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Death of a Dialect

On the loss of Baghdad's linguistic diversity.


The recent Jewish history of Baghdad is a sad one, and it is nearly at its end. There are only four Jews remaining in the city, and they are all elderly, with no families to replace them. When they die, everything that they have carried on from their ancestors for more than two thousand years will die with them. The decline played out over the course of several generations: in the mid-twentieth century there were about one hundred eighty thousand Jews living in Iraq. About one hundred twenty thousand of them left after the creation of Israel (an event which prompted the Iraqi government to strip Jews of their citizenship and freeze their assets). Over the course of the next several decades, the remaining few thousand trickled out of the country, leaving about eighty by the turn of the century, according to the Jewish historian Mir al-Basri, who himself left the country in the Seventies and settled in London. The American invasion in 2003 only made matters worse. Ever since then, the city’s nearly extinct Jewish population has lived in a state of utmost duress.

When I visited Baghdad earlier this year, I had no expectation of meeting any of these remaining Jews. I was, however, interested in their language, a particular dialect of Baghdadi, which is itself a subdialect of Arabic. It will also die with them (at least in the city of Baghdad). And it is not the only dialect in Baghdad that is endangered. The tens of thousands of Christians in the city are also losing their unique dialect. Its fate is tied to the people who speak it, but even their continued presence in the city doesn’t guarantee that their dialect will survive, as it melds into the dominant Muslim one. At the same time, emigration is the most pressing threat to Christianity’s continued existence in Baghdad. Some denominations are struggling to maintain their churches in light of a population decline. Those changes are reflections of a larger shift in Baghdad, where it is harder than ever to live as a minority. The study of these dialects might seem to be of minor importance in comparison with the larger issues facing Christians and Jews, but their language is a living symbol of a long and rich history that is in danger of dying out.

Understanding how Baghdad got to this point requires something of a linguistic history lesson. Baghdadi Arabic fits into the larger family of Mesopotamian Arabic, which covers the spoken dialects used roughly across modern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and the Ahvaz region of Iran. Linguists divide this family into two subgroups, based on how they pronounce the word meaning “I said”: qeltu dialects historically were used mostly in northern Mesopotamia and gelet dialects once were found largely in southern Mesopotamia, but now are coming to dominate spoken Arabic across Mesopotamia. The latter now threaten the extinction of the former.

The evidence available suggests that Baghdadis once spoke a qeltu dialect. At some point between the Middle Ages and the modern era, however, the dialect underwent a shift from its historical qeltu to a gelet. Linguists have outlined various theories, but it is likely that after the Mongol invasions (Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258 and again in 1401), the city was largely emptied of its population, and many of its native inhabitants left. For the Muslim population of Baghdad, the gelet dialect of southern Iraq became dominant, likely reflecting an influx of southerners and Bedouins. There is also the possibility that a famine in the early nineteenth century led to an influx of non-Baghdadis in the city, which would also have re-inforced the gelet dialect. Linguistic similarities between the modern Jewish dialect of Baghdad and the dialect of Aleppo suggest that at least a sizable portion of Baghdad’s Jews went to Aleppo for several centuries before returning to their native city during the Ottoman era. They brought back with them a modified qeltu Baghdadi Arabic, but one closer to that originally found in the city than the gelet dialect that had taken over since the seventeenth century. Christians also continued to speak a qeltu dialect, possibly brought from the city of Mosul.

In the modern era, three major Arabic dialects emerged in the city: Jewish Baghdadi, Christian Baghdadi, and Muslim Baghdadi, the former two qeltu dialects reminiscent of medieval Baghdad, while Muslims spoke a gelet dialect, reminiscent of southern and Bedouin dialects. The state of affairs held into the mid-twentieth century, but it bears little resemblance to the linguistic picture of Baghdad today. The twentieth century upended Baghdadi society as much as it did the rest of the Middle East. In 1917, the Ottoman government estimated Baghdad’s population to be around two hundred thousand, including one hundred thousand Arabs, Turks, and other Muslims; eighty thousand Jews; twelve thousand Christians; and eight thousand Kurds. Other estimates from the same era vary wildly, but the proportions between groups are generally along these lines. The Jews in particular were no token minority, but rather an essential part of the city’s life. This diversity was reflected in the language its residents spoke. The Muslim dialect remained dominant, however, and Christians and Jews normally spoke in the Muslim dialect when dealing with Muslims, and used their own distinct dialect when in their own communities.

In 1964, the Israeli linguist Haim Blanc published a book called Communal Dialects of Baghdad, based on field research with the Baghdadi Jewish community that had settled in Israel, as well as recordings of Muslim and Christian Baghdadis speaking Arabic. It defined scholarly understanding of the linguistic picture of the city, and in 1991, Farida Abu-Haidar—herself of Baghdadi Christian parentage—followed up with a more complete study of the Christian dialect, called Christian Arabic of Baghdad. She was living in London at the time, and interviewed Baghdadi Christians there. She also obtained recordings of Baghdadi Christians still living in Baghdad. In interviewing those whose families were native to Baghdad, she found a dialect that largely resembled what Haim Blanc had documented in the 1960s, though with increased influence from the surrounding Muslim dialect among the younger generation of Christians. I had these studies in mind when I set off to Baghdad in October 2022 to learn more about the current state of the city’s language. I expected to find Christians still speaking this dialect, with a younger generation perhaps adopting a more neutral or Muslim-influenced accent. And I certainly didn’t expect to find any Jews. From news reports, I knew there were a few left, but I didn’t think it would be realistic to track them down given that they largely keep their identity hidden from outsiders. I was surprised on both counts.

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