What Is the 'Jewish' Spanish Language?

Ladino Can Be Compared With Yiddish

Old Jerusalem
Old Jerusalem in the 21st century. Adapted from a photo by Justin McIntosh; made available through the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Most people have heard of Yiddish, a Hebrew and German hybrid language. Were you aware that there is another composite language, which contains Hebrew and other Semitic languages, that is an offshoot of Spanish, called Ladino?

Ladino is classified as a Judeo-Spanish Romance language. In Spanish, it's called djudeo-espanyol or Ladino. In English, the language is also known as Sephardic, Crypto-Jewish or Spanyol.

History of Ladino

In the 1492 diaspora, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, they took with them Spanish of the late 15th century and expanded the lexicon with language influences from the Mediterranean, primarily where they settled.

Foreign words that mixed with Old Spanish derive mainly from Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, and to a lesser extent from Portuguese and Italian.

The Ladino community population took a large hit when the Nazis destroyed most of the communities in Europe where Ladino had been the first language among Jews.

Very few of the people who speak Ladino are monolingual. Ladino language advocates fear that it could die out as speakers more often use the languages of the cultures around them. 

It is estimated that about 200,000 people can understand or speak Ladino. Israel has one of the largest Ladino-speaking communities, with many words borrowed from Yiddish. Traditionally, Ladino was written in the Hebrew alphabet, writing and reading right to left.

In the 20th century, Ladino adopted the Latin alphabet, used by Spanish and English, and the left-to-right orientation.  

What It's Like

Although separate languages, Ladino and Spanish, are inextricably linked in a way that speakers of the two languages can communicate with each other, much like Spanish and Portuguese speakers can understand each other.

Ladino retains Spanish vocabulary and grammar rules from the 15th century interspersed with many borrowed words. The spelling resembles Spanish.

For an example, the following paragraph about the Holocaust, written in Ladino, very closely resembles Spanish and would be understood by a Spanish reader:

En komparasion kon las duras sufriensas ke pasaron los reskapados de los kampos de eksterminasion nazistas en Gresia, se puede dizir ke las sufriensas de los olim en el kampo de Kipros no fueron muy grandes, ma despues de anyos de vida en los kampos de konsentrasion, en teribles kondisiones, eyos kerian empesar en una mueva vida en Erets Israel i sus planos eran atrazados agora por unos kuantos mezes.

Notable Differences From Spanish

A big difference in Ladino is that the "k" and "s" are usually used to represent sounds that are sometimes represented in Spanish by other letters.

Another notable grammatical difference from Ladino is that usted and ustedes, the forms of the second-person pronoun, are missing. Those pronouns were developed in Spanish after the Jews had left. 

Other Spanish language developments that came after the 15th century, which Ladino did not adopt, included distinguishing different sound for the letters b and v.

After the diaspora, Spaniards had given the two consonants the same sound. Also, Ladino does not include the inverted question mark or the use of the ñ.

Ladino Resources

Organizations in Turkey and Israel publish and maintain resources for the Ladino community. The Ladino Authority, an online resource, is based in Jerusalem. The authority proctors an online Ladino language course primarily for Hebrew speakers.

A combination of Jewish studies and language studies programs in universities and associations in the U.S. and globally offer courses, revival groups or encourage Ladino study woven into their studies.

Disambiguation

Judeo-Spanish Ladino should not be confused with the Ladino or Ladin language spoken in part of northeastern Italy, which is closely related with the rumantsch-ladin of Switzerland.

The two languages have nothing to do with the Jews or Spanish beyond being, like Spanish, a Romance language.