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Between accommodation and distinction: The linguistic repertoire of German-speaking Jews

Esther Jahns

(Universität Potsdam)

This paper discusses the in-group speech of Jews in contemporary Berlin, its shape and its function especially in comparison with contemporary Jewish communities in other countries and give first insights in the reasons for inter- and intraspeaker variation.

Since the 6th century B.C.E. Jewish communities have been living more or less permanently in a multilingual environment. Eventually, a triglossic pattern emerged in the various exiles with clear functions for the respective languages: Hebrew-Aramaic remained the sacred language for religion, the territorial languages were used for the communication with non-Jews and quite often on the basis of the territorial language a third language developed which served as a vernacular and in-group speech (Spolsky & Benor 2006). In linguistics the latter are often labeled 'Jewish languages' and have been investigated since the first half of the twentieth century also from a comparative perspective (mainly under the name of 'Jewish intralinguistics').

Although contemporary 'Jewish languages' are in general less distinct from their co-territorial languages than historical ones, Benor (2011) and Lebenswerd (2016) show in their respective studies about American and Swedish Jews that these communities do make use of a "distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire" as Benor (2008) puts it. These repertoires consist mainly of loans from former Jewish languages (e.g. Yiddish) and Hebrew and might to a lesser extent also display distinctive grammatical features.

Even if we take the history of 'Jewish languages' and the existence of distinctive speech pattern in other contemporary Jewish communities into account, the situation in today's Germany is special concerning two aspects: the History and the linguistic closeness of German and Yiddish as the former Jewish language spoken in the territory of Germany.

In the framework of my PhD thesis and based on interviews conducted with personalities of Jewish life in Berlin I provide evidence that German Jews in Berlin also make use of a distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire and that this repertoire is used as a means to index their Jewish identity. This explorative study also gives first insights in the reasons for the variation within the repertoire ranging from more stable social categories to the active use of items to index alignment to subgroups within the community.



Benor, Sarah Bunin (2011): Mensch, bentsh, and balagan: Variation in the American Jewish Linguistic Repertoire. In: Language & Communication 31. 141-154.

Benor, Sarah Bunin (2008): Towards a New Understanding of Jewish Language in the Twenty-First Century. In: Religion Compass 2/6. 1062-1080.

Lebenswerd, Joshua Patric (2016): Jewish Swedish. In: Kahn, Lily & Aaron D. Rubin (eds.): Handbook of Jewish Languages. Leiden: Brill. 618-629.

Spolsky Bernard & Sarah Bunin Benor (2006): Jewish Languages. In: Brown, Keith (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. 2. Edition. Vol. 6. Oxford: Elsevier.