Monday, October 12, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Israel

Over the past few weeks we've looked at the linguistic diversity of countries such as Honduras, Azerbaijan, and Sweden. Today we're shifting our focus to Israel, which features an impressive number of languages due to the fact that it is home to thousands of immigrants from all over the world.

The Official Languages

An impressive 6th century mosaic depicting
zodiac signs at the Beth Alpha synagogue in Israel.
Israel is home to not one, but two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Both languages belong to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Hebrew is the primary language used by the Israeli government and throughout society as a whole. It is the main language of instruction in most schools and universities, and is also a required subject in schools where Arabic is the main language.

While it used to be rare to see the Arabic language used in various aspects of daily life Israel, it has been used more frequently in recent years, especially with the required translation of things such as government documents and road signs. Unsurprisingly, the political and cultural turmoil within Israel makes linguistic issues particularly complicated, which is why the use of Arabic is sometimes a touchy subject.

English is also an important language in Israeli society since the area was under British rule until its independence in 1948. For some time afterwards it remained a de facto official language, which helps explain why it is so often used in the country today. Most Israelis speak at least some English, and it is often learned in schools as a second language. It is also frequently seen on road signs and in television programs.

Minority Languages

Since Israel is home to so many immigrants from all over the world, it should come as no surprise that it is home to numerous minority languages. However, you might be surprised to learn that the most widely spoken non-official language in the country is Russian, which is spoken by about 750,000 people. Most of these Russian speakers are Jews who have immigrated to the country from various parts of the former USSR since the 1970s.

Two other prominent minority languages are Ladino and Yiddish. Ladino is a Romance language derived from Old Spanish that has historically been used by Sephardic Jews. Yiddish, on the other hand, is the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews, and is a Germanic language. There are over 200,000 Yiddish speakers in Israel, as well as about 100,000 native speakers of Ladino.

An illustration of a hoopoe, the national bird of Israel.
Other significant minority languages include Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Amharic. There are about 250,000 Romanian speakers, 100,000 Polish speakers, and 70,000 Hungarian speakers in Israel. Amharic, primarily used by Ethiopian Jews, is also spoken by around 40,000 Israelis.

There are three other minority languages in Israel with over 50,000 native speakers: Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Georgian, and Bukharic. You might recognize Judeo-Tat, the language of the Caucasus Jews, from our post on the languages of Azerbaijan a few weeks ago. It is spoken by about 70,000 Israelis, while Judeo-Georgian, a variety of the Georgian language used by Georgian Jews, has around 60,000 native speakers. Then there's Bukharic, a variety of Persian used by Bukharan Jews from Central Asia, which has approximately 50,000 native speakers.

According to the Ethnologue, there are 35 languages used in Israel, so we don't have time to mention them all. However, we didn't want to leave out the interestingly named Hulaulá language. Hulaulá is spoken by about 10,000 Israelis, and is an Aramaic language that was originally used in Iran.