Karaim language

Infobox Language
nativename=къарай тили, karaj tili
states=Crimea, Lithuania, Poland
speakers=about 100
fam1=Altaic [" [http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90009] Ethnologue"] (controversial)

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.


The origin of Karaite Judaism

Consensus has yet to be reached regarding the origin of the Karaite traditions (Khan 2000). However, Karaite Judaism can be loosely defined as a sect of Judaism that follows only the Hebrew scriptures as law and does not recognize the Oral Law (the Mishnah and Talmud) as authoritative (Nemoy 1987). It is widely accepted that the name Karaim comes from the Hebrew verb root קרא [qr’] , “to read,” but in the Biblical sense of the studying and reading of the scriptures. Karaite comes from the Turkic word kara-black, thus Karaite, black one.

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.

Karaims in Crimea and Lithuania

The origin of the Karaims living in Crimea is subject to much dispute and inconsistency. Difficulty in reconstructing this history stems from the scarcity of documents pertaining to this population. Most of the known history is gathered from correspondence between the Crimean Karaite populations and populations elsewhere in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (Akhiezer 2003). Furthermore, a large number of documents pertaining to the Crimean population of Karaim were burned during the 1736 Russian invasion of the Tatar Khanate capital of Bakhchisarai (Akhiezer 2003).

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).

Genetic affiliation of the Karaim language

Karaim is a member of the Altaic language family, a group of languages of Eurasia spoken by historically nomadic peoples. Within the Altaic family, Karaim is identified as a member of the Kipchak language group, in turn a member of the Western branch of the Turkic language family (Dahl et al. 2001). Within the Western branch, Karaim is a part of the Ponto-Caspian subfamily (Ethnologue 2007). This language subfamily also includes the Crimean Tatar of Ukraine and Uzbekistan, Karachay-Balkar of Russia, and Kumyk of Russia. The close relation of Karaim to Kipchak and Crimean Tatar makes sense in light of the beginnings of the Lithuanian Karaim people in Crimea. One hypothesis is that Khazar nobility converted to Karaite Judaism in the late eighth or early ninth century and were followed by a portion of the general population. This may also have occurred later, under Mongol rule, during an influx of people from Byzantium (Tütüncü et al. 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.

Language ecology

Distribution of Karaim speakers

Today, there are Karaim living in Crimea, Lithuania, Poland, Israel, and the United States. However, there only remain about about 200 Karaim in Lithuania, only one quarter of whom are competent speakers of the Karaim language (Csató 2001).

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.”

Language contact

Throughout its long and complicated history, Karaim has experienced extensive language contact. A past rooted in Mesopotamia and persisting connections to the Arab world resulted in Arabic words which likely carried over via the migration of the Crimean and Lithuanian Karaim people from Mesopotamia. The Karaim language was spoken in Crimea during the rule of the Ottoman empire, so there is also a significant history of contact with Turkish, a member of the same language family. Finally, since Karaim has always been a small minority language in the other areas to which it dispersed, Karaim coexisted with Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, which were all dominant majority languages in the areas where Karaim people lived and spoke their language.

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.


Due to the very small number of speakers of Karaim and the high level of multilingualism in Lithuania in general, there is also a high level of multilingualism among Karaim speakers. Karaim speakers also communicate with the dominant languages of their respective regions, including Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian. Some also have religious knowledge of Hebrew (Csató 2001). Multilingualism is a necessity for Karaim speakers, because without other languages the majority would not even be able to communicate with members of their own family (Csató 2001).

Language health

Most dialects of Karaim are now extinct, as discussed previously. Maintenance of the Karaim language in Lithuania is now endangered due to the dispersal of Karaim speakers under the Soviet regime post-World War II and the very small number and old age of fluent speakers remaining (Csató 2001). Children and grandchildren of Karaim speakers speak Lithuanian, Polish, or Russian, and only the oldest generation still speaks Karaim.


Consonant inventory

Vowel inventory


While most languages of the Turkic family exhibit palatal vowel harmony, Karaim shows harmony in palatalization of consonants. Thus, in any given word, only palatalized or only non-palatalized consonants can be found (Nemeth 2003). Palatalized consonants occur in the presence of front vowels, and non-palatalized consonants occur in the presence of back vowels. Similarly to most Turkic languages, virtually all of the consonants in Karaim exist in both a palatalized and a non-palatalized form, which may be further evidence of their genetic relationship (Hansson 2007). However, care must be taken in assuming as much, because Karaim has been in contact with Turkic languages in Lithuania for hundreds of years.

