Jew. Quart. Revelation 13:303-311.
I. Br.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Arabic Language Among Jews, Use of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/arabic-language-among-jews-use-of.html. 1901.
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