JUDEO-FRENCH , the Old French spoken and written by medieval French and Rhenish Jewry. It should be stated from the outset that there probably never existed a Judeo-French dialect, with specific Jewish traits. The term applies only to Jewish activities in medieval France, which had French as their vehicle. The mother tongue of the Jews in France during the Middle Ages was what is now called Old French. It was identical with the language spoken by the other inhabitants of the region with whom they lived in close contact. The Latin which they originally spoke underwent the same evolution and the same geographical diversification: thus the Jews of Normandy spoke the Norman dialect, those of Troyes that of Champagne, those of Dijon, Burgundian. They spoke it at home, in the market, at the synagogue, and at school. Rabbinical discussions were conducted in Old French, and it was sometimes even the language of prayer. The pronunciation of Hebrew was gallicized, חַיִּים being pronounced agin. Very few Hebrew words relating exclusively to Jewish traditional practices were used even in prayers: most were gallicized, such as plain for פְּשַׁט; bonteable for חָסִיד. The names adopted by Jews were French: Colon (= יוֹנָה), Bendit (= בָּרוּךְ), Vives (= חַיִּים), Quinet (Jacquinet = יַעֲקׁב), Monet (Simonet = שִׁמְ עוֹן), Belasez (Belle assez), Fleurdelis.
The written word, however, had a different appearance, since the Jews preferred Hebrew characters, the Latin ones being too strongly identified with the Church. This transliteration had undergone its own evolution from the Latin period and obeyed its own orthographic rules. The Latin k, when pronounced [tš] in Old French, was still rendered by ק, a diacritical mark showing the new value: ק; the Latin j, Old French [dzh], was transcribed by י with a diacritical mark until the 13th century; and the Latin u, becoming the French [ü], was written יֻ. The spelling testifies to dialectal differences in keeping with, and stemming from, knowledge of the Latin characters of Old French. The best-known Old French words in Jewish texts are the (glosses) in commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. Somewhat older are the glosses in the commentaries of *Menahem b. Ḥelbo and the Pseudo-Gershom. From the 12th century onward French glosses appeared in all the rabbinic writings of French and English Jewry: biblical and talmudic commentaries, responsa, halakhic treatises, prayer books, codes of law and custom, and financial records, as well as in the margins of innumerable manuscripts. Far more important, however, are the biblical glossaries, of which only six more or less complete 13th-century examples are still extant, although there are fragments of nine more. They contain tens of thousands of Old French words rendering the Scriptures into the vernacular. Together with two complete biblical dictionaries and the fragments of two more, these testify to a continuous translation of the Bible into French as taught in Jewish schools and houses of study. Because of their traditional character, they carried a certain number of ancient Old French words which had disappeared from gentile literary usage, pointing to Normandy as the likely home of the French version. Because of a misleading impression given by the Hebrew script and a false analogy with and – not to speak of a general ignorance of the Old French dialects – a mistaken idea of a distinctive Judeo-French dialect came into being. There are, however, few reasons to doubt that Jews in France spoke and even prayed in the Old French of their Gentile surroundings. Only a few liturgical poems, written according to French literary norms, have survived, and their quality suggests a wide use of this medium in religious services and ceremonies.
French seems to have been the vernacular in Rhineland Jewries in the early Middle Ages and some Old French words were thus carried over into Yiddish, for example chalant (חַמִּין, literally "being warm" – tsholent). This also accounts for the gallicized form of the official name of certain Jewish communities: Aspire (Speyer), Germèse (Worms), Magence (Mainz); and in English Jewry, Londres (London) and Nicol (Lincoln).
A. Darmesteter, Reliques scientifiques, 1 (1890), 103–307; D.S. Blondheim, Les Parlers judéo-romans et la Vetus Latina (1925); idem, Poèmes Judéo-français du moyen âge (1927); H. Pflaum (Peri), in: Romania, 59 (1933), 389–422; 60 (1934), 144; R. Lévy, Contribution à la lexicographie française selon d'anciens textes d'origine juive (1960). add. bibliography: M. Banitt, "Une langue-fantôme – Le judéo-français," in: Revue de Linguistique Romane, 27 (1963), 245–294; idem, Le Glossaire de Bâle (1972); idem, Rashi Interpreter of the Biblical Letter (1985); idem, Le Glossaire de Leipzig (1997); C. Aslanov, "Le français de Rabbi Joseph Kara et de Rabbi Eliézer de Beaugency d'après leurs commentaires sur Ezéchiel," in: Revue des Études Juives, 159:3–4 (2000), 425–46.
[Menahem Banitt /
Cyril Aslanov (2nd ed.)]