The Karaim language (Crimean dialect: къарай тили, Trakai dialect: karaj tili) is a Turkic language with Hebrew influences, in a similar manner to Yiddish or Ladino. It is spoken by Crimean Karaites (also known as Karaims and Qarays) - ethnic Jewish adherents of Karaite Judaism in Crimea, Lithuania, Poland and western Ukraine. It has very few remaining active speakers. The three main dialects are those of Crimea, Trakai-Vilnius and Lutsk-Halych.
The Lithuanian dialect of Karaim is spoken mainly in the town of Trakai (also known as Troki) by a small community. Trakai is a former residence of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Crimean Karaites were brought there by Grand Duke Vytautas in 1397-1398 to defend the castle. There is a chance the language will survive in Trakai as a result of official support as well as its appeal to tourists. Currently there is a museum in Trakai exhibiting heritage of the Karaite community, as well as Karaite cuisine restaurants. People from the community take part in some special holidays held in Trakai, and sometimes it is interpreted that the coat of arms of Trakai depicts a head of a Karaite, although it is of John the Baptist.
Prior to the Muslim conquests of the mid-seventh and eighth centuries, many Jewish communities of the world existed in isolation due to politics, geography, and culture. However, after the Muslim conquests, the majority of Jews came to live under unified Muslim rule, and as a result could associate more freely with one another (Astren 2004). Also as a consequence of this unification, practices which had been forgone or eschewed by the authoritative rabbis but preserved in remote areas came back into the mix of Jewish thought, causing some difficulty for the rabbis attempting to unify Jewish thought and law (Astren 2004).
Under Muslim rule, Jews were a tolerated minority. However, recognition by the Muslim government was a prerequisite to attaining the right to self-rule. This provided a strong impetus for the unification of leadership among the Jewish people in order to gain the “corporate recognition offered by Islam” (Astren 2004). Although Jewish religious activity was allowed to proceed without interference, the presence of Muslim rule exerted a strong influence on social spheres. Because Jews operated within and interacted with their Muslim societies, they experienced linguistic Arabicization and cultural Islamization in the areas of cuisine, dress, and social interaction (Astren 2004).
At the same time that Islamic rule was providing motivation for the rabbinic leadership to further the acceptance of the Talmud as a governing “constitution” for each smaller community (and thus establishing the rabbis as the authority on interpreting such a constitution), within the local communities there was also the opportunity to disagree with the rabbis. Thus not only “talmudism” but also other varieties of Judaism began to spring up in the environment of self-determination provided by the Muslim rule.
Karaite Judaism originated in Mesopotamia in the eighth and ninth centuries as a combination of a dissident branch of the House of the Exilarchs (leaders during the Babylonian exile who traced their lineage to King David and came to be highly respected under Muslim rule) and sects operating elsewhere in the Muslim world (Gil 2003). ‘Anan ben David, one such dissident of the House of the Exilarchs, is often credited as the founder of Karaite movement. He is noted for having said חפשו בתורה שפיר ואל תשענו על דעתי, “Search well in Scripture and do not rely on my opinion” (Khan 2000). In addition, it is theorized that Karaism was a reaction to Islamic rule. Although Islamic rule recognized Judaism and respected its monotheism, there was also the criticism that by putting too much stock in the interpretations and opinions of the rabbinic scholars the Jews diminished their monotheism (Oesterley et al. 1920). Thus in the context of increased interaction between Jews and Muslims in the Islamic Empire and the Islamization of social mores, Islam had a strong influence on the development of Jewish thought and practice.
Some scholars say that Karaites in Crimea are descendants of Karaite merchants who migrated to Crimea from the Byzantine Empire (Schur 1995), presumably adopting a Turkic language upon their arrival in Crimea. In one particular incidence, migration of Karaites from Istanbul to Crimea is documented following a fire in the Jewish quarter of Istanbul in 1203 (Tsoffar 2006). Settlement of merchants in Crimea may have been encouraged in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the active trade routes from Crimea to China and Central Asia (Schur 1995).