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 morphology is suffixing and highly agglutinating. The Karaim language lacks prefixes and uses postpositions. Nouns are inflected for seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative, and instrumental, which is rare in other Turkic languages). A notable feature of verb conjugation in Karaim is the possibility of abbreviated forms, as shown below for the verb [ał] , “to take” (Nemeth 2003): Long form Short form1.sg. ał-a-myn ał-a-m 2.sg. ał-a-syn ał-a-s3.sg. ał-a-dyr ał-a-d ~ ał-a-dy1.pl. ał-a-byz ---2.pl. ał-a-syz ---3.pl. ał-dyr-łar ał-d-łar ~ ał-dy-łar


Historically, Karaim had a typically Turkic SOV word order. However, it appears to have acquired somewhat free word order due to extensive language contact situations, and currently has a preference for SVO constructions (Csató 2001). Due to the agglutinative nature of Karaim morphology, pronominal subjects are frequently dropped as the same information is already represented in the inflection of the main verb. Karaim is head-final and uses postpositions.

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).

Writing system

In Crimea and Ukraine, Karaim was written using Cyrillic script, while in Lithuania and Poland, a modified Latin alphabet is used.


Further reading

*Akhiezer, Golda. 2003. “The history of the Crimean Karaites during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.” pp. 729-757 in Polliack, Meira (ed.). Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources. Boston: Brill.
*Astren, Fred. 2004. Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
* Csató, Éva Ágnes, Nathan, D., & Firkavičiūtė, K. (2003). "Spoken Karaim". [London: School of Oriental and African Studies] .
*---. 2001. “Syntactic code-copying in Karaim.”
*Dahl, Östen and Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. 2001. Circum-Baltic Languages.
*Gil, Moshe. 2003. “The origins of the Karaites.” pp. 73-118 in Polliack, Meira (ed.). Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources. Boston: Brill.
*Hansson, Gunnar Ólafur. 2007. “On the evolution of consonant harmony: the case of secondary articulation agreement.” Phonology. 24: 77-120.
*International Institute of the Crimean Karaites (IICK). 2007. “Crimean Karaites.” .
*Khan, Geoffrey. 2000. The Early Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought. Boston: Brill.
* Kocaoğlu, T., & Firkovičius, M. (2006). "Karay: the Trakai dialect". Languages of the world, 458. Muenchen: Lincom Europa. ISBN 3895864900
* [http://karaim-institute.narod.ru/activity/lgd-1.rtf The language of Western Ukrainian Karaites: Part one. A brief essay : comp. by V. A. Mireyev, N. D. Abrahamowicz - Simferopol, Ukraine – Polevskoy, Russia – Slippery Rock, USA: 2008 – 96 pp.]
* [http://karaim-institute.narod.ru/activity/lgd-2.rtf The language of Western Ukrainian Karaites: Part two. Karaite-Russian-Ukrainian-English dictionary :comp. by V. A. Mireyev, N. D. Abrahamowicz - Simferopol, Ukraine – Polevskoy, Russia – Slippery Rock, USA: 2008 – 184 pp.]
* [http://karaim-institute.narod.ru/activity/lgd-3.txt The language of Western Ukrainian Karaites: Part three. Russian-Karaite Dictionary : comp. by V. A. Mireyev, N. D. Abrahamowicz - Simferopol, Ukraine – Polevskoy, Russia – Slippery Rock, USA: 2008 – 116 pp.]
*Nemeth, Michal. 2003. “Grammatical features.” Karaimi. .
*Nemoy, Leon. 1987. “Karaites.” In Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: MacMillan.
*Oesterley, W. O. E. and G. H. Box. 1920. A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediaeval Judaism. Burt Franklin: New York.
*Schur, Nathan. 1995. “Karaites in Lithuania.” in The Karaite Encyclopedia. .
*SIL International. 2007. “Linguistic Lineage for Karaim.” Ethnologue.com. .
*Tsoffar, Ruth. 2006. Stains of Culture: an Ethno-Reading of Karaite Jewish Women. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
*Tütüncü, Mehmet and Inci Bowman. 1998. “Karaim Homepage.” .
*Zajaczkowski, Ananiasz. 1961. Karaims in Poland.

ee also

*Krymchak language

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