Most New Yorkers have been exposed at least once to Yiddish, probably after passing a few Hassidic Jews on the street, but does your average Parisian know that they’ve probably crossed paths with another arcane Jewish language, Judeo-Arabic?
While Yiddish – a mix between Hebrew, German and various Slavic languages – was the lingua-franca of European Jews, “Judeo-Arabic” (and its various dialects) was spoken by Sephardic Jews from Casablanca to Istanbul. A mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and local Arabic dialects, Judeo-Arabic evolved over time after Sephardic Jews left Spain in the 15th century and settled in and around the Mediterranean.
Most of the remaining speakers of Judeo-Arabic today are in Israel, with small pockets in Tunisa and Morocco, which both still have small Jewish communities. But France’s Sephardic community – about 60% of the total Jewish population of around 600,000 – also boasts a few older speakers, due to large-scale Jewish immigration to France from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. And like Yiddish, most of the language disappeared with the second generation.
For American Jews, only the most juicy Yiddish words have endured, such as schmuck or putz, (idiot, fool). Interestingly, second-generation North African Jews in France have also retained a colorful arsenal of insults.
For this post, my second so far, I’ll have to backtrack a bit to a previous job of mine at a Paris-based Jewish organization, where I shared a room with two Tunisian Jews. I quickly found out that when the stress escalated, my Jewish colleagues would unleash invective in what I initially assumed was Arabic.
I was soon corrected – Tunisian Jews don’t swear in Arabic, according to my former colleagues. They swear en Judeo-Arabe.
More specifically, my roomates were cussing in Judeo-Tunisian, a sub-dialect of Judeo-Arabic. Ethnologue cites a Judeo-Tunisian lexicon of 5,000 words in 1950 that documented 79% words of Arabic origin, 15% Romance loanwords and 4.4% Hebrew loanwords. Unlike the ghettoized Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, Jews and Arabs lived in close proximity, sharing language, music and culinary traditions. Judeo-Arabic reflected this co-existence.
Although many Jews in Morocco and Tunisia spoke Judeo-Arabic, by the late 19th century Algerian Jews were mainly French-speaking, following the “Crémieux Law” of 1870 which gave French citizenship to 37,000 Algerian Jews. As a result, Algerian Jews began to assimilate to French culture even before they immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Moroccans and Tunisians, on the other hand, retained both Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, carrying it with them into France.
Judeo-Arabic has not made the inroads into French that Yiddish has into American English. Nevertheless, modern French slang is full of words of Arabic origin like bled – city, kiffer – appreciate, reflecting both French colonialism and post-war immigration to France from North Africa.
Today Judeo-Arabe is disappearing, along with plenty of other vestiges of Jewish culture in North Africa, as second and third generation Sephardic Jews assimilate in both France and Israel. But there are plenty of traditions that exist in Paris – mostly in private – that I hope to get at in later posts.
If you find yourself on the streets of Belleville or other heavily Sephardic neighborhoods in Paris, listen closely and you might hear the final breaths of a dying language. And if you are really feeling adventurous, arm yourself with some of the useful insults below, you might just impress someone, or at least send them into an amusing rage:
Insults – Field Recordings and a Lexicon
Between bouts of screaming in Judeo-Arabic, I finally took it upon myself to start writing down some of the more colorful phrases that were let loose in the pitched battles that were a daily occurrence at my office. At first, my colleagues were perplexed that a New Yorker would want to learn their insults – distrust and mutual incomprehension are somewhat endemic of the Sephardic/Ashkenaz divide in France.
But by learning their curses like Naal din rassa taik, I was able to slowly gain their trust and dive into my anthropological research:
Here, a former colleague, “M,” a second-generation Tunisian Jew, effectively demonstrates a Judeo-Arabic tirade, replete with the all-important hand gestures. Roughly translated: “Cursed be the religion of your mother, may she mourn your passing, you f****r.”
Next up we have “A,” born in Algeria, offering what she claimed was a “polite way to say f**k off.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t translate it. Deeply religious, “A” wasn’t going to partake in the often scatological insults used in her mother tongue:
Worlds apart from A’s shy prudishness, we have “G,” born in Tunisia:
“G” also refused to translate, but upon consulting my excel spreadsheet of insults, it seems he is saying “f**k off you American dwarf” along with some unfortunately unpublishable material. [ed: my grandmother reads this blog]
For those that want to delve a little deeper into the venomous couscous of Judeo-Arabic insults, I’ve listed some of the more printable insults, unfortunately edited down a bit, so my Bubby doesn’t get verklempt when she reads this:
Chrabonne boul a lik ya carba – je vais pisser sur toi – i’m going to urinate on you
Ishou omok fik – que ta mere sois en deuil de toi – may your mother mourn your passing
Nadeen ram bok – maudit soi la religion de ton dieu enculer – cursed be the religion of you mother, f**k you
fuk a lia – fout ma la paix – get the hell out of here
kul mogalti tai – eat me [edited down version]
bara neeyik – f**k you
in tee jnoun – tu es un petite nain – you are a small dwarf [notice that the word for dwarf, jnoun, resembles “Djinn” or genie, a supernatural creature in Arabic folklore]
Naal din rassa taik – polite f**k off [Judeo-Moroccan version]
atini le flush ya zhnoun – give me the money, you little dwarf
ya bouftak – you have a giant butt [ahem, edited a bit]
meuftouk – screw you
ya ta han – you voyeur
kruzhl zu bit ai on boul a lik – I will urinate on you [other version]
irrdum yaf fin yen – Weakling!!