Endangered languages are very close to my heart because learning one is a way where anyone in the world can make a huge difference, as a language is so much more than just spoken words but an entire culture and history of its people. There are few endangered languages however that are interesting as Ladino or as it is also known, Judaeo-Spanish.
First of all what is Ladino? Well it is a language of the Sephardi Jews, and most of its vocabulary derives from Medieval Spanish and it is in some ways a time capsule showing us what Spanish language used to be like and how much Modern Spanish has evolved since. Not only this but Ladino was once a major trade language in the Mediterranean and this, along with its complicated history, explains why its vocabulary was mainly influenced by Turkish [via the Ottoman Empire] with of course Hebrew and Aramaic influencing the language through the religious practices of its people.
Grammatically, phonologically and through means of vocabulary, 60% of the language derives directly from Old Spanish. In the way that Latin American Spanish sometimes has more archaic elements of Spanish than Peninsular Spanish, Ladino resembles Latin American Spanish much more so than that of the Spanish of Spain. What is interesting about Ladino though is that it can often be written using the Hebrew alphabet.
The story of Ladino is the story of the Sephardic Jews [derived from the Hebrew word Sepharad, meaning Spain].
Throughout the Middle Ages there was a substantial jewish population lived in the Iberian penisula. However in 1492, after the end of the Spanish Reconquista of Spain from the Muslim Moors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, decided to expel the Jews that refused to convert to Catholicism following the religious persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Nearly 70,000 Sephardi Jews left Spain for Portugal, which soon followed suit in expelling the Jews in 1496. The Sephardi then left for the Ottoman Empire: North Africa, The Balkans or Asia Minor; or they became Catholics and either became good Christians and stayed in Spain or the Americas or they later converted back to Judaism and left Spain for safe havens such as Amsterdam.
The Old Spanish in question that Ladino is derived from is that which was spoken at the time of the Sephardic expulsion of 1492. Ladino has preserved some of the original sounds of Old Spanish such as the ‘j’ which was originally not pronounced as ‘h'[x] like it is in Modern Spanish. For example mujer, meaning “woman” or “wife”, was pronounced, with the [ʒ] sound. Also the well known ‘z’ sound [θ] or ‘Spanish Lisp’ in Peninsular Spanish, did not exist in Old Spanish and has been preserved in Latin American Spanish and Ladino.
The pronunciation of Ladino is somewhat closer to Galician and Portuguese than Modern Spanish because both of the latter languages retained characteristics of the medieval Ibero-Romance language that was later lost by the modern Spanish language. Some examples of this proximity are for example the Judaeo-Spanish aninda (“still”), in comparison with Portuguese ainda (Galician aínda, Asturian aína or enaína) and in contrast, the Spanish aún. There is also the initial consonants from Old Spanish that were retained in Judaeo-Spanish fija, favla(“daughter”, “speech”), and these appear iin Portuguese as filha, fala (Galician filla, fala, Asturian fía, fala, Aragonese filla, fabla, Catalan filla). In modern Spanish they have evolved into hija, habla following some modern sound changes.
Here are two examples Ladino and Spanish side by side :
Ladino : El djudeo-espanyol, djudio, djudezmo es la lingua favlada por los djudios sefardim ekspulsados de la Espanya enel 1492. Es una lingua derivada del espanyol i favlada por 150.000 personas en komunitas en Israel, la Turkia, antika Yugoslavia, la Gresia, el Maruekos, Mayorka, las Amerikas, entre munchos otros.
Spanish : El judeo-español, djudio, djudezmo es la lengua hablada por los judíos sefardíes expulsados de España en 1492. Es una lengua derivada del español y hablada por 150.000 personas en comunidades en Israel, Turquía, la antigua Yugoslavia, Grecia, Marruecos, Mallorca, las Américas, entre muchos otros.
You can see the lexical similarity between the languages and they look to be mutually intelligible. If you are still not convinced, here is a video of a Ladino lesson on YouTube:
Modern Ladino has since fallen under the influence of French and Italian. Usually to explain to new and modern concepts. Also as many of the Sephardic Jews lived in the safety of the Ottoman Empire, many Turkish and Greek loanwords entered Ladino.
Ladino itself was known as Castilian by the educated Sephardim even though it had become increasingly different from the language spoken in Castile
In Israel today where the majority of the remaining Ladino speakers are found, the language is known as (E)spanyolit or Ladino in Hebrew.
Judaeo-Spanish was the common language of Salonika during the period of Ottoman rule. The city became part of the modern Greek Republic in 1912 and was subsequently renamed Thessaloniki. Despite a major fire, economic oppression by Greek authorities, and mass settlement of Christian refugees, the language remained widely spoken in Salonika until the deportation of 50,000 Salonikan Jews in the Holocaust during the Second World War.
Nowadays Judaeo-Spanish, which was once the trade language of the Adriatic Sea, the Balkans and the Middle-East and was renowned for its rich literature especially in modern day Thessaloniki, today is under serious threat of extinction. Most native speakers are elderly and the language is not transmitted to their children or grandchildren for various reasons.
The figures indicate that Ladino had 112,130 first language speakers in Israel in 1985 and 10,000 speakers in Turkey so it is evidently an endangered language. The massive depreciation in the amount of Ladino speakers is due mainly to the effects of the Holocaust where the vast majority of its speakers were murdered during one of the most horrific tragedies in modern human history.
It is indeed a fascinating language and is well worth learning. An ancient relic which despite all odds has survived to this day. A language that opens up a world to a culture which to many, including other Jews, has not yet been discovered. Today it has its own newspapers and on Radio Nacional de España has its own programme in the language!
The Spanish state has recognised its role in the atrocities of the Inquisition and Expulsion and has since launched a plan to give Sephardic Jews or those of Sephardic descent a Spanish Passport. On top of that the Real Academia Española, (the insitution responsible for overseeing the Spanish language) has announced it is opening a branch in Israel to regulate and oversee the proper use of Ladino!
Hope you enjoyed reading this article.
Have a nice day!