The word Ladino once had a different meaning. It was used for the language of translations of sacred texts from Hebrew. It is described as follows in the introduction to a Ladino-English English-Ladino dictionary:
The dictionary that includes this definition of Ladino is, surprisingly, a dictionary of the modern spoken language. The authors recognize that nowadays, when people say Ladino, they are probably not referring to an obsolete system of word-for-word translation but to the living speech of Jews whose ancestors left Spain in 1492.
Is it correct to describe the Sephardic Jews who fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire as "the ordinary Spanish-speaking Jew"? Did Jews in Spain before 1492 simply speak Spanish? Probably not. The word for "God," for example, was probably not Dios, as it is in Spanish, but el Dyo, which is used by Ladino speakers today. It has been suggested that Dios sounds like a plural noun, and Jews did not want to sound as if they were Christians who believed in the Trinity. One explanation for this form is that Jews said el Dyo; we must remember, however, the Hebrew word Elohim also sounds like a plural noun. It has also been suggested that we are simply dealing with the loss of the final consonant of the Spanish word. In addition to the word for "God," it is reasonable to expect that Jews in Spain, like Jews everywhere, had their own words to refer to religious practices."
David Bunis, a noted scholar, tells us that the language, which he calls Judezmo, antedates the expulsion from Spain: "Earliest Judezmo began to rise in Medieval Spain as a system of linguistic elements of Hispanic, Hebrew and Aramaic, (Jewish) Arabic and (Jewish) Greek origin."2
Quite a few names have been used for this language in addition to the names Ladino and Judezmo. Native speakers may call the labnguage Judyo', Jidyo' (also spelled Djudyo' and Djidyo'), Spanyolit, or Spanyol. Scholars may say Judeo-Spanish. In North Africa, it is called Hakiti'a or Haketi'a. I will follow modern usage and say Ladino, recognizing that a change of meaning has taken place.
In certain ways, Ladino pronunciation reflects old forms that have long since disappeared from Spanish. The letters j and x in Spanish are pronounced with a voiceless velar fricative sound, like the ch in "Bach" and "Chanukah." There was a time when Spanish had a j sound, as in English judge. This still exists in the Ladino word for "Jew," which is Djudyo or Djidyo. There was also a zh sound, similar to the s in English "pleasure." We hear this in the Ladino words ojo and ajo, meaning "eye" and "garlic" respectively. Spanish used to have an sh sound, which survives in Ladino basho, meaning "low."
It would be inaccurate to say that Spanish has changed and Ladino has not. Both have changed, but the changes were different. All languages change. Nevertheless, the phonetic system of Ladino does indeed preserve sounds that are no longer found in Spanish.
An interesting fact about Jewish languages, including Ladino, is that words about things that are somewhat unpleasant come from Hebrew or Aramaic. An examination of the words for "fear" in Jewish languages illustrates this fact. People always have feared fear itself, whether or not they said so in so many words. In Yiddish, moyre is the everyday word for "fear." In Judeo-Italian we find a different Hebrew word, paxad (The x is pronounced like the ch in Chanukah or Bach). That's not all. Judeo-Italian includes paxadoso meaning "timid" and impaxadito meaning "frightened." So we shouldn't be at all surprised to learn that in addition to the Ladino word espanto meaning "fear," paxad also exists in Ladino.3 Furthermore, ema lemilxama, involving still another Hebrew word, means "fear of war."4
Grief is an unpleasant subject, and in addition to bivda meaning "widow" and bivdo meaning "widower," we find almana for "widow" and almon for "widower."5 Yiddish has parallel words, almone and almen. Oddly, in Voltaire's short story "Zadig," a woman described as a young widow is named Almona, suggesting that Voltaire knew the word and had heard an Ashkenazic pronunciation. The title character of the story, Zadig himself, is described as a righteous man, suggesting Hebrew or Yiddish tsadik. I don't know why Voltaire chose Hebrew words for these names.
Is 'thief' a taboo word? Robbery is certainly a taboo activity and an unpleasant side of life. Just as Yiddish has ganef and ganvenen, meaning "thief" and "to steal" respectively, Judezmo has ganav (Bunis item 894) and ganavear.6 Most native speakers, however, use words that come from Spanish: ladron and rovar. The names of certain body parts are typically taboo. Where Yiddish has tokhes, Ladino a word of Spanish origin, kulo, although there has also been a report of taxad, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning "under."
A century ago, the city of Salonika (Thessaloniki) had a Ladino-speaking plurality. Ladino was widely spoken in what is now Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria. This is no longer the case. Hitler destroyed the Jews of Greece and the former Yugoslavia. But even in Bulgaria, where most Jews survived World War II, and in Turkey, which was a neutral country during the war and was never occupied by the Nazis, Ladino has few speakers.
In the days of the Ottoman Empire, many nationalities speaking their own languages existed under the millet system, which gave autonomy to various minorities. When the empire was replaced by independent states, each new country had its own language, and everyone was expected to know it. That contributed to the decline of Ladino. But long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a different force was at work. The Alliance israélite universelle, an organization founded in France in 1860, was concerned with helping Jews everywhere. What better way to help them than to establish schools where French was taught? Today, we may disagree, but the Alliance was remarkably successful. French began to replace Ladino in various communities.
Daisy Sadaka Braverman, who teaches Ladino at the University of Pennsylvania, has spoken to me about generational differences among Turkish Jews. Her maternal grandmother, who was married in 1907, generally spoke Ladino. She knew some Greek; her Turkish, on the other hand, was horrible, as was generally the case for women of her generation. Ms. Sadaka Braverman's mother, on the other hand, often spoke French and identified as a French speaker, even though she spoke Ladino to her sisters. She had expressed a certain ambivalence about Ladino, saying, "It's not that it's low class; I think it's old fashioned." As for Ms. Sadaka Braverman herself, she is fluent in Turkish as well as in Ladino and French—and English.
In Turkey, there is a certain amount of inconsistency. A woman spoke French to her daughter and Ladino to her son. Ms. Sadaka Braverman's paternal grandmother, who lived in Istanbul, knew French well. Jews in Istanbul are more likely to use French than Jews in Izmir.
Perhaps the rise of French and the awkwardness some people felt about Ladino happened because French was recognized as a language of culture. In 1981, I wrote in these pages that the future of Ladino as a spoken language was in doubt.8 Today, things are changing. The language is being taught in a number of places, including the major universities in Israel. Textbooks are available. The government of Israel has created a new organization, the National Authority of Ladino. There was a time when Israelis felt insecure about the establishment of Hebrew and discouraged the use of languages like Ladino and Yiddish, but that is no longer an issue. Ladino, like other Jewish languages, is now respected and studied by scholars in a number of countries, who may communicate with each other via the internet, for example, at www.jewish-languages.org. There are still no young native speakers of Ladino; nevertheless, Ladino lives.
1. Elie Kohen and Dahlia Kohen-Gordon, Ladino-English English-Ladino Concise Encyclopedic Dictionary (JudeoSpanish),
2. David M. Bunis, A Lexicon of the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Modern Judezmo (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1993), p. 15.
3. Ibid., Item 3285.
4. Ibid., Item 158
5. Ibid., Items 204 and 205.
6. Item 894.
7. Ibid., Item 4042.
8. George Jochnowitz, "Ladino," Midstream XXVII, #2 (1981), p. 32.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Midstream.