Ladino

What Yiddish was to Ashkenazi Jews, Ladino was to the Jews of medieval Spain and their descendants, the true Sephardim. Also known as Judesco, Judaeo-Spanish, Sephardic, Judezmo, Haquitiya (in north Morocco), Dzudio, La’az or Lo’ez, it began as a form of 15th century Spanish to which refugees from the Diaspora of 1492 added Hebrew and other languages. Although Ladino is still spoken today by approximately 160,000 people, it is considered a ‘seriously endangered’ language.

The basic template of Ladino is very old Castilian Spanish. However, it maintains the letters f and g, where Spanish uses h; and it also includes Hebrew, Aramaic, French and Arabic accretions.

After Jews were expelled from Christian Spain in 1492, Ladino acquired some new words (Turkish, Greek and Slavic) from host nations of the Ottoman Empire, where they settled. Amsterdam Jews took Ladino across the Channel to 17th century England, but few UK Jews today remember the language.

Written Ladino uses Hebrew characters, as do most Jewish vernaculars. But unlike Hebrew itself, Ladino often employs consonants (sometimes three in a row!) to convey the foreign vowel sounds of Spanish. By convention Ladino was used for secular Hebrew for religious purposes. For example, Sephardi romanceros (allegorical ballads) intersperse ‘holy’ verses in Hebrew with more ribald verses in Ladino.

Some of the greatest Ladino writings dealt with religious themes. Coplas de Yoçef (‘Song of Joseph’), composed in 1732 by Abraham de Toledo, embellished Biblical tales and included traditional haggadic material. The most famous Ladino work was Rabbi Ya’akov Kuli’s Me’am Lo’ez (quoting Psalm 114: “From a people with a foreign tongue”). The first volume of this huge work of Biblical commentary appeared in Istanbul in 1730, and the whole was only completed some 150 years later.

There was a vibrant folkloric Ladino culture in Macedonia and Yugoslavia, but the Nazi Holocaust decimated both the culture and those who practised it. Ladino is still used in modern Turkey. Two Ladino printing presses, La Buena Esperansa and La Puerta dew Oriente, started in Izmir in 1843. Istanbul still boasts a Ladino newspaper called “Salom” (“Shalom”). There were an estimated 8,000 first language Ladino speakers in Turkey in 1980 (out of some 26,000 Jews).

Between 50,000 and 80,000 Jews in contemporary Israel understand Ladino, but far fewer speak it proficiently. Avner Peretz, director of the Institute of Ladino in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, is currently collecting Ladino works and documenting the language’s oral tradition, before it disappears altogether. Meanwhile, Israel Radio still broadcasts in Ladino and collects Ladino folksongs.

Native speakers of Ladino are sadly dying off. Yet the recent unexpected revival of Sephardi musical traditions, and in particular the romancero, in both Israel and the Diaspora, has given a new lease of life to this charming and evocative language.

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