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Judeo-Italian

In response to:

The Triumph of the Italian Jews from the August 18, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Very few people have ever heard of Judeo-Italian; therefore it is not surprising that Bernard Knox (“The Triumph of the Italian Jews,” NYR, August 18) believes that “unlike their northern coreligionists, they had no separate everyday language.”

Judeo-Italian is related to Italian as Ladino is to Spanish and Yiddish is to German. A hundred years ago it was widely spoken, but it is dying today. Its major component is Italian, but there is a large Hebrew component as well, including many words with Hebrew roots and Italian suffixes. For example, in Judeo-Roman, a male thief is un ganavve (from Hebrew ganav); a female thief is una ganavessa; the verb “to steal” is ganavviare.

The first chapter, “Argon,” of Primo Levi’s masterpiece Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) is in part devoted to a discussion of the vocabulary of the Jews of Turin. A list of words collected by Levi was the source of my own article, “Religion and Taboo in Lason Akodesh (Judeo-Piedmontese),” which appeared in Volume 30 of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language.

George Jochnowitz

Professor of Linguistics

College of Staten Island, New York

Bernard Knox replies:

Professor Jochnowitz is quite right; I had never heard of Judeo-Italian (though I did know about the Ladino of Livorno). Stuart Hughes, however, does refer to the Italian of the ghetto which was “peppered with Hebrew words…tended toward archaism” and “had its own distinctive cantilena—its peculiar cadence or lilt or intonation.” He also mentions the first chapter of Primo Levi’s Il sistema periodico where Levi notes that “the language his family had spoken…was the dialect of the Christians surrounding them—’rough, sober, and laconic’—intermixed with terms taken over from the Hebrew—’sacred and solemn’—which had been given Piedmontese inflections and endings.” It is still true, however, that these linguistic phenomena, which are more like dialectal variations of Italian than a “separate everyday language” are not really comparable to the Yiddish of the northern European Jews which even had (and still has) its own literature.

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