The Story of Ladino: From Roots to Branches
By Judith Roumani1

“La verdad va enriva como la aceite” [Truth rises to the top just like oil]
Traditional proverb quoted by Moshe Lazar, Sefarad in my Heart

What is Ladino? Anyone who has approached the language before will have noticed that scholars, writers and speakers disagree about the very name of what they are referring to. Is it Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Djudio or Djidio, Spanyolit, Judeo-Ibero-Romance, or Oriental Spanish? All have their passionate proponents. Those advocating ‘Judeo-Spanish’ say that Ladino refers only to a written language used for translation. Others say that ‘Judeo-Spanish’ is a pseudo-scientific term and opt for ‘Judezmo’, meaning ’the Jewish language’, a close equivalent of ‘Yiddish’ for Ashkenazim. The word ‘Ladino’—non-hyphenated, easy to remember--seems to have prevailed up to now in the United States, whereas ‘Judeo-Spanish’ is preferred in continental Europe. Israel seems to be in transition. Without challenging the opinions of weightier scholars, I shall use the term ‘Ladino’ for its convenience and brand recognition.

I like to think of Ladino as a living tree, with its roots roughly two thousand years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean (Israel, Greece, Italy), its trunk passing through the Iberian Peninsula as the Roman, Visigothic, Muslim, and Christian dominions over the Jews succeed each other up to 1492, and its branches, which have grown over the last five hundred years, splaying out over north-western Europe, bending back to Italy, the Balkans  and Greece, west to the New World, and bending south and east to the Maghreb and back again to Istanbul and Turkey, and now Israel. The picture that emerges is like a weeping willow, its branches now partly bathing in the same sources as the roots emerged from. A small number of Jews, always migrants with a nostalgia for the open road or open sea, had left Israel and established small colonies in the eastern Mediterranean, in Greece and in Rome, before the destruction of the Second Temple. After the Roman victory, large numbers, especially of the educated classes, were taken (often as slaves) to Rome and other parts of the Roman Empire, including Spain. Wherever they settled, they learned the host language but also developed their own Judeo version. Thus we have Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Roman, Judeo-Latin, etc., all of which were based on a local language but contain an intermixing of Jewish languages like Hebrew and Aramaic.

We don’t know whether Jews arrived in Iberia as freemen or slaves under the Romans, but by the Visigothic period there were Jewish farmers and landowners. The Christian Visigothic rulers frequently introduced anti-Jewish measures, from forbidding Christians to ask a rabbi to bless their fields, to forced conversions. By the seventh or eighth century CE, no-one was speaking Classical Latin any more, and its descendant Vulgar Latin was disintegrating into various Romance languages and dialects such as Leonese, Navarrese, Old Catalan, Old Castilian and Old Portuguese. In 711 the Muslims of North Africa swept into Iberia, pushing northward until they had occupied most of the peninsula. Iberian Jews welcomed the invasion and saw it as an opportunity. Thus many Jews became quadrilingual: Arabic for contacts with the rulers, for literature, science and philosophy, a Romance dialect for contacts with the population now living under Islam,  Hebrew for prayer and poetry, and a home language that was a mixture of the other three, that varied by region, and that would eventually form the basis for Ladino. Women and children, more confined to the home, more conservative linguistically, would have spoken the Ladino language more, while the men who had to have contact with other groups for their livelihood would have introduced the neologisms.2 This is how the linguistic situation probably stood during the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, the tenth and eleventh centuries. Rabbis and poets were extremely comfortable in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, writing tractates and exchanging responsa with the Jews of Babylon and of Kairouan in North Africa, and producing a brilliant corpus of secular and religious poetry in Hebrew, while everyone Jewish spoke some form of an evolving Judeo-Romance. Thus it is not strictly accurate to say that Ladino developed out of fifteenth century Castilian: it was one of several languages growing in parallel in the Iberian Peninsula at the same time.3

Some texts found in the Cairo Geniza, known as jarcha, are a short idiomatic Romance dialect response appended at the end of a muwashsha, a poem in Arabic or Hebrew. These jarchas are perhaps the earliest Romance written expressions and at the same time (if written by a Jew) the earliest written Ladino. The bulk of the poem is in the literary language, with the last two lines being in the vernacular language. A lover addresses his beloved, and she responds briefly and somewhat curtly or teasingly, piercing the bubble and bringing him down to earth.4

The muwashsha links the erudite languages (Hebrew and Arabic) of the men with the home language, the Ladino, of the Jewish women.

