What Is Ladino, And Where Is It Spoken?

The language is undergoing a revival, but where exactly did it come from in the first place?
Ladino represented by a village on a cliff on the Iberian Peninsula, photographed as the sun is setting in the distance.

The lifespan of a language is impossible to predict. Its fortunes rise and fall with the people who speak it, and there’s no knowing when those fortunes will drastically change. One such language that has gone on a strange and difficult path is Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish.

As the alternate name might tip you off, Ladino is a language strongly influenced by the Spanish language. While the two languages sound somewhat similar, Ladino is its own language, as it’s absorbed many different influences that distinguish it from anything else. Over the past several centuries, Ladino has thrived, been driven nearly to extinction and staged a somewhat surprising comeback.

The History Of Ladino

Ladino is a language that was developed by the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal). It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the language came about, because the divisions between languages were not as rigid many centuries ago. During the 15th century, Sephardic Jews spoke the same Spanish as anyone else in the area. Ladino started as a dialect of Spanish, which was influenced by Portuguese, Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages spoken around the peninsula. This early spoken Ladino was mutually intelligible with Old Spanish for some indeterminate period of time.

The separation of Ladino and Spanish was really initiated by the expulsion of Jews from Spain, which was ordered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Some Jews stayed and were assimilated into the Christian culture, while others scattered across Europe and North Africa, with many fleeing to the Ottoman Empire. It was this expulsion that really created the Sephardim, a name derived from the Hebrew word Sepharad, meaning “Spain.”

Upon reaching the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardim were now tasked with building new communities, and language was an important part of that. The people spoke a range of different dialects from the Iberian Peninsula, and so as the groups mixed, so too did these different ways of speaking. Over the following few centuries, Spanish and Ladino evolved separately, and so they ended up sounding pretty different. Ladino, for instance, kept the hard “f” sound at the beginning of the words fablar and fijo, which Spanish speakers started pronouncing as hablar and hijo. And as mentioned, the Ottoman Empire wasn’t the only place the Sephardim moved to, but it was one of the only places where enough moved to that it allowed for a robust community to form.

The clearest early differences between Spanish and Ladino were in the writing. For one, Ladino was written in the Rashi script, which is a cursive style sometimes used for Hebrew. This alone makes Ladino look very different from the other languages used on the Iberian Peninsula. The earliest Ladino writings are translations of Hebrew texts from the 18th century, which tried to maintain as much of the original Hebrew grammar as possible.

While the first Ladino writings may have been a bit stilted and archaic, literary production took off throughout the 19th century with Ladino novels and newspapers. Despite having been removed from Spain for several generations at this point, the Sephardim kept their language alive. Language, after all, is an important marker of community and tradition.

The Ladino language continued to thrive for a while, but its communities were nearly wiped out with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rising antisemitism of the early 20th century. The language was already weakened by the preference for Turkish or French in the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the 20th century, Ladino was being ignored by younger generations. Many people predicted its impending death.

How Many People Speak Ladino?

The estimates for how many people speak Ladino are all over the place. Ethnologue puts it at about 51,000 speakers, almost all of whom live in Israel. The rest, according to this one resource, are in Turkey (8,000). It also lists Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece as having four speakers and 12 speakers, respectively (which is…not many).

While there probably aren’t tens of thousands of Ladino speakers uncounted, there are certainly more who are scattered around the globe. It’s recognized as a minority language in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel and France. There are also certainly Ladino speakers in Latin America and the United States, both of which welcomed Sephardic Jews as immigrants at various points in history. Unfortunately, hard numbers are difficult to come by.

The Ladino Revival

The 20th century was almost the end of Ladino, as speakers of the languages were dispersed, killed or forcefully assimilated into other cultures. What’s most surprising, then, is that the 21st century has ushered in a revival for the language. People, especially those who are descendants of Sephardic Jews, have a renewed interest in learning it.

This revival has manifested in a few different ways. Online communities have formed, which allows people from all over to connect over their mutual interest in the language. American universities including Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania are offering courses in the language. In 2017, the Spanish Royal Academy — in part attempting to atone for the expulsion of Jews over five centuries before — announced that it would be creating a National Ladino Academy to help save the language. 

While academic studies of the language are important, what’s really driving the interest in the language is art. Many musical artists have started writing songs in Ladino as a way to keep it culturally relevant. There are also new Ladino translations of old stories, and entirely new writing. Artists from across mediums are finding ways to incorporate the language.

There is one notable difference between modern Ladino and that used before: it’s now much more common to see the language written using the Latin alphabet. It’s unclear why exactly the shift happened — perhaps those reviving it are used to using the Latin alphabet — but it doesn’t affect the spoken version of the language.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about with Ladino, but the language is far from being widely spoken. Bringing a language back from the brink of death is difficult, and it requires people actually using the language in their day-to-day life. One of the only successful attempts at reviving a language was Hebrew, and that was part of a larger project of nation-building. The desire to keep an old language alive can be very strong, particularly when it’s tied to your ancestral identity, but it’s never easy. 

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