- Gascon et français chez les Israélites d’Aquitaine: Documents et inventaire lexical by Peter Nahon
The so-called Portuguese Jews of Aquitaine are familiar to students of French history, but the specific characteristics of their language and culture are not. Arriving on the Aquitainian coast from Spain and Portugal as early as the sixteenth century, nearly all of the ancestors of this community came as nominally Christianized conversos. By the late seventeenth century, however, many had gradually reverted to the overt practice of Judaism. While it is clear that the members of this group, frequently merchants in the early generations, lived in a number of different towns in the area, they eventually gravitated to Bordeaux and Bayonne. In fact, by 1861 Bordeaux held the largest Jewish community in France after Paris, its members proud to claim their distinctive “Iberian” version of Judaism.
As the author of this thoroughly engrossing book points out, the overall linguistic history of the Aquitainian Jews has never been treated in a satisfactory manner. Nahon aims to provide a study of “un particularisme envisagé dans la longue durée” (365). With a full grasp of the historical contexts within which this community evolved, he is able to bring together etymological evidence of the speech variety’s development and textual representations of it from the early nineteenth century to the present, along with judgments of native speakers today (not always factually accurate, but significant because of their relevance for language attitudes). The result is a masterpiece of historical sociolinguistics.
Past research on the language of the “Israélites d’Aquitaine” was generally based on the assumption that this community had shifted over time from Spanish to French (31). Such work was often conducted with a view toward finding as many Hebrew lexical items as possible (89) or toward ferreting out all the bits of Spanish that had been retained (87). In the nineteenth century, as French made its definitive entry into the speech repertory of the region, the members of this group were still being described by Parisian [End Page 127] historians as speaking bad Spanish. However, Nahon points out that, beyond the first generation, Spanish served primarily as a religious and administrative language, and he shows that many of the Spanish and Portuguese loanwords in the dialect are actually late borrowings. More importantly, he demonstrates that there can be no doubt that in the early nineteenth century the Aquitainian Jews were actually speaking their own form of Gascon, which, very early on, must have become their usual vernacular. Nahon provides a series of texts dating from the nineteenth century that show fascinating code-switching between Gascon and French, a kind of discourse exemplary for the period in which the latter was gradually swamping the former. These texts—for example, satirical anecdotes in a Bayonne weekly publication—would not have been understandable to a monolingual French speaker, and even a Gascon speaker from outside Bayonne would have wondered about some of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew loan words.
The most astonishing part of this study is the evidence that Nahon has extracted from 18 living informants from Bordeaux and Bayonne who still have some familiarity with the peculiar “ways with words” that once characterized their community. Some maintained this register solely within the family or in commerce, where it allowed them to exclude customers, at least partially, from what was going on behind the scenes. Others had particularly strong connections with the synagogue. Unsurprisingly, Nahon points out that those who grew up in more modest families have retained the strongest skills. Still, most of these speakers can best be described as “rememberers” rather than as fluent speakers, although Nahon discovers that the variety was still in use in at least one Bordeaux shop until 2015 (94).
It is interesting to discover that Nahon’s informants frequently think that the Gascon elements in their language are of Iberian or Hebrew origin and are specifically Jewish in nature. In other...