Judeo-Spanish--also known as Ladino--mixes 16th-century Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and other languages.

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Reprinted from The Blackwell Companion to Jewish Culture:From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Edited by Glenda Ambranson, published by Blackwell Publishers and reprinted with permission.

Judeo-Spanish (JS) is a language of Hispanic stock spoken and written by Jews of Spanish origin. Its phonology, morphology, and lexicon derive, for the most part, from pre-16th-century Spanish, and, as with other Jewish languages, the influence of Hebrew is felt, particularly in lexical areas associated with religious observance and practice, and, more restrictedly, in affective and taboo uses of Hebrew words and concepts.

jewish languages quizThrough contact with the languages of those Mediterranean countries in which the Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, a number of lexical items, as well as a smaller number of morphological and syntactical elements, have entered the language from Turkish, Arabic, French, and, to a lesser extent, Italian. 

The Expulsion From Spain

Upon leaving Spain whole communities of Jews headed east through Italy to the lands of the Ottoman Empire at the invitation of Sultan Bayazid, and important centers, which survived until the Second World War, grew in present-day Turkey, Greece, Israel, and Egypt, with smaller ones in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the island of Rhodes. Their speech is described by linguists as eastern JS.

For a century or so prior to the Expulsion, persecuted Spanish Jews also found shelter in North Africa, and speech communities grew along the northern coast of Morocco. The speech of this region, which bears a marked resemblance to its eastern counterpart both phonetically and in the retention of Old Spanish lexemes, is denominated western.

The 20th-century witnessed the annihilation of many of the eastern Mediterranean communities as a result of Nazi persecution, and in the late 1950s the fear of persecution also threatened many of the Moroccan communities. And so, with the displacement and dispersal of the old JS-speaking communities from their traditional centers, largely towards Israel but also to Europe, North and South America, speakers came into contact with, and eventually adopted, the language of their new surroundings.

Naming the Language

A current debate on JS nomenclature raises some interesting points about linguistic evolution and linguistic consciousness. In the eastern Mediterranean the language is referred to by a variety of names. In general, two persons who speak the same language do not feel the need to identify to one another the language they are speaking; however, the need for identification does arise when they come into contact with non-native speakers. This could well explain why, following the break-up of traditional communities in the eastern Mediterranean in the early 19th century, the language is confusingly referred to by a variety of names.

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Dr. Isaac Benabu is a professor in the Institute of Languages, Literature and Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.