Language and land are intricately connected. Indeed, languages and dialects tend to get their names from the regions where they are spoken. What happens, then, when a people has no land of its own? For most of Jewish history, this was the linguistic situation of the Jews. Aside for a few hundred years during the first and second millennium B.C.E. and the past half-century in Modern Israel, Jews have not had a homeland, and thus instead of speaking a single language, they have spoken many.
Hebrew is the language of the Bible and of traditional Jewish liturgy. As such, it is integrally connected with the Jewish religion. The rabbis attributed theological significance to the Hebrew language. Rabbinic literature refers to Hebrew as lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language. In addition, Hebrew was thought to be the language of God and the angels, as well as the original language of all humanity.
It is unclear when the Israelites began using Hebrew, but the earliest Hebrew texts date from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. However, Hebrew’s primacy as a spoken language began to diminish following the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. and the exile that followed.
In the Middle Ages, Hebrew was used primarily for ritual and religious purposes. During the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, Jews adopted Hebrew as a secular language. Hebrew newspapers and novels began to emerge, and a number of scholars took up the task of transforming Hebrew into a modern spoken tongue. With the rise of Zionism this endeavor gained political and practical relevance. Today Modern Hebrew is the official language of the State of Israel.
Interestingly, the–arguably–second most important Jewish language wasn’t Jewish at all. Aramaic, the language of the biblical Book of Daniel, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, and the mystical masterpiece the Zohar was actually spoken by Semitic people throughout the ancient Near East. Nonetheless, as the language spoken by most Jews during the influential rabbinic period (the several centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.), it became an essential component of future forms of Hebrew, as well as other Jewish languages.
Jewish Hybrid Languages
Indeed, Hebrew and Aramaic, together, served as the basis for all Jewish hybrid languages — languages such as Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, and of course, Ladino and Yiddish. These hybrid languages generally retained the linguistic structures of their non-Jewish parents (e.g. Spanish for Ladino, German for Yiddish), while using Hebrew script and integrating Hebrew and Aramaic words. Though Hebrew remained the primary religious and scholarly language of the various Diaspora Jewish communities, many Jews were unable to understand Hebrew, and the hybrid languages were their primary tongues. Today, however, most of these Jewish hybrid languages are extinct, with the exception of Ladino and Yiddish.