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Judeo-Espanol, not Ladino

December 13, 2010

“He gets really upset about it,” Sinan said. “Apparently Ladino is a Zionist construct, but the word they use is Judeo-Espanol.”

My reaction was basically some variation on, “Unh. That’s weird. That’s also something to research for later.”

And fortunately enough, I stumbled into a conversation with an executive who came from a, say, Judeo-Espanol-speaking background. So when I asked her, the answer was, “I never even heard the term Ladino until I was in my thirties.”

So now things were getting interesting.

And sure enough, it seems as though there is really no good reason for the word Ladino to mean “language of Sephardi Jews” other then “because we said so.” A brief search for etymology of the word leads us to find that it’s Spanish for “Latin” which isn’t all too surprising. I’m going to leave the whole “cunning/crafty” bit alone. Wikipedia agrees that we should call it Judaeo-Spanish or some misspelling thereof. The Ladino Preservation Council’s Judeo-Espanol name is “El Judeo-Espanyol Bive.” So that’s that.

And it can be written in Latin letters:

As well as Hebrew:

And, of course, The Little Prince in both:

For more information, Tablet Mag, who I have mocked cruelly earlier, actually has a fairly well-written piece on this sort of thing. It starts quite cringingly, but improves from there. The second image above is from this “On the Main Line” blog which I immediately fell in love with when I saw a Hebrew version of Abraham Lincoln’s death notice.

And since we’re on the subject and I never got around to writing nearly as well about Sarajevo as I wanted to, I want to take this time to talk about my favorite Judeo-Espanol word: La Benevolencija. It was the name of a charity that worked during the Seige of Sarajevo and is still around in Bosnia today. A Dutch NGO has taken its name from them and explains the background:

The organization takes as its role model La Benevolencija Sarajevo, a local organization that played a unique humanitarian role during the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Set up by remnants of the city’s Jewish population, which assumed a neutral stance during the conflict, La Benevolencija’s members acted as interlocutors between the three warring parties. Uniquely, they learned to use their status to help others in situations similar to their own age-old history of persecution. During the siege of Sarajevo, they managed to supply up to 40% of the city’s medicine and smuggled approximately 3,000 refugees of all ethnicities – Muslims, Serbs and Croats – out of the city as “Jews.” In due time, the organization became an ethnic mix and was regarded as a symbol for empathy – a group of former victims who learned to empower themselves and help others do the same, acting against the hatred fanning ethnic aggression.

Powerful, impressive, stuff to be sure. And worth mentioning that instead of all the name-calling and religious-baiting that gets bandied about…sometimes it really helps to have religious mixture and to actually do things to get everyone getting along. Even during fratricidal conflicts.

So to recap: language is complex, religion is complex. But they’re both pretty darn cool. Apparently the Ladino – Judeo-Espanol debate is a very real one, from what I’ve been told from sources, so we’d love to see y’all duke it out in the comments.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherri permalink
    December 15, 2010 3:10 pm

    I feel I’m being baited for a comment (or I’m going to flatter myself and think so), so I’ll bite.

    Within the academic world, Haim Vidal Sephiha, professor emeritus of the language at the Sorbonne is the most vocal in his separation of Judeo-Spanish and Ladino, which to him and many others are two separate languages.

    Within his understanding, Ladino is the word-for-word translation of Hebrew liturgy into Spanish used by Spanish Jewish clergy pre-1492 to help their communities read and better understand religious works. However, while the words of Ladino are Spanish, the syntax is Hebrew. Judeo-Spanish refers to the spoken language that developed among post-1492 Sephardic diaspora Jews resettled in the Ottoman Empire. Judeo-Spanish maintains a medieval Spanish syntax and 60-70% Spanish vocabulary base, but which also incorporates vocabulary and some grammatical structures from Turkish, Hebrew, Greek, French, Bulgarian, etc. Vidal-Sephiha’s campaign to enforce this division is for both academic and preservation purposes—best not to conflate the terms, lest the actual Ladino that did exist in printed form be wiped from our memories. See more at

