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The Jewish population of North Africa is divided by language into Arabic and Berber-speaking communities, and groups speaking *Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Arabic-speaking communities include descendants of the megorashim (expellees from *Spain) who were arabicized, and the majority of the toshavim ("residents"), the Jewish population which existed in the Maghreb before the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The date of earliest settlement and the ethnic origin of the latter group have posed historical problems which have still to be solved satisfactorily. An examination of documentary evidence reveals the existence within this group of a variety of branches, which provide different means of expression. The various so-called classical or pseudo-classical languages used by authors of the period of Spanish rule for all philosophical, scientific, or religious literature are not within the scope of this survey. The educated Jew in the Maghreb is no longer able to understand these works in their original form and knows them only in their Hebrew translations. However, an exception must be made for certain poetical works in Hispanic Arabic (which has become Zajal), and certain muwashshaḥāt, which formed the lyrics of the so-called Andalusian music. This poetic form remains the preserve of a very small Jewish elite, unable to read Arabic script and thus taught orally, by Muslim or Jewish teachers. There is a collection of these verses in an extremely rare edition published in *Tunis in 1886 in Hebrew and Arabic, and entitled Sefinah Maluf.

There is also a later type of poetry, the qiṣṣa, composed in a type of koine (i.e., a form of colloquial Arabic), which is understood by all North African communities. It is extremely popular in cultured circles, as well as among the masses. The qiṣṣa includes as its main genre rhymed adaptations of Bible stories or liturgical poems, songs of joy or lamentation, songs in praise of saintly men in Ereẓ Israel or North Africa, homilies on virtue, and satirical works. Folksongs sung on family occasions (funerals and celebrations) are written in a language close to colloquial speech.

Of all North African dialects, those of the Jews have best preserved the oldest characteristics of the language introduced during the early centuries of Arab rule. This conservatism has also produced a paucity of expression. When the realm of the concrete and of everyday life is abandoned for abstract concepts, it is necessary to resort to the vocabulary and morphosyntactical structure of Hebrew and Aramaic. This constitutes the heterogeneous language of preaching, talmudic instruction, circular letters, and decisions of the rabbinical courts or of the community council. The sharḥ, or commentary on sacred writings, such as the Bible and liturgical texts, has a special place because of its basic role in traditional education and its special linguistic rules. Beside these, there is an epistolary language and a Jewish slang called lashon (Heb.: "language") used to mislead strangers.


There is no written literature, but *Berber society in general possesses an oral literature, whose basis (still scarcely investigated) consists of fables, legends, proverbs, and poetic works, generally on the theme of love and war, or else of a homiletical nature. Apart from their living dialects and folklore, which are no less rich than those of their Muslim neighbors, the Berber-speaking Jews have a traditional and religious oral literature, of which, unfortunately, very little has been preserved and recently collected. Without dealing with the controversial subject of the origin of these communities, it should be noted that Berber was one of the vernaculars of the Jewish communities of the Atlas mountains and the Moroccan Sous (and, apparently, of certain parts of *Algeria and *Tunisia). Most Jews were bilingual, speaking both Berber and Arabic, but others spoke only Berber, and until the 1950s there were a few isolated immigrants to Israel, who settled in Ashkelon, belonging to this latter group. Traditional education employed Berber as the language of interpretation and translation of sacred texts (and sometimes of the liturgy). Several biblical passages have been recorded in their Berber form, but the most important document, which is of vital importance for a knowledge of the linguistic and cultural traditions of this part of the Diaspora (which long remained unknown), is a Passover Haggadah. This Haggadah has been entirely translated into a dialect which resembles Tamazigt; the antiquity of its literary form appears to be beyond dispute.


H. Zafrani, in: Revue de l'Occident Musulman…, 4 (1967), 175–88.

[Haim Zafrani]