Judeo-Italian, Primo Levi's Grandmother Tongue

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Judeo-Italian, Primo Levi's Grandmother Tongue


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


A century or so ago, Jews in Italy were typically bidialectal or even tridialectal. They could speak standard Italian or the local dialect or both, and they could also speak their own Jewish dialect of Italian. Judeo-Italian dialects at one time were written in the Hebrew alphabet. In many ways, Judeo-Italian is analogous to Yiddish and Ladino.

Primo Levi came from Turin, in the Italian province of Piedmont. His mother tongue was Italian, but the mother tongue of his ancestors was Judeo-Italian, making Judeo-Italian his grandmother tongue. He wrote in Italian, but he wrote about any number of subjects, among them Judeo-Italian.

We all know Primo Levi was a chemist and a writer. Few people ever think of him as a linguist. But he wrote an important linguistic work, "Argon," the first chapter of The Periodic Table. Furthermore, he wrote a fantasy, "Lead," also in The Periodic Table, that shows a remarkable knowledge of historical linguistics and is an incentive to further study.

Primo Levi found the world very interesting. He succeeded in describing the horrors of his Auschwitz experiences so very well because he found even horror interesting. Needless to say, he found language and languages interesting, not only because of their own fascinating structures and history, but because language is the way we pursue our insights and communicate our experiences.

The word "linguist" has at least two meanings. A linguist may be a person who speaks several languages. A linguist is also a person who studies linguistics. Primo Levi was both. He was not a student of linguistics per se, but he wrote about the etymologies of the names of the chemicals he studied. More notably, he wrote about the fascinating dialect of the Jews of Turin and of Piedmont in general. Although The Periodic Table is a memoir, to a large extent, the information in "Argon" is important enough to have been cited by professional linguists. (1)

Judeo-Italian dialects, like dialects everywhere in the world, varied from city to city and region to region. Nevertheless, they are more similar to each other than Italian dialects in general. Judeo-Florentine, for example, is closer to Judeo-Ferrarese than Florentine is to Ferrarese. The exception is Judeo-Piedmontese, which stands out among the Judeo-Italian dialects of northern Italy by being the most northern.

Levi's "Argon" is essentially about the language of the Jews of Piedmont, a north Italian dialect that doesn't quite correspond to the dialect of any other region and includes words of Hebrew origin as well as other words, some of whose etymologies are not apparent. Levi, in passing, tells us that the speakers of this dialect often called it Lasson Acodesh, (the language of holiness). We would expect this term to refer to Hebrew, the obvious sacred language in a Jewish community. We know that in Yiddish, the analogous term, Loshn Koydesh, does indeed refer to Hebrew. The fact that the Jews of Piedmont--and also of Rome, by the way--referred to their language as holy could be understood as a term of respect for their speech, but more likely, it was a joke, a sarcastic way of saying that their daily speech was not holy at all.

Judeo-Piedmontese was very much closer to Piedmontese than other north Italian Jewish dialects were to their coterritorial languages. If we look at the pronunciation of Judeo-Ferrarese or Judeo-Mantuan, for example, we do not find the front rounded vowel u, despite the fact that u exists in the local speech of Mantua and Ferrara just as it does in Turin. Yet, despite its closeness to the dialect of its neighbors, Judeo-Piedmontese shows a remarkable number of parallels to Yiddish, which is interesting, since there was little if any contact between the Jews of Piedmont and those of Central and Eastern Europe.

Levi makes an important point in "Argon": "There exist a good number of disparaging words." (2) This is one of the many parallels we find between Judeo-Italian and Yiddish--and among Jewish languages in general. …

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