¿Maimónides hablaba español?
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¿Maimónides hablaba español?

Back in 2005, Avihai Shivtiel, a researcher in the Cairo Genizah archives at Cambridge University, published an account of a page found in the Genizah with a list of words written in Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Romance — the latter being the language once known as Latin as it evolved toward some dialect of what we now call Spanish, but written in Hebrew letters. The list includes word pairs such as “lachem” — Arabic for meat — and “carne,” Spanish for meat.

That document, Shivtiel wrote, “features ninety-one phrases written in Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Spanish. The list includes nouns, names of food products, colours, and adjectives concerning taste (“sweet,” “bitter,” “salty,” “hot”) but is unfortunately incomplete, with only around half of the Judaeo-Arabic words offering their Spanish equivalents.”

Definitely cool stuff, an indication of at least one medieval Egyptian Jew trying to learn the rudiments of a European language. The article, published in the newsletter of Cambridge University’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, also looked at a similar list of word pairs featuring Judeo-Armenian.

But whodunnit?

“Since we know neither the identity of the compilers nor their location or period, we may only assume that [the authors of those two documents] were businessmen who needed some such phrases to help cope with linguistic requirements,” Shivtiel wrote.

Well, it turns out we can know.

Recently, José Martínez Delgado of the University of Granada looked at the Judeo-Romance word list. He realized, as he told the Genizah Fragments blog, “I had seen this handwriting before.”

He sent the image to a friend, who confirmed his impression: “We were looking at Maimonides’ handwriting.

“We were able to confirm this by gathering other examples of Maimonides writing the same words that appear in this fragment, and it’s clear that it’s him.”

So does that mean Maimonides spoke Spanish?

First, he said, “We cannot be sure it’s Spanish – it is some sort of Romance dialect, but from where? Aragon? Valencia? Catalonia? We don’t know yet.”

“And second, if anything, this is an indication that Maimonides did not speak a Romance dialect. The words are simple – bread, water, meat, egg. These are basic words, and it seems like he was trying to acquire them. He wrote out his list of words and then filled them underneath as he learned the translation. Some categories of terms are not fully translated.”

Still, not a bad effort in an age lacking Duolingo language learning apps — or even dictionaries. And it’s definitely good news for teens struggling with high school Spanish: They can now accurately rebrand their incomplete homework assignments as “Maimonidean.”

Larry Yudelson

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