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

Background

Varieties of what became Judeo-Spanish (now widely known as Ladino) were once spoken by Sephardim, the Jews of Spain — 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) Spanyol, Djudyo, Jargon, and in Morocco, Haketia.

Affiliation

Deprived from Old Spanish as spoken in Spain before the 1492 expulsion, Ladino is classified by linguists as a Romance language (ultimately belonging to the Indo-European language family). Often mutually intelligible with Spanish, Ladino nonetheless differs in a number of respects, particularly phonetics, where (to give just one example) Ladino has /ʃ/ (pronounced “sh”), /ʒ/ (like s in English “pleasure”), and /dʒ/ (like j in English “jar”).

Traditionally, “Ladino” (לאדינו) referred to Spanish originally written in Hebrew letters (aljamiado texts), usually in the Rashi sript, and later in the unique Solitreo cursive script. Today the language is most typically written in a phonetic Latin-based script which differs from Spanish orthography (e.g. komo instead of como, ke instead of que). Some older lexical items and other features, lost in modern Spanish, are preserved in Ladino; at the same time, Ladino evolved considerably over nearly five centuries outside Spain, with speakers in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa borrowing and transforming words from Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and ultimately French, Italian and other languages depending on location. As with other Jewish languages, some Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, particularly connected to the religious domain, can also be considered an important part of the language (Bunis 1993).

Endangerment

Most Ladino speakers are over 60 years of age, if not older. Harris 1994 estimated 60,000 Ladino speakers in the world, but the number today may be considerably smaller. A signficant majority of the global Ladino-speaking population was killed in the Holocaust, including the near-complete destruction of major centers for the language such as Salonika. Many Ladino speakers who survived — especially in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Morocco — were subsequently uprooted, moving and building a new life in Israel.

Today the largest number of speakers is thought to be in Israel, though the most active and concentrated group of users may be among the elderly members of the Jewish community of Istanbul, where Ladino remained the language of everyday life until very recently until its displacement by Turkish. In the United States and in Latin America, for the first time in several centuries, many Ladino speakers came into contact with Spanish speakers, resulting in an increasingly Spanish-influenced Ladino.

Academic Work

There is an extensive academic literature on Ladino not only in English but in Hebrew, Spanish, French, and to some extent other languages. In addition, there is a significant amount of religious, literary, and other material — these days sometimes challenging to access — in the language. Below are just a few key resources for those becoming familiar with the language. There are also a number of websites and textbooks one can consult. 

Academic Literature

Bunis, D. M. 1993. A Lexicon of the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Modern Judezmo. Jerusalem: Magnes Press & Misgav Yerushalayim.

Bunis, D. M. 1999. לשון ג’ודזמו [Judezmo: An Introduction to the Language of the Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

Harris, Tracy. 1994. Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.

Nehama, Joseph. 1977. Dictionnaire du judéo-espagnol. Madrid: CSIC.

See the Glottolog entry on Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

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. Other Ladino-speaking communities developed elsewhere in the US, including Seattle and Los Angeles, though younger generations switched to English.

Endangered everywhere today, Ladino nonetheless has a substantial legacy and a vital presence in New York. It was the language of neighborhoods from Lower East Side to the Bronx to the New Lots area of Brooklyn, playing a significant role in daily life and at times in the numerous Sephardic synagogues in those areas. The city has also been home to large-scale Ladino-language journalism (most famously, La Vara), a theater troupe (The Ladino Players), and Ladino classes. Today, annual events like the Celebration of Judeo-Spanish in New York and the International Ladino Day are bringing together speakers, students, and a growing number of Sephardim and non-Sephardim interested in the language.

ELA’s ongoing Ladino New York project, part of ELA’s larger Jewish Languages Initiative, tells the stories of how the language is living and breathing in the city today. Each video, including narration or an interview with a Ladino speaker, connects events from the city’s Ladino-speaking past to people and places of the present. Particularly urgent is the need to document the generation of speakers who grew up in New York in the 1940s and 50s. Ladino New York was created to document the city’s Ladino-speaking past and present, recording Ladino speakers and rememberers talking about Sephardic history in New York and their own family backgrounds.

A dozen interviews, totaling some four hours, have been recorded so far. The project is expected to launch in 2020. If you are a Ladino speaker or know one, please get in touch!