Italkian Language

General Notions


Varieties of Italo-Romance appearing in Jewish texts from the 10th to the 17th centuries in Italy, and from 16th through the 18th centuries in the Jewish community of Corfu; native users simply referred to it as latino and volgare. Several theories regarding the origin and typology of Judeo-Italian (Jit.) have been proposed, most notably by David S. Blondheim (1923, 1924), Umberto Cassuto (1929, 1935), and Giuseppe Sermoneta and Luisa Cuomo (1982, 1989). Blondheim's theory postulated the existence of a Judeo-Latin dialect, which would have evolved parallel to Vulgar Latin, and have been the substratus for a pan-Romance Jewish language. This theory was rejected by Cassuto, who proposed Judeo-Italian as a literary koiné, artificially forged by the Jews of central-southern Italy during the late Middle Ages for the chief purposes of translating and teaching. Indeed, while Blondheim's contribution to the field as a lexicographer is indisputable, his theory is generally not accepted today. Textual and epigraphic evidence suggesting any direct tradition and continuation from Latin is substantially lacking. The shared lexicon peculiar to Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, and Judeo-Provençal displays formal and semantic features that are of Romance derivation and coinage, or that otherwise belie the literary influence of medieval Latin culture (ecclesiastic, academic, juridic). According to the views of Sermoneta and Cuomo, who analyzed the corpus from socio- and ethno-linguistic perspectives, Judeo-Italian is best described within the context of a common linguistic attitude shared by the members of a given social, ethnic, and/or linguistic community.

In general terms, medieval Judeo-Italian was a koiné, employed as a common literary vehicle. This literary usage declined by the end of the 16th century, but the koiné would survive, to some extent, in the local dialects spoken in the ghettos. Although Judeo-Italian does not emerge from any specific dialect, its features reflect the demographic, lingusitic, and cultural diversity of medieval Italian Jewry, which was primarily located in the southern and south-central regions of the peninsula, with important centers at Rome and in Puglia.

Italkian (itk), a collective term referring to Jewish Italo-Romance dialects documented from the 17th century to the present. While Jit appears to be a sub-stratus of itk, only the latter is known to have been colloquial.


Analyses of the Judeo-Italian corpus concord that the following primary lexical, morphological and phonetic features are typical to the koiné (a 14th century Jit translation of Moses Kimhi’s Mahalakh Shevile ha-Da’at, cod ex Vat. Heb. n.435, is an example of the activity of Italian Jews in formalizing such grammars):

The majority of texts in the corpus were written using Hebrew characters. This manifestation ought be considered ethno-cultural and not linguistic. A distinction should be made between texts composed in Jit proper, such as the 13th-14th century Elegy for the 9th of Av and the Biblical translations, and Italian texts in written in Hebrew characters, such as Judah Romano'’s (1292-1330?) transcriptions of the Divine Comedy, and Leone Modena’s translation of the Haggadah (Venice, 1629).

Regarding syntactic analysis, further distinction should be made between original compositions and translations.


The importance that Judeo-Italian holds for the Ren occurs primarily in two areas: epistemology and Bible. Other significant glossary traditions occur within rabbinic (e.g. in the Arukh de-Rabbi Nathan, and Judah b. Moses Romano’s glsses on the Mishneh Torah) and pharmacopic works. The earliest known Jit texts are the 10th century glosses by Shabbethai Donnolo explaining obscure philosophical lemmata in his Sefer Hakhmoni, a commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah. More influential on high MA and Ren culture was the Jit glossary tradition of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, compiled circa 1250 by Moses da Salerno, and a glossary by Moses da Rieti (1388-1460?) for his Mikdash Me’at. The advent of Neo-Patonism, and the participation of such Jewish thinkers as Elia del Medigo and Johanan Alemanno, precipitated notable formal and semantic shifts both within and without this tradition.

The Judeo-Italian Bible appears to have been collated using the following sources:

  1. the Masoretic text and interpretation. Additionally, Judeo-Italian translations normally adapted themselves to the Hebrew word order, giving the appearance of a calque;
  2. the le’azim, vernacular rabbinic glosses, and their interchange with and adaptation from 11th century Judeo-French (Pseudo-Gershom, Joseph Kara, Rashi) and Jpr (David Kimhi, Isaac ben Abba Mari of Marseilles, Aaron ha-Kohen);
  3. Christian vulgarizations, descended from the Vulgate, mostly through old French and tuscanized Lombard traditions.
Furthermore, the tradition appears divided in three branches, representable by: a Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, ms.3068; b Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America MIC L667; g Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America MIC L701. The Makre Dardeke (Naples 1488) is dependent on branches a and g. Strong textual data suggest the Judeo-Italian Biblical tradition played an important role in in the evolution of Christian vernacular Bibles of the Reformation, starting with the Brucioli 1531 edition and in the 1567 Italian Geneva Bible.

Another important influence was exerted in the formation of the Judeo-Italian liturgical tradition. Represented in both manuscript and printed editions, the translations were intended mainly for women, and show a high degree of textual uniformity. Manuscripts housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (MIC 5169) and the British Library show that the tradition was conserved in the Apulian community of Corfu well into the 18th century.

Italian Jewry was not excluded from the language crisis of the 15th and 16th centuries. The highly Italianized translation found in JTSA MIC 667 (branch b), and the original compositions of Mordecai Dato, rabbi of Ferrara in the mid 16th century, are especially indicative of this shift. Two of Dato’s works, a poetic adaptation of the Book of Esther and a hymn for the Sabbath, are written in rima ottava, following the influence and success of Ariosto and Bembo. As a result, Italian Jews would linguistically assimilate, abandoning their archaic koiné as a means of literary expression. Nonetheless, traces of Jit were maintained within the displaced and ghettoized communities of post 1492 Italy as a substratus for itk, most likely transmitting itself along matrilineal lines through the more conservative and diffused liturgical tradition.

© 1998, 1999 by Seth Jerchower. All rights reserved.
The text is published on Orbis Latinus with the author's permission.

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