Varieties of what became Judeo-Spanish (now widely known as Ladino) were once spoken by Sephardim, the Jews of Spain — approximately 100,000-175,000 of whom were expelled from Spain in 1492. While those later known as “Western Sephardim” primarily went to Portugal (where they were expelled again soon after) and from there to England, France, Holland, and other Western European nations, and others went to Morocco, as many as 125,000 “Eastern Sephardim” went to Ottoman Empire at the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II. It was among those in Morocco and the Ottoman Empire that a distinct variety of Spanish was maintained and developed. Besides Ladino and Judeo-Spanish, many names — as many as 81! — have been used by speakers to refer to their language, including Judezmo, (Muestro) Spanyol, Djudyo, Jargon, and in Morocco, Haketia.
Derived from Old Spanish as it was spoken in Spain before the 1492 expulsion, Ladino is classified by linguists as a Romance language (ultimately belonging to the Indo-European language family). Often mutually intelligible with Spanish, Ladino nonetheless differs in a number of respects, particularly phonetics, where, for example, Ladino has the sounds /ʃ/ (pronounced “sh”), /ʒ/ (like the s in English “pleasure”), and /dʒ/ (like j in English “jar”).
Traditionally, “Ladino” (לאדינו) referred to Spanish originally written in Hebrew letters (aljamiado texts), usually in the Rashi sript, and later in the unique Solitreo cursive script. Today the language is most typically written in a phonetic Latin-based script which differs from Spanish orthography (e.g. komo instead of como, ke instead of que) — the Aki Yersuhalayim system, used by the famous Israeli Ladino journal of that name, is one important standard.
Some older lexical items and other features, lost in modern Spanish, are preserved in Ladino; at the same time, Ladino evolved considerably over nearly five centuries outside Spain, with speakers in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa borrowing and transforming words from Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and ultimately French, Italian and other languages depending on location. As with other Jewish languages, some Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, particularly connected to the religious domain, can also be considered an important part of the language (Bunis 1993).
Most Ladino speakers are over 60 years of age, if not older. Harris 1994 estimated 60,000 Ladino speakers in the world, but the number today may be considerably smaller. A signficant majority of the global Ladino-speaking population was killed in the Holocaust, including the near-complete destruction of the Jewish communities in major centers for the language such as Salonika. Many Ladino speakers who survived — especially in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Morocco — were subsequently uprooted, moving and building a new life in Israel and shifting to Hebrew and other languages.
Today the largest number of speakers is thought to be in Israel, though the most active and concentrated group of users may be among the elderly members of the Jewish community of Istanbul, where Ladino remained the language of everyday life until its recent displacement by Turkish. In the United States and in Latin America, for the first time in several centuries, many Ladino speakers came into contact with Spanish speakers, resulting in an increasingly Spanish-influenced Ladino, with less and less Greek, Turkish, Moroccan, or other influences.
There is an extensive academic literature on Ladino not only in English but in Hebrew, Spanish, French, and to some extent other languages. In addition, there is a significant amount of religious, literary, and other material — these days sometimes challenging to access — in the language. Below are just a few key resources for those becoming familiar with the language. There are also a number of websites and textbooks one can consult. The Sephardic Studies Digital Library Collection at the University of Washington, led by Devin Naar, is one vital resource for finding Ladino-language materials.
Bunis, D. M. 1993. A Lexicon of the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Modern Judezmo. Jerusalem: Magnes Press & Misgav Yerushalayim.
Bunis, D. M. 1999. לשון ג’ודזמו [Judezmo: An Introduction to the Language of the Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Harris, Tracy. 1994. Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.
Nehama, Joseph. 1977. Dictionnaire du judéo-espagnol. Madrid: CSIC.
By the early 20th century, with the arrival of tens of thousands of speakers from cities such as Salonica, Istanbul, and Izmir, New York had become one of the language’s global centers. Other Ladino-speaking communities developed elsewhere in the US, including Seattle and Los Angeles, though younger generations switched to English.
Endangered everywhere today, Ladino nonetheless has a substantial legacy and a vital presence in New York. It was the language of neighborhoods from Lower East Side to the Bronx to the New Lots area of Brooklyn, playing a significant role in daily life and at times in the numerous Sephardic synagogues in those areas. The city has also been home to large-scale Ladino-language journalism (most famously, La Vara), a theater troupe (The Ladino Players), and Ladino classes. Today, annual events like the Celebration of Judeo-Spanish in New York and the International Ladino Day are bringing together speakers, students, and a growing number of Sephardim and non-Sephardim interested in the language.
In 12 episodes/interviews totaling around 4 hours, ELA’s Ladino New York project, part of ELA’s larger Jewish Languages Project, tells the stories of those speak the language or remember the language and its major role in the history and future of Jewish New York.
The earliest documented Ladino-speaking community in NYC formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a cluster in and around Broome and Allen streets within the larger Yiddish-speaking matrix of the mostly Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side, though there were tensions with Yiddish speakers (who often questioned the Jewishness of non-Yiddish speakers). It was in this area that an active Ladino press first formed (La Vara the longest-standing publication) and that the first synagogues and social clubs for Ladino speakers took root. Many Sephardim initially left for Harlem, where a Ladino-speaking cluster formed in the 1910s and 1920s, with larger numbers moving to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx after.
Moving north with other Jews from the Lower East Side, Ladino speakers formed a distinct community in the Bronx beginning in the 1920s and 30s, with the greatest concentration around the Grand Concourse in the 160s. The Sephardic Jewish Center on 169th under the charismatic Rabbi Asher Murciano was a prominent anchor institution before it moved to Forest Hills, but there were also informal social clubs like El Filo, often geared towards people whose families were originally from Izmir or Salonika or other specific hometowns. Many in the community continued to speak not only Ladino but also Greek and Turkish, while interacting and finding common ground with the increasing number of Spanish speakers from the Caribbean who settled nearby in the Bronx.
As they grew more prosperous, many Sephardic families, some moving from the nearby tenements of Brownsville, were able to buy single-family homes in an arc of Brooklyn neighborhoods stretching from New Lots to Bensonhurst. At its height in the period immediately after the Second World War, the community maintained an impressive infrastructure of syngaogues, social clubs, and charitable organizations even as the younger generation shifted to English and looked towards the Long Island suburbs. Renowned singer Victoria Hazan was one of many Ladino speakers to spend their last days at the Sephardic Home for the Aged in Bath Beach.
The Sephardic Jewish Center’s move to 108th Street in Forest Hills in the early 1950s marked the emergence of eastern Queens as an important area of settlement for Ladino-speaking families. Though the number who speak has diminished today, the synagogue has welcome Jews from Iranian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and other Middle Eastern backgrounds and has served as the site for an annual celebration of Ladino where speakers, semi-speakers, learners, and others come together.