Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Jewish Multiglossia: Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian in Medieval Spain

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Jewish Multiglossia: Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian in Medieval Spain

Article excerpt

Jewish Multiglossia: Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian in Medieval Spain. By Elaine R. Miller. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000. 160 pages.

Utilizing an amalgam of historical and sociolinguistic analysis, Miller examines Spanish Jews' use of Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian in the Middle Ages in their different domains and functions. Her purpose is to fill a void left by historians who "effectively describe the Jews' sociocultural environment, but stop short of superimposing language use upon this historical and cultural background" (11) and linguists, who "often study the language of a given document without placing it in that same historical/social/cultural context" (11). In her endeavor, she seeks to move beyond oversimplifications such as "Spanish Jews used Arabic in the xii century." Rather, Miller examines exactly which register of Arabic was used in a given social situation: a learned form reserved for writing (II], a spoken vernacular (L), and a middle form known as (M). In addition, Jews used Hebrew as their (H) language and vernacular Arabic as their (L) language. From the xiii century onward, Castilian gradually replaced vernacular Arabic as the (L) language. In essence, this study seeks to address the essential question of "who speaks-in this case, writes-what language to whom and when" (11-2).

The book is organized into five main chapters, in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter i is titled "Historical Sociolinguistics" and contains a historical and linguistic background of the Spanish Jews from the period of Roman occupation of Spain up to and including the period of Christian rule. Chapter ii deals with the issue of language use in "Medieval Jewish Education." Chapter iii covers Science and Translation, chapter iv "Literary Compositions and the Influence of Arabic on Hebrew Poetry," and chapter v "Non-Fictional Prose: From Arabic to Hebrew."

Essential to Miller's analysis is the distinction between bilingualism, which involves individuals, and diglossia, which is a multigenerational phenomenon affecting a community as part of an enduring social arrangement. However, the presence of more than one learned (H) language for Jews (both Hebrew and Middle Arabic served this function) suggests that multiglossia rather than diglossia is a better descriptive term. Even so, Miller recognizes that this model does not function perfectly, for it assumes that H and L are dialects of the same language, which is not the case with the Jews, who used Hebrew as their (H) language and vernacular Arabic (and later Castilian from the xm century onward) as their (L) language. …

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