As the Christian Reconquista proceeded, the embattled Muslims (Arabs and Berbers) were slowly pushed back southward. Old Castilian, Navarrese and Catalan, the languages of the conquerors, gained more prestige and expanded southward as Christian settlers came in to occupy the empty frontier lands taken from Muslims. By the fifteenth century, only the small Kingdom of Granada was still in Muslim hands and many Jews had migrated northward to Castile, as the center of power had shifted. By 1492 all was over, but the seven centuries of Muslim rule and Arabic language left deep traces on the languages that came to dominate, Castilian and Portuguese. There was little attempt at linguistic standardization, but Nebrija’s grammar of Castilian was produced the same year as the final Muslim defeat and the Expulsion of the Jews. Over the preceding centuries Iberia had seen the evolution of several Jewish dialects or languages: Jewish versions of Portuguese, Leonese, Navarrese, Catalan and Castilian, and of course Judeo-Arabic. All of these are classed as forms of Judeo-Romance, except the last. Peninsula Judeo-Arabic did not survive, but can be glimpsed in a few present-day Ladino forms such as ‘alhad’ (‘Day One’, preferred over the Christian-sounding Latinate ‘domingo’, for Sunday). Many classic Jewish texts of philosophy such as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed were originally written in a scholarly form of Judeo-Arabic. Four hundred years later, the language that many Jewish exiles took with them as they left Spain in 1492 still coincided with Castilian in many particulars, but had followed its own evolution down from Judeo-Latin, combined with Hebrew, Aramaic, the various peninsula dialects, and Judeo-Arabic over the centuries. It became a unique expression of Jewish traditions, lifestyle, culture, institutions and beliefs.

The Jews who moved to Portugal in 1492 were thenceforth heavily influenced by Portuguese. In 1497 they were not expelled from Portugal but forcibly converted. Thus we have the phenomena of the crypto-Jews of Belmonte, who long before the twentieth century had naturally forgotten their Hebrew and were praying in Portuguese, and the descendants of Portuguese and Spanish conversos who over the generations managed to filter out of Portugal and Spain, taking refuge in many countries from the Netherlands to Italy and the New World.They brought complicated psychological and cultural baggage, and those who returned to Judaism abroad also brought to the Sephardic communities more modern forms of Spanish and Portuguese, depending on when they managed to escape. Thus in the Western Sephardic Spanish-Portuguese synagogues of Amsterdam, London, New York, and other major cities (Livorno might even be counted as one of these), fifteenth century Ladino gave way to more modern forms of Spanish and Portuguese, among other influences. The song “Bendigamos” popular in these synagogues, shows a form of Ladino very close to modern Castilian.

The core Ladino-speaking communities were found in North Africa (particularly Morocco) where the Peninsula Judeo-Romance mingled with Moroccan Arabic and produced Haketiya,5 in the Balkans and in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey. “The king of Spain’s loss is my gain” Sultan Bayazid II is reputed to have said, as Sephardim with the high-tech skills of the day (iron-working, weaponry, printing, silk manufacture, financial and maritime skills) poured into his domains. Sephardic and converso trading networks composed of extended families and trusted partners stretched around the Mediterranean, the Middle East as far as India, and to the New World. Over the years, though, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, some communities became quite isolated. Thus the name for the language, judezmo, as used in villages and small towns in the Balkans, may even express an unawareness of other Jewish sub-cultures.

Ladino certainly wasn’t preserved because of a love of or loyalty to Spain. Much suffering was involved in the Expulsion, the forced conversions, the persecutions by the Inquisition over the centuries. It used to be said that there was a herem on returning to Spain. This was not the case, but returning was certainly frowned on as obviously one could not visit Spain and observe Jewish laws in any way. In the trading city of Livorno, those who had travelled back to Spain on business were not allowed to receive the honor of aliyot to the Torah. It was the maintenance of Jewish life with its religion and all its special practices that kept Ladino alive. Even today, practicing Jews have to live in cohesive communities. They maintained Ladino because they stayed together. Women and children might not need any other language. Living sometimes in remote places, they may not even have realized that their language came from Spain. Because Ladino was the vernacular spoken at home, within families, its genres were secular and oral: lullabies, ballads (romances), proverbs. There has been a great deal of research on the fragments of ballads collected from elderly Jewish female informants in Morocco and elsewhere.6 Other genres of oral literature are the kuentos, consejikas, dichas, constituting a rich and varied corpus of folk literature, alive to this day.

