Endangered Language Alliance
Derived from Old Spanish as it was 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, for example, Ladino has the sounds /ʃ/ (pronounced “sh”), /ʒ/ (like the 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) — the Aki Yersuhalayim system, used by the famous Israeli Ladino journal of that name, is one important standard.
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).
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 its recent 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, with less and less Greek, Turkish, Moroccan, or other influences.
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.
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.
In 12 episodes/interviews totaling around 4 hours, ELA’s Ladino New York project, part of ELA’s larger Jewish Languages Project, tells the stories of those speak the language or remember the language and its major role in the history and future of Jewish New York.