    However, most modern organization seem to use the terms interchangeably, including the aforementioned Ladino Preservation Council, and Ladinokomuinta, the worldwide message board for Judeo-Spanish speakers which is arguably the most consistently active Ladino forum anywhere (at least 300 messages a month). Within the world of heritage speakers, there is no clear opinion. I recently skimmed a 2006 doctoral thesis regarding attitudes and transmission of Judeo-Spanish among the Jewish community of Istanbul. One of the first questions on the researcher’s survey was, “What do you call this language?” I believe the majority chose “Judeo-Spanish/Judeo-Espanyol”, but there was a hefty percentage for Ladino, and still plenty in favor of “Muestro Espanyol” (our Spanish—to differentiate the language from traditional Castilian) and “Djudezmo.” Karen Gerson Sarhon, quoted in the Tablet piece and director of the awesome Istanbul-based Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center, makes her favor for Judeo-Spanish known here: But the 2002 UNESCO conference, which granted the language official recognition and protection, calls it Ladino.

    There is no standardized, official guide to Judeo-Spanish; dialects vary from Istanbul to Izmir, so you can imagine the differences that exist between speakers from Canakkale and Sarajevo. Can you imagine trying to choose one term for the language, then? So while there is no one name that unites speakers, Ladino seems to be the most recognizable worldwide, and the most popular. I don’t believe the term has anything to do with Zionism, though generally Zionist movements within Turkey were resistant to learning Turkish and losing the community’s language–but quite in favor of Hebrew. I don’t know if it’s something to get really upset about, but it’s certainly a lively, ongoing debate.

    PS No one writes in in Rashi or Hebrew scripts anymore. That ship sailed a long time ago. I’ll try to find out if El Princhipiko’s dual printing was anything more than lip service.

    • Sherri permalink
      December 15, 2010 3:30 pm

      Here are some more links of interest, and more usages to confuse the debate:
      The quite official and well-recognized Center of Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University: and also a program at Hebrew University:

      Aki Yerushalayim, the worldwide Judeo-Spanish journal published in Israel, offers this article (in Judeo-Spanish) explaining that your everyday Sefardi call it ‘Ladino.’ Yet the journal calls itself a record of Judeo-Spanish and still uses the word ‘Ladino’ frequently on its website. Oddly enough, they’ve done the most to attempt to standardize the language in written form than any other group or publication. Ladinokomunita (forgive the spelling error in the previous post), the online message board, abides by their grammatical and orthographic standards.

      You know the old jokes, 10 Jews and 11 synagogues, 2 rabbis and 3 opinions. Yeah.

  2. December 15, 2010 7:02 pm

    I haven’t fully researched it, but like most things, it’s not so simple. It certainly isn’t a “Zionist construct,” even if the term itself is not native. A very simple way to search for the term is through Google Books.

    Here we see a letter by S.J. Rapoport written in the 1830s which uses the term לאדינו. A general search for ladino +jews of book dated before 1850 shows several results calling the language Ladino (in the Latin alphabet). Between 1850 and 1880 there aren’t many more results, but it seems to jump considerably between 1880 and 1900.

    In short, it seems to have been a European, non-native designation for the language. But that’s not so different from Yiddish, which wasn’t really what Jews themselves called it. They called it Ivre-Teitsch, or Yiddish-Deutsch or even Leshon Ashkenaz, although eventually many of the native speakers did call it simply Yiddish. In short, it may not be the native term, but so what? Every culture renames the languages and even place names of other cultures. Hebrew isn’t natively called “Hebrew,” and the French and Spanish call London “Londres.”

    (Thanks for the kind words about my blog!)

    • Asher permalink
      December 16, 2010 6:18 pm

      Thanks for coming over there to give a response!

      The man who said “Zionist construct” would not want to be quoted saying as much, which is why he wasn’t. It was just the way he said it that struck me. He is a Judeo-Espanol speaker and has a lot to say about how other Jews have Orientalized him, not a lot of it polite. But as a way to start a conversation, “Zionist construct” is as good as any.

      And at least “Hebrew” comes from a related root to “Ivrit” or “Turkish to “Turkce” or the like. Ladino just kinda comes out of nowhere. And even early 19th Century is awfully late in the grand scheme of things.

      I’m sure there’s some real research done in this field, but I’m officially out of my depth here. But “Ladino” as an ethnonym smells off, to me. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though.

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