A Linguistic History of Judaism: Ladino
Written by Kyle Fingerhut
This is the third installment of blogs about Jewish languages. In this post, we’ll discuss Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, a Romance language derived from an archaic form of Castilian Spanish.
Origins of Ladino
Ladino originated in Spain among the country’s Jewish population. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 (including my ancestors who ended up in Morocco), they carried with them their language. The origin of Ladino is quite similar to that of Yiddish and other Jewish languages. These Jewish languages typically consist of a host country’s language—in this case, Spanish—and Hebrew. Until the Holocaust when countless speakers were murdered, Ladino was spoken by thousands. It retains archaic features of Spanish since the Jews who spoke it were expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century.
Variants of Ladino
Ladino was once spoken all over Europe by Sephardic Jews. Thus, there exist at least two main dialects: Oriental and Western Ladino. Oriental Ladino is the variety that was mainly spoken in Rhodes and Turkey while Western Ladino is the variety that was mainly spoken in Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Romania. The former mostly preserves features of Castillian Spanish while the latter preserves features of Northern Spanish and Portuguese.
Depending on the variety, Ladino was also written in various scripts. As is common with Jewish languages, Ladino was once written almost exclusively using the Hebrew alphabet. Other languages that also use the writing system include Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian.
Nowadays, writing Ladino using a variant of the Latin alphabet is common due to the large number of speakers in Turkey. The language has also been written in the Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets. Likewise, when Ladino works are published in Spain it is common for them to be written using Spanish orthography in order to facilitate the reading for Spanish speakers.
The Ladino Literary Tradition
The first book that was printed in Ladino was “Me-'am lo'ez” which was written by a variety of authors but was initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730. This text was primarily written in order to make the Torah and its commentaries accessible to non-Hebrew-speaking Turkish Jews. The publication of this work led to an increase in Ladino literature overall.
It wouldn’t be until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, that secular Ladino works would begin to be published. Once this began, however, a field of religious and secular poetry, novels, and periodicals within Ladino literature blossomed.
Ladino was so widely spoken in areas like Thessaloniki, Greece, that most newspapers were printed in Ladino in addition to Greek at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Ladino and the Holocaust
After the Holocaust, the majority of Ladino speakers had been killed. Out of an estimated 365,000 Sephardic Jews in Europe before World War II, it has been estimated that 160,000 were murdered by the Nazis. It is safe to assume that many of these Jews spoke Ladino, perhaps in addition to the language of the country in which they lived.
As a further example, there had once been a vibrant community of roughly 50,000 Ladino-speaking Jews in Thessaloniki, Greece, however, after the Holocaust that number was down to 2,000. Similar patterns can be observed throughout Europe. It is no wonder that the Ladino language lost its status as a primary Jewish language.
After the war, many of the survivors of the Holocaust moved to Israel or the United States where they assimilated to the local languages. Beyond the desire to assimilate into their new countries, survivors feared using the language which had made them targets during the war. A similar feeling was present among Yiddish speakers whose language similarly dwindled after the Holocaust.
The number of Ladino speakers is estimated to be between 160,000-200,000. These speakers mostly reside in Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa, Israel, and the Americas. One of the largest communities is in Istanbul where a Ladino-language newspaper is still published monthly: El Amaneser (the dawn). Ladino is also a recognized minority language in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, France, and Turkey.
As the number of Jews who speak Ladino has dropped since the Holocaust, Jacky Benmayor is the last speaker of Ladino in Greece. Motivated to breathe life into the ancient language, he teaches courses on the language at the University of Thessaloniki. Similarly, Gloria Ascher teaches the language to curious students in Cape Cod, Massachusettes in the United States.
Furthermore, literature and music continue to be produced in Ladino by ancestors of the once-prominent language’s speakers. For example, oral folktales, an important facet of Ladino culture have recently been put into writing and preserved. They can be read in a collection, “Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster” by Matilda Koén-Sarano, who is one of today’s most prominent Ladino writers.
