Ladino: What’s in a Name?

If you’re trying to learn more about Ladino, you might have come across the various names the language has been given over the years: Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Yahudice, Españolit… Ladino also should not be confused with Ladin, a different romance language spoken in Italy. So, why has the term Ladino been the one to pass into common use and, importantly, what does it even mean?

There are many different names for Ladino; not only across languages but also within them. When it came time to add Ladino to the uTalk app, this was one of the most important conversations, as it is with many of our languages, but particularly minority or endangered ones, as they can have an umbrella of different names and it is vital to make sure we are using a term that will be understood and appreciated by speakers and learners alike.

For our 144th language, we had several options, though two stood out: Ladino and Judeo-Spanish. 

Juedo-Spanish is a relatively new term that is most often used by linguists who study the language. It points out the language’s origins: it is derived from Medieval Spanish and spoken primarily by people of Jewish descent—but the term has little to no history within the Ladino-speaking community and is not often used by them.

Ladino is used a lot more often, especially in Israel, the US, and Spain. Literally translated, Ladino means ‘Latin,’ which seems confusing but simply indicates the time when the term came into use: in the Middle Ages, the word ‘Latin’ often just meant ‘language’.

After the 1492 Expulsion, ‘the Ladino’ was a term used by Jews to refer to the traditional oral translation of the Bible into Old Spanish, the language they still spoke. As Ladino developed into a separate language, its name developed as well: native speakers in the 19th and 20th century called their language Espanyol in the press, as did many people across the Ottoman Empire. 

Ladino is sometimes still used more to refer to the language used in word-by-word translations from the Bible—a lot of the time, a kind of variation of Spanish with Hebrew syntax—but, increasingly now, its speakers are instead using ‘Ladino.’

As a term not connected to the ethnic origin of the language or the direct connection to Spanish, Ladino clearly marks the language out as being just that—a language, not a dialect—and also is a more inclusive term, because while the vast majority of speakers are of Jewish descent, this is something that could shift and change. It also has a history with the language (unlike Judeo-Spanish, which is very technical), having been used for Bible translations for just over five hundred years. 

Of course, Ladino has different names still in other languages, such as Hebrew, where it is called ספאניולית (Spanyolit; -lit is the Hebrew suffix that can also be seen in another variation: Españolit), but there seems to have been a shift to Ladino in Israel too in recent decades. Turkish has a relatively strong hold-out: Yahudice, their current word for Ladino, means ‘the Jewish language.’ You might also hear another term in Morocco—Haketia (or Ladino Occidental)—which refers to the variation of Ladino spoken in Northern Africa. Haketia incorporates a lot more Arabic vocabulary and has less of a literary tradition than Ladino.

Whatever you decide to call Ladino, if you’re interested in learning it, then why not get started with us? Our app covers around 2,500 words and phrases (voiced by our two excellent native speakers) and uses games to build your confidence and get you speaking quickly. Subscribe today and you’ll even get 40% off! 

Adiyo (bye) for now!

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