Towards a New Style in Nineteenth-Century Judeo-Spanish Prose: Two Judeo-Spanish Versions of the German Novel der Rabbi Und der Minister

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For more than one hundred years texts of rabbinical prose were the only model of educated style. With the arrival of new literary genres imported from Western Europe towards the middle of the nineteenth century, Sephardi authors and translators promoted a change in their style of writing. This article compares syntactic structures in two texts from the second half of the nineteenth century. They belong to the same literary genre and share the same subject, but are anchored in different discoursive traditions trying to exemplify the different styles of Sephardic prose that coexisted at that time.


Apart from several translations of the Bible and other books dedicated to liturgical use, texts of rabbinical prose were for centuries almost the only literary product offered to Sephardi readers. That was the situation until the arrival of new genres imported from Western Europe towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Rabbinical texts had been for centuries mainly produced in Hebrew, but in the first half of the eighteenth century they began to be composed in or translated into Judeo-Spanish. The reason for this change was that most Sephardi readers could neither understand Hebrew (reserved at that time for an exclusive elite of rabbis) nor the sixteenth century Spanish (or pre-Judeo-Spanish) into which some of those Hebrew books had been translated. This religious literature covers at least three major groups of works, the boundaries between which are hard to define: (1) those relating to religious practice (heb. halakha); (2) those discussing subjects of ethics (heb. musar); and (3) those containing a wide range of traditional legends and other narrative materials of exemplary intention (heb. aggadah). With respect to the rabbinical commentaries on the Bible, they represent the ultimate expression of this literature, to the extent that they contain elements of all these groups. (1)

Due to their pre-eminent position, texts of rabbinical prose were the only recognizable reference as a model of educated style for more than one hundred years, and served as a certain sort of linguistic standard in Judeo-Spanish. Actually, these works--together with the translations of the Bible--played an important role in the spreading of several hebraic linguistic features concerning the use of special lexical items or certain syntantic structures (Garcia Moreno 2004: 366-367; Hassan 1995: 128; Schmid 2008: 66). These texts also harboured some linguistic facts not related to a Hebrew influence, turning them into typical characteristics of the language of rabbinical texts, independently of the place of publication or author's origin (Quintana 2006: 107-109). Facts like these enable us to clearly identify the style shared by such texts (Garcia Moreno 2006).

With the appearance of new literary genres in Judeo-Spanish imported from Western Europe (the novel, theatre, press etc.), Sephardi authors and translators promoted a change (or rather, different changes) in the writing model. In fact, we cannot speak of just one monolithic new model for, at least, two reasons: first, because the sources for the development of these new literary registers vary, depending on the author and the text. It is true that most modern Sephardi intellectuals turned to French or Italian, looking for a renewed vocabulary and syntactic structures (Schmid 2008: 67-71). However, it is not unusual to find the influence of German (especially in Sephardic texts produced in Vienna and in the Northwest of the Balkans), or even the re-hispanization of Judeo-Spanish language promoted by several authors in different places (Quintana 1999). And second, because these attempts at renovation coincided with or even triggered the beginning of the decline of Judeo-Spanish (Mancheva 2008), preventing the conformation of a well-shaped model.

In any case, since such efforts meant a differentiation of the new style compared with the style of rabbinical prose, I consider that we can speak of two models in Judeo-Spanish prose coexisting in the second half of the nineteenth century. …