However, a significant setback in Ladino’s ability to be preserved is the striking lack of resources in terms of research and archives when compared with other Jewish languages like Yiddish. If this doesn’t change, it is unlikely that Ladino will have a chance at survival. According to the Endangered Languages Project, Ladino is at risk.
I am proud that my family has also played a modest role in keeping Ladino alive. My grandmother’s second husband who is from Italy (he and his sister are the sole survivors of the Holocaust from his family) continued to recite prayers in Ladino every week on the Sabbath, a tradition he passed down to his many children and grandchildren.
Features of Ladino
As mentioned earlier, Ladino retains many characteristics of Castillian Spanish. These include:
The typical Spanish pronunciation of j and x is [x]. Ladino retains an Old Spanish contrast: x is pronounced as /ʃ/ and j is pronounced as /ʒ/. Compare Modern Spanish bajo /baxo/ ‘low’ and Ladino baxo /baʃo/ ‘low’.
In Ladino as in Old Spanish, g before e or i remains [d͡ʒ] or /ʒ/, not [x] as in Modern Spanish. Compare Modern Spanish mujer /muxer/ ‘woman’ with Ladino mujer /muʒer/.
Z (and c before e or i) is pronounced [s] or [θ] in Modern Spanish. Ladino retains an Old Spanish contrast: where ç was used in Old Spanish, /s/ is used in Ladino, and z is pronounced as /z/. Compare Modern Spanish corazón /korason/ ‘heart’ with Ladino korasón /korason/ 'heart' and Modern Spanish decir /desir/ ‘decide’ with Ladino dezir /dezir/ ‘decide’.
In Modern Spanish the pronunciation of /b/ and /v/ is determined by phonotactics. In other words, there is no difference between the two. In Ladino, however, /b/ is pronounced as [b], and /v/ as [v].
Another interesting comparison between the two languages is that in Ladino, ‘god’ is dio while it is dios in Spanish. The final ‘-s’ which is often a plural marker in Spanish (though in this case it was not) was removed in Ladino to reflect Judaism’s central belief in one god.
Influences on Ladino
The table below shows the origin of various Ladino words. Evidently, there is a wide variety of languages that influenced Ladino.
A small number of universities offer courses in Ladino. Unfortunately, none of these are in the Netherlands. However, the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino i su Kultura (the central authority for Ladino preservation in Israel) has created an online course in Hebrew. This page from the same authority also offers resources in Ladino such as interviews and stories told in Ladino. If you don’t speak Hebrew, The National Sephardic Library and Archives and the Sephardic Studies Digital Library offer many novels, bible translations, and letters that can be used to learn the language.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and learned something new about Ladino today, helping to keep its memory alive.
Alfassa, S. (1999, February). A Quick Explanation of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Ladino, the Sephardic language - Judeo-Spanish judeo-espagnol. http://www.sephardicstudies.org/quickladino.html
Did you know Ladino is at risk? Endangered Languages. (n.d.). https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/3444
Fuentes-Cantillana, C. (2018, February 21). Spain helps keep alive archaic language of Sephardic Jews. The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/spain-helps-keep-alive-archaic-language-of-sephardic-jews/
Kaniadakis, E. (2022, January 27). Ladino: Meet the guardian of a Jewish language close to extinction. Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/culture/2022/01/27/ladino-meet-the-guardian-of-a-jewish-language-close-to-extinction
Kesslen, B. (2019, February 24). A lot of Spanish, a little bit of Hebrew: Ladino is an ancient language at threat of extinction. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/do-you-speak-ladino-meet-folks-trying-save-dying-language-n974056
Pasikowska-Schnass, M. (2023, January). Ladino: Judeo-Spanish language and culture in Europe - European Parliament. European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2023/739299/EPRS_BRI(2023)739299_EN.pdf
Perez, A. (2015, April 7). 500 years of Ladino literary creativity on display in unique exhibit by Avner Perez. eSefarad. https://esefarad.com/500-years-of-ladino-literary-creativity-on-display-in-unique-exhibit-by-avner-perez/