Like diaspora communities throughout most of history, the Jews of Iraq—the oldest Jewish community outside the land of Israel—long remained linguistically distinct from their neighbors. The Jews of Kurdistan spoke a form of Aramaic, while those in the remainder of the country spoke a uniquely Jewish form of Arabic, written in Hebrew characters, which some linguists believe preserves aspects of the Aramaic spoken by these Jews before the Arab conquest. Mardean Isaac writes:
Following the Arab invasions in the 7th century, Arabic supplanted Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region. As the importance of Baghdad rose, Jews established a strong presence there. By the early 20th century, Baghdad was about one-third Jewish. Some communities of Jews in northern Iraq—like Assyrian [Christians] and Mandaeans—continued to speak Aramaic, adopting Arabic or Kurdish only for external use.
Baghdadi Jews would imbue the Arabic language with their own distinct heritage. The phenomenon of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic mirrors the status of Jews in relation to Iraq, as a people whose culture and habits were deeply shaped by broader Iraqi society and politics, yet who lived in parallel to it. In that status, it joins not only other Jewish diaspora dialects, but a legacy of languages in the Middle East that bear the trace of communities who navigated all sorts of political transformations before the homogenizing cultural and demographic forces set in motion by the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of often-murderous [smaller] states. . . .
The scholarly value of Judeo-Arabic was made clear [to the author] during a tour of the Judeo-Arabic collection in the British Library. The collection contains thousands of manuscripts and texts, ranging from a version of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, copied in Yemen in 1380, to the mid-19th-century Hebrew Gazette, designed for the Iraqi Jewish community of Bombay.
Ilana Tahan, a curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient studies at the British Library, told me that the portion of the archive containing published material (often published outside of Iraq) particular to Iraqi Jews “spans more than 140 years, and covers a wide range of subjects such as Bible, religious law, liturgy, folklore, and literature.”