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Among the Jews living in central and southern Italy, a special dialect took shape from the early Middle Ages onward, particularly in Rome, which scholars have termed Judeo-Italian or Judeo-Roman (giudeo-romanesco). One of the several Judeo-Romance dialects which developed alongside the Romance vulgars, Judeo-Italian contains many linguistic elements common to all these dialects. With the formation of a major Jewish cultural center in Rome during the 13th–14th centuries, Judeo-Italian became a type of koine spoken by Jews throughout Italy, who called it Latino or Volgare. Although Jews spread its use as far as Venice and Piedmont to the north and Corfu in the Aegean to the east, the dialect retained its old, archaic form only in Rome, although here, too, it underwent modification and development over the generations. Judeo-Italian belongs to the south-central group of Italian dialects. Both written evidence and the spoken language itself show that a considerable part of the ancient Roman substratum – identical with the dialect of Rome and the surrounding areas spoken by non-Jews in the 13th century – is still recognizable in Judeo-Italian. However, together with this basic element, it is possible to detect the important influence of other central Italian dialects, such as those of the Marches, Campania, Umbria, and the Abruzzi. Judeo-Italian has also preserved still earlier elements, imported by Jews who immigrated from southern Italy and Sicily. A distinct development may be seen in the dialect's Judeo-Roman form during the 15th–16th centuries, although this became frozen after the Jews were isolated in the Roman ghetto from 1555 onward. The special linguistic peculiarities of Judeo-Italian are hard to determine because of the marked affinity of the various Italian dialects. The sole basis for its study lies in the classification and investigation of Judeo-Italian's archaic phonetic and morphological characteristics, as well as in its ancient vocabulary (which has been preserved as a result of Italian Jewry's historical mobility), such characteristics having long vanished in other Italian dialects. The various linguistic phenomena characteristic of the Jewish dialects in general are recognizable in Judeo-Italian. They include (a) the creation of words with a Hebrew root and an Italian suffix, and vice versa – achannoso (<ḥen, "charming," "comely"), dabberare (<dibber, "to speak"), achlone (<akhlan, "glutton"); (b) the creation of mixed terms, half-Hebrew and half-Italian – mal-mazzalle ("bad luck," cf. Yiddish shlimazl), magna-torà ("Torah eater," applied to one who reads at an excessive speed), perdi-zemàn ("time loser," i.e., one who wastes time); (c) the preservation of many Hebrew words, including those relating to prayer, study, and worship, which did not readily lend themselves to translation – cavanà (<kavvanah, "devotion"), chinianne (<kinyan, "betrothal contract"), sirichoddi (<seliḥot, "penitential prayers"), bangavanodde (>be-avonoteinu, "for our sins," a nickname for an unfortunate, luckless person); (d) abstention from the use of Italian words relating to Christian ritual, or a deliberate distortion of such terms – tonghevà (<to'evah, "abomination," signifying "crucifix"); (e) the coining of approved or secret terms similar to the language of the underworld – jorbedde (from י״ב "twelve" = "policeman," a nickname given to the policemen because of the number "12" embroidered on their uniform); (f) the use of Hebrew words in a sense differing from the accepted meaning, or the rejection of one Hebrew word in favor of a synonym – chavèr (<ḥaver, for "servant"), beridde (<berit, for "sex organ"), ngarelle (<arel, for "non-Jew"); (g) a tendency, especially in translations, to use homophones or Italian words reminiscent of identical or similar Hebrew terms.

