The Ladino Language

Monday, 20 July 2009 07:24

“You’re speaking just like Cervantes,”  he said.   I was in a cantina in Madrid in 1957.  I met a man there, he was a reporter.  We were conversing over a few drinks.   I understood his puzzlement and had to explain.  I was speaking the Spanish dialect I had learned at home.  The dialect, or maybe it is a separate language, is commonly called, Ladino.  More properly it should be referred to as, Djudeo Espanyol.


    The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.  My ancestors found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, and settled on  the Island of Rhodes.  Ottoman Jewish communities flourished in Rhodes , Salonika,  Izmir, Istanbul, Sarajevo and elsewhere for 500 years and there they preserved the language that they had taken with them from Spain; Fifteenth Century Spanish, the dialect of Columbus, Ferdinand, Isabella and Cervantes.  To that reporter in Madrid it was as if a modern American were to meet someone who spoke the English  of Shakespearean times.

I grew up in a close knit Sephardic community in Los Angeles and assumed that Spanish was the language of the Jews.    Not until I was in Junior High School did I learn that some Jews did not speak Spanish, they spoke a strange tongue called, Yiddish.

    An even greater revelation was that our Spanish was different from that spoken in Spain and Latin America today.   “Today we are going to learn some words in Spanish,” said my fifth grade teacher.  She continued, “The first thing that you must learn is that in Spanish the letter ‘j’ is pronounced like an ‘h'”.  I thought she was crazy or at least uninformed, at home we pronounced the “j” as an English or French; “zh” or “dzh”.   Sometimes it was “sh” as in the word dejar which we pronounced deshar, in modern Spanish it is pronounced; dehar.    And some of the words were different; we would say, aninda (yet), trocar(change), chapeo (hat) and chapines (shoes), for the modern Spanish words, todavia, cambiar, sombrero and zapatos.  Years later I found that the first three words were Portuguese and the fourth was Catalan.

Another major difference between Ladino and modern Spanish is in the word for God.  The Spanish say Dios, derived from the Latin, Deus.   But to the Spanish Jews this was unacceptable because Dios ends in the letter “s” and that implies that Dios is plural.   The foundation of the Jewish faith is that God is singular.  This concept is  reinforced every time we recite the Shemah: “…the lord is One.”  We always referred to God as: El Dio, always including the article El.

    Another difference is our word for Sunday.  In modern Spanish it is Domingo.  But this comes from the Latin word for the “Lords Day.”   To the Jews Saturday is the Lords Day and we referred to Sunday as Alhát.  I found later that this was the Arabic word for “The First Day,” it is related to the Hebrew word Ehad (one).

When I heard about the Crypto Jews of New Mexico, I wondered if they had preserved any elements of the Ladino dialect.  In my communications with Crypto Jews I found many who’s grandparents said El Dio rather than Dios but none who called Sunday Alhat.

    Other possible Ladino elements were the including of an extra “n” in many words and of reversing the “r” with another letter.  We say muncho (much) rather than mucho and godro (fat) and prove (poor) rather than gordo and povre.   I found that it is very common for rural New Mexicans to add the extra “n,” but, few examples of the “r” shift.

    Does this indicate that the Crypto Jews of New Mexico are indeed descended from the conversos of Spain.  The linguistic evidence is not absolute, but together with so much other evidence, it strengthens the argument.  The strongest evidence is in the preservation of El Dio.  No Christian would use such words.


Sephardic Folk Dictionary   



Praying in Her Language

Praying in Her Language

For ancient Spanish women, Judaism takes on an almost mystical quality. Rich with sacred customs only known amongst Spanish communities, widely-spread religious superstitions, and religious observances that differ from other Sephardim, the world of the Jewish Spanish...

Check out our secure online Judaica store here…

Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :
Share This