On the other hand, there was a theory that the Crimean Karaites are descendants of Khazars, or later, Kipchak tribes who converted to Karaism (IICK 2007). The link to the Khazars, however, is regarded by the scholarly community as historically inaccurate and implausible.
The third hypothese says that Karaites are the descendents of Israelite tribes from the time of the first Exile by an Assyrian King. Abraham Firkovich collected the documents that prove this theory and he could prove it before the Russian tsar. He was namely of the opinion that Israelites from Assyria have gone into the North Caucasus and from there, with the permission of Assyrian king into the Crimean peninsula.
The origin of the Karaites in Lithuania is much better documented and agreed upon by the scholars. The Lithuanian Karaites originated in Crimea. In 1392, the Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania defeated the Crimean Tatars and relocated 330 Crimean Karaite families to Lithuania (Schur 1995). They settled primarily in Vilnius and Trakai, maintaining their Turkic language; there has been further minor settlement in Biržai, Pasvalys, Naujamiestis and Upytė. Despite a history through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that included disease, famine, and pogroms, Lithuania was somewhat less affected by such turmoil than surrounding areas. As a result, Lithuanian Karaim had a relative sense of stability over those years, and maintained their isolation as a group, keeping their Turkic language rather than abandoning it for the local languages (“Karaim Homepage” 1998).
Although the validity of the Altaic language family grouping is still disputed, Altaic languages generally feature SOV word order, agglutination, and vowel harmony. Karaim features agglutination and vowel harmony. Genetic evidence for the inclusion of the Karaim language in the Turkic language family is strong, based on a historically SOV word order, extensive suffixing agglutination, the presence of vowel harmony, and a lack of gender or noun classes. Lithuanian Karaim has maintained most of these Turkic features despite its history of more than six hundred years in the environment of the Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish languages.
Most of the religious terminology in the Karaim language is Arabic in etymology, showing the origins of the culture in the Middle East (Zajaczkowski 1961). A few religious terms are Hebrew as well. Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian had the earliest influences on the lexicon of Karaim, while later on in its history, the Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish languages made significant contributions to the Karaim lexicon of Karaite Jews living in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania.
Karaim can be subdivided into three dialects. The now-extinct eastern dialect, known simply as Crimean Karaim, was spoken in Crimea until the early 1900s. The northwestern dialect, also called Trakai, is spoken in Lithuania, mainly in the towns of Trakai and Vilnius. The southwestern dialect, also known as the Lutsk or Halich dialect, spoken in Ukraine, was near-extinct with only six speakers in a single town as of 2001 (Csató 2001). Crimean Karaim is considered to make up the “Eastern group,” while the Trakai and Lutsk dialects comprise the “Western group.”
Karaim speakers show a strong tendency towards code-copying (Csató 2001). Code-copying differs from code-switching in that speakers don’t just switch from one language to another, but actually transfer lexical items and grammatical features from one language to another in processes that may be only for a single instances, or that may have much more lasting effects on language typology (Csató 2001). Extensive code-copying is indicative both of the ever-shrinking population of Karaim speakers (leading to an insufficient Karaim lexicon and a high frequency of borrowing from Russian, Polish, and Slavonic languages) and of the high level of language contact in the regions where Karaim is spoken.
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Karaim also exhibits vowel harmony, whereby suffix vowels harmonize for front or back quality with the vowels in the stem of a word (Zajaczkowski 1961).
Karaim syntax exhibits multiple instances of code-copying, whereby Karaim merges with syntactic properties of other languages in its area due to strong language contact situations (Csató 2001). The impact of such language contact is also evident in the Karaim lexicon, which has extensive borrowing (Zajaczkowski 1961). In more modern times, the significant borrowing is also representative of insufficiencies in the lexicon (Csató 2001).