Endangered Language Alliance

Ladino (Judeo-Spanish)

a Romance language of the Sephardic Jews, originally of Spain and later of the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, and beyond


Judeo-Spanish (widely known as Ladino) was once spoken by the Jews of Spain, known as the Sephardim — approximately 100,000-175,000 of whom were expelled from Spain in 1492. While those later known as “Western Sephardim” primarily went to Portugal (where they were expelled again soon after) and from there to England, France, Holland, and other Western European nations, and others went to Morocco, as many as 125,000 “Eastern Sephardim” went to Ottoman Empire at the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II. It was among those in Morocco and the Ottoman Empire that a distinct variety of Spanish was maintained and developed. Besides Ladino and Judeo-Spanish, many names — as many as 81! — have been used by speakers to refer to their language, including Judezmo, (Muestro) Spaniol, Djudyo, Jargon, and in Morocco, Haketia.


Juhuri is classified by linguists as belonging to a distinct Tat branch of the Southwestern Iranian languages, closely related to Muslim Tat and, at a greater distance, to Classical, Middle, and Modern Persian, with which it is not mutually intelligible. Tajik-Israeli researcher Michael Zand has identified at least four distinct dialects spoken in Derbent, Quba, Makhachkala-Nalchik, and Vartashan (now Oguz). Influences from Hebrew are apparently manifest in the lexicon and phonology of the language, while neighboring Caucasian languages and more recently Russian have also significantly influenced the language.


Most Ladino speakers

Her estimate (19, or see chapter 13) is 60,000 Ladino speakers in the world

are fluent, if not native speakers of Russian and often of the Azeri language of Azerbaijan as well. Young speakers in the Juhuro communities of Israel and United States are increasingly likely to speak and live in Hebrew and English, respectively. Quba, a traditional center in Azerbaijan, is reported as having one of the few Juhuro communities where the language is still being transmitted to most children. Elsewhere the language’s future is in jeopardy from the national languages where the Juhuro live and from Russian as a lingua franca between generations and communities.

Written with semi-cursive Hebrew letters until the early Soviet period, Juhuri books, newspapers, textbooks, and other materials were later printed with a Latin alphabet and finally in Cyrillic, still most common today. During the Soviet period, early official support for the language, especially in Dagestan, gave way to a policy of Russification after the 1930s. Famous poets, playwrights, and prose writers have included Yono Semyonov, Mishi Bakshiyev, and Danil Atnilov, among others. The Theater of the Eastern Caucasus, the only Juhuri-language theater in the world, was founded in Derbent in 1923 and re-established in Israel in 2001.

Academic Work

Although there have been reports on Juhuri and on related varieties of Tat for over a century, there is still a lack of sustained linguistic documentation. The Russian Orientalists and Caucasologists V.F. Miller and his son B. V. Miller, V. Sokolova, and A. Gryunberg carried out important earlier work. In 1997, Mikhail Agarunov, a Juhuro professor of chemistry in Azerbaijan, published the first Juhuri-Russian dictionary in Moscow, based on the Quba dialect with approximately 9000 entries, followed by Mikhail Dadahsev’s more extensive dictionary in 2006. There are still few detailed analyses of Juhuri grammar or professional multimedia recordings focused on the language. Some important sources are listed below:

Academic Literature

Anisimov, N. A. 1932. Qrammatik zühun tati. M. (A grammar written in Judeo-Tat/Juhuri).

Tracy Harris, Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish (1994)

See the Glottolog entry on Ladino (Judeo-Spanish)

Other Websites:
Stmegi’s Juhuri lessons for Russian speakers – http://stmegi.com/tv/lessons_dzhuuri/

Gorsky Kavkazi Jews of NY – http://www.gorskyjews.com/

Language Structure

Although largely consistent with other Persic languages, the sound system of Juhuri also incorporates influences from Arabic, Hebrew, and other neighboring languages. One conspicuous sound change in the history of Juhuri is the rhoticization of medial (similar to what happens in spoken English), thus the endonym juhuro < Persian juhu:dha:, meaning “Jews”.

Ladino New York

By the early 20th century, with the arrival of tens of thousands of speakers from cities such as Salonica, Istanbul, and Izmir, New York had become one of the language’s global centers. Endangered everywhere today, the language nonetheless has a vital presence in the city — as Ladino New York attests.

The Juhuri-speaking community in New York is largely centered in Flatbush, Brooklyn around the Kavkazi Jewish Congregation (Or HaMizrekh) on Ocean Parkway. The Lezginka Dance Company, based in Brooklyn, preserves and continues community dance traditions through teaching and performance. The language is still spoken by many middle-aged and older people, who were born in the Caucasus, and is maintained in some families and some spheres of daily life.

ELA’s Jewish Languages Initiative is recording Juhuri speakers talking about their lives and the histories and customs of the community, in collaboration with leaders at the community synagogue in Brooklyn. These are among the first professionally made, multimedia recordings of the language to be made publicly available.