Judeo-Italian Literature

Judeo-Italian literature may be said to include all the works intentionally written in the dialect, using Hebrew orthography and the set rules of transliteration. The outstanding original work is a Lamentation for the Ninth of Av written at the beginning of the 13th century and based on literary motifs borrowed from the Midrash. This Lamentation, one of the earliest poetic texts in Italian, possesses considerable literary value and the author was apparently influenced in his choice of style by the Italian religious poetry of his time. Other documents which have survived include a "Hymn in honor of Queen Sabbath" by Mordecai b. Judah *Dato (published by Cecil Roth, see appended bibliography). In addition, it would appear that Judeo-Italian was the language in which R. Moses *Rieti wrote his ethically oriented, 15th-century philosophical treatise, now preserved in manuscript at Leiden (ms X, 1 or, Scaliger). Because of their linguistic character, translations form the richest and most important part of Judeo-Italian literature. To facilitate study of the Bible, liturgy, grammar, philosophy, and medicine, and to assist children and women who could read Hebrew without actually knowing the language, Italian Jews translated the entire Bible, the prayer book, the Passover Haggadah, the Ethics of the Fathers, various hymns, and large portions of the liturgy. Other works translated were Moses b. Joseph Kimḥi's grammatical treatise Mahalakh Shevilei ha-Da'at (early 14th century), Maimonides' Millot ha-Higgayon (15th-century manuscript) and Guide of the Perplexed (translated by Jedidiah da Recanati, c. 1580), together with various pharmaceutical lists and selections from books on practical medicine. The Bible and the liturgical translations are notable for their conservative nature and for their establishment of a particular method of translation and unified tradition of translation, whose origins date from the era of the later Roman Empire and were crystallized during the 13th century. These Judeo-Italian translations are distinguished by their use of ancient terms long vanished from normative Italian, and by their preservation of the old Jewish exegetical tradition governing the comprehension of particular biblical nouns and expressions. However, despite the mechanical method of translation, the translators succeeded in preserving aesthetic values, both in poetic rhythm and in the lyrical power of the biblical source. Evidence of this is provided by a 13th-century Judeo-Italian version of the Song of Songs, which is the oldest Italian translation of the biblical work. Apart from isolated portions published in recent times, these translations of the Bible remain in manuscript. The liturgical translations were, however, published several times during the 16th century (Fano, 1505; Bologna, 1538; Venice, 1547; Mantua, 1561). A translation into Judeo-Italian was included in a series of Passover Haggadot published in Venice in the 17th–18th centuries. Pedantic adherence to the original Hebrew, shown both in the preservation of ancient vocabulary and in the Hebrew influence on the morphology and syntax of the sentence structure, is also characteristic of the translations of the philosophical and grammatical treatises. Several glossaries in Judeo-Italian have survived, composed especially for Bible study and to aid an understanding of any text written in Hebrew. Of the biblical glossaries which have been published – many remain in manuscript – the most important was the Makrei Dardekei of Pereẓ Trabot (Naples, 1488), a biblical dictionary with Arabic and Judeo-Italian translations of the roots. One of the most ancient and important collections of glosses is that found in the first talmudic dictionary, the Arukh of Rabbi *Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (late 11th century), which contains some 600 Judeo-Italian words. There is also a multitude of Judeo-Italian glosses in Judah b. Moses b. Daniel Romano's early 14th-century edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

As a spoken language, Judeo-Italian has disappeared in most parts of Italy, although it continues to retain a certain degree of vigor among the Jewish working classes of Rome.


Milano, Bibliotheca (1954), Supplemento (1964), index s.v.Dialetti giudeo-italiani e pronunzia; A. Milano, Il Ghetto di Roma (1964), index; M. Steinschneider, in: Il Buonaroti, 6 (1871); idem, in: mgwj, 42 (1898), passim; 43 (1899), passim; 44 (1900), passim; D.S. Blondheim, Notes on the Italian Words in ʿArukh Completum (1933); C. Roth, in: rmi, 1 (1926), 37–46; G. Fiorentino, in: Archivo Glottologico Italiano, 29 (1937), 138–60; J. Sermoneta, in: Romanica et Occidentalia… (1963), 23–42; idem, in: Scritti in memoria di L. Carpi (1967), 59–100; idem, in: Lessico Intellettuale Europeo (1969). add. bibliography: A. Freedman, Italian Texts in Hebrew Characters: Problems of Interpretation (1972); G. Jochnowitz, "Had Gadya in Judeo-Italian and Shuadit (Judeo-Provencçal)," in: J.A. Fishman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages (1985), 241–45; L. Ferretti-Cuomo, "Le glosse volgari nell' 'Arukh di r. Natan ben Yeh'iel da Roma. Note di lavoro a proposito del fondo germanico," in: Medioevo Romanzo, 22:2 (1998), 232–83; M.Mayer-Modena, Lexicon of the Hebrew Componant in Judeo-Italian (2006).

[Joseph Baruch Sermoneta /

Cyril Aslanov (2nd ed.)]