What is Ladino?

Synagogue window in the form of a Star of David
Synagogue window in the form of a Star of David

Ladino was recently the 144th language to be added to the uTalk app, but, with only around 50,000 speakers scattered around the world, it’s not one that many people have heard of. In this blog post, we’ll give you a quick run-down on Ladino so you’ll have some idea what to expect when you try it out!

uTalk’s own journey with Ladino began back in March 2019, when most of our staff heard about the language for the first time. It’s interesting to note, then, that the language itself dates all the way back to 1492 when the Alhambra Decree was issued in Spain.

What was the Alhambra Decree?

This was an edict that was issued on 31st March 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain, which expelled all practising Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (which would later develop into parts of Spain). 

This was the end of an ongoing effort to remove Jews from Spain, which had begun when Christians had driven the previous Muslim settlers out of the region. Under Islamic law, Jewish people had been protected, as they were considered ‘People of the Book,’ which had led to a flourishing Jewish community on the Iberian Peninsula. The Christians were far less tolerant, with attacks happening particularly in the late fourteenth century, though the policy before this had often been to try to convert Jews to Catholicism. 

The Jews who converted were called conversos, but eventually, even they were mistreated by other Catholics, which led to the first limpieza de sangre (blood purity) laws in the mid-fifteenth century. These laws restricted opportunities for conversos.

Around Europe, as well, Jews had been expelled from many different countries—England in 1290, from France several times between 1182 and 1354, and from some German states. However, most of these expulsions had been temporary in nature (Jews were usually allowed to return after a few years) and were attempts by monarchies to seize property and debts, rather than forcing Jews to convert. 

What does this have to do with Ladino?

Simply put, before 1492, it is unlikely that Ladino—as a separate language—even existed. Sephardic Jews in Spain spoke the same language as the communities they were surrounded by and interacted with, so, for most people: Spanish.

However, after the 1492 expulsion, the Jewish population of Spain went to a number of different countries. Some ended up in Portugal, some in Morocco (where the Haketia or Tetuani dialect of Ladino is spoken), and a large number went to the Ottoman Empire, settling primarily in two locations: current-day Izmir and Thessaloniki. 

The influence of the languages which surrounded the Sephardim—in particular, Turkish—as well as Hebrew, led to the development of a new language: Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino. There are also plenty of words adopted from French and Italian, as well as some Baltic languages.

Ladino went on to become an important trade language and was the common language of what is now Thessaloniki. It was a language known for its literature, too, with poetry collections and hundreds of newspapers, and for a while was the main language spoken in the Holy Land, as Hebrew fell out of favour and nearly became extinct.

However, with the onset of the Holocaust, the mass deportation and execution of Jews, the number of Ladino speakers dropped dramatically. In twelve years, Thessaloniki lost almost 10,000 of its Ladino-speaking Jews; 50,000 Salonikan Jews had been deported in total. Nowadays, as most Ladino speakers are elderly, the language is in danger of falling completely out of use.

What is Ladino like?

The good news is: if you know any Spanish, you’ll probably understand some Ladino—in some respects, that’s how close they are! Ladino is, like Spanish, French and Italian, a romance language, so if your first language is English, it shouldn’t take too long for you to get a grasp of it. Word order in sentences is often the same as Spanish and so is a lot of the vocabulary; if it’s not the same, it’s at least a lot of the time very similar.

Ladino has historically been written using the Hebrew alphabet, which is written from right to left and has 22 letters. Solitreo, a cursive form, is recognised as the typical Sephardic script and Rashi, a semi-cursive typeface that is used for the Hebrew alphabet today, is based on Solitreo. However, if you go ahead and learn Ladino now, you don’t have to learn any of that (though you can if you’d like!). Modern-day Ladino is mostly written using the Latin alphabet—so no new letters for you! 

This means that if you want to join the ranks of Ladino’s current 50,000 speakers, it shouldn’t be all that difficult—or no more difficult than learning any other language. Plus, it would give you access to all those years of Sephardic culture that you might otherwise miss out on.

If you’d like to start learning Ladino, then subscribe to uTalk and you can learn via our app right now. We’ve worked together with Ladino 21 and members of the Ladino-speaking community to add the language and, with around 2,500 words and phrases at your fingertips, you’ll be speaking in no time! 

Click here to subscribe and get started—and mazal bueno (good luck) with your Ladino-learning journey! 

Leave a Comment