AJS roundtable panel on documenting endangered Jewish languages

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Sarah Benor

Mar 5, 2021, 1:52:30 PMMar 5

Dear Jewish studies scholars,

AJS has just come out with its call for papers for the 2021 conference in Chicago. This year, the Linguistics division, chaired by Renee Perelmutter, suggests these themes:

"Modern Jewish languages documentation (e.g., Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Hungarian, Jewish Russian, and more); Jewish languages: endangerment and revitalization; programming to honor the contributions of Prof. Yehoshua Blau (1919-2020) to the fields of Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew linguistics and other Semitic languages; Jewish languages in antiquity and the medieval period."

I'd like to propose a roundtable on documenting endangered Jewish languages. Below is a draft of the abstract. Please let me know if you're interested in participating in this roundtable.

Sarah Bunin Benor

Documenting endangered Jewish languages: Practical, ethical, and cultural issues


Of the world's 7000 or so languages, about half are currently endangered. Several of these are Jewish languages. Because of migrations, genocide, assimilation, and language policies over the last two centuries, most longstanding Diaspora Jewish languages are currently endangered (e.g., Ladino/Judeo-Spanish, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian). Several scholars and activists have recognized the urgent need to document these languages and have conducted interviews with speakers. This panel brings together 5 of these researchers to discuss the practical, ethical, and cultural issues that arise in the process of language documentation.


Questions will include:


- How do you find speakers?

- In which languages do you conduct your interviews? How much knowledge of the language do you need to conduct an interview?

- How do you structure your interviews?

- What metadata do you collect (e.g., speaker’s language biography, residential history, and social dimensions)? How do you store the recordings and the metadata?



- How do you research intra-speaker variation, e.g., how the speaker would speak differently to different audiences?

- If you are not part of the group you are researching (e.g., a non-Jew from Iran studying Iranian Jewish languages or an Ashkenazi Jew studying Judeo-Arabic), how does that come up in your research? How can you encourage insider Jewish speech?

- How do you determine whether Hebrew words used in the speech were historically used as loanwords or represent transfer from Modern Hebrew or other contemporary Jewish languages?

- What specific elicitations do you use to document how the speaker spoke/speaks about Jewish-specific referents (e.g., Jewish observance, holidays, lifecycle events, Jewish-non-Jewish relations)? Which Hebrew/Aramaic words they use(d)?



- Do you obtain Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for your research?

- What consent procedures do you use when conducting your research?

- If you did not obtain explicit consent to make the recordings publicly available, is it OK to do so if the speaker is deceased or no longer reachable?


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