When the rabbis and scholars became aware of the growing gulf between the erudite culture of Hebrew and Aramaic and the culture of the Sephardic masses, translations and prose works by translators began to appear. Some were in the Roman alphabet, some were in Hebrew square letters (meruba) and some in the so-called Rashi script.7 The ‘calque’ language of literal translation (Ladino, strictly speaking) was used for the books and texts for the less educated. A prime example might be the numerous translations of the Haggada of Pesach into Ladino. There, for example, we can read the prayer to celebrate next year in Jerusalem ‘Al anyo el vyen en Yerushalayim’. This is a calque (with its repetition of the direct article) of the Hebrew phrase ‘Hashana haba’a b’Yerushalayim’. The Haggada speaks of our coming out of Egypt as being ‘Me’am loez’--from a people of foreign tongue. Paradoxically, this phrase gives us the title for perhaps the most important Sephardic work in Ladino, the many-volumed Me’am Loez begun by Jacob Kuli in 1730 and continued by other scholars over the next century.

What happened to the morphology of Ladino after the Expulsion? In each of its new homes, it acquired elements from the surrounding languages, while preserving its Ibero-Romance core. Thus in Morocco extensive combinations with Arabic produced Haketiya, in Italy (particularly Livorno) Tuscan dialect or other Italian imports produced an amalgam called ‘Bagitto’, in what today is Bosnia and Serbia, the local languages led to a special dialect and spelling of Ladino that local Jews called judezmo, expressed today in songs, and in today’s Turkey, where the largest group of Sephardic exiles settled, the Ladino, there called judezmo or spanyolit, is influenced by Turkish. Other supposedly modernizing influences such as French or Italian were espoused and advocated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the flourishing Ladino press of the Ottoman Empire. Ladino lost its prestige and was denigrated as a ‘jargon’ or slang for uneducated Jews.

Because of the strong influence of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, progress and modernity were equated with used of the French language, and many French neologisms crept into Ladino. From the end of the eighteenth century, rabbis in the Ottoman Empire had established ‘meldados’ [a word of Judeo-Greek origin from the Greek meleteo], for men or women, study sessions for delving into religious subjects. Literacy in Ladino increased, as did the influence of the Haskala, and by the mid-nineteenth century a new secular genre, the novel in Ladino, was gaining ground. The verb ‘meldar’ came to mean any kind of reading, not only of sacred texts. The Ladino press was flourishing and introducing many new Western concepts to Eastern Sephardim, from science to fashion to food. Translations of novels from French to Ladino were frequent, but there were also original creations, such as Elia Karmona’s The Chaste Wife [La muz’er onesta provada por su marido](1924-25).8 There were also attempts to standardize Ladino. Some of these attempts sought to bring it into line with modern Castilian. A Spanish senator’s encounter with Ladino-speaking Sephardim on a ferry in what was then European Turkey in the early 1900s led him to think that he was hearing an archaic form of fifteenth century Spanish. Senator Pulido’s discovery was much discussed in Spain as linguistic and cultural links around the Mediterranean, even with Jews, were valued by expansionist colonial powers.9 However, the French network of Alliance schools around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East was much more effective than was Spain in claiming the cultural loyalty of Sephardim.

It was the Shoah that dealt the greatest blow to Sephardic Jewry and in particular to the Ladino-speaking communities. Salonika, the largest Ladino-speaking community, a bustling Greek port with so many Ladino speakers that even non-Jews had to know something of the language, lost 98 percent of its Jews to the Nazi extermination. With the lost lives went also their cultural patrimony. The same happened in the rest of Greece (89% perished), and other Ladino communities suffered greatly in the Balkans. Ladino-speaking Sephardim who had moved to France were also caught in the Holocaust. A few were able to escape when courageous individual Turkish or Spanish diplomats provided them with passports. Since 2003 a ‘laja’ or plaque at Auschwitz, the twenty-first, each in a different language, recalls the destruction of the Ladino-speaking communities.
By 1972, Moshe Lazar wrote, in his The Sephardic Tradition, that “this ancient Jewish language became almost irrevocably condemned to a progressive disappearance.” Edouard Roditi in a 1986 article entitled “The Slow Agony of Judeo-Spanish Literature” wrote that Ladino “seems destined to die out” and in 1994 Tracy Harris published a book entitled Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish.

The survivors who straggled to Israel after the Shoah have formed the nucleus of perhaps the most flourishing Ladino culture of today. Israel has had a Ladino-speaking president, Yitzhak Navon, who has made great efforts in recent years to foster and expand use of Ladino. The National Authority for Ladino has organized classes to train teachers of the language, and today all major state universities offer courses in Ladino. There are serials (such as the magazine Aki Yerushalayim), radio programs, frequent conferences (such as those held by Bar-Ilan University), and the cultural encounters called Diyas de Miel [Days of Honey] that draw thousands, plays and musicals (such as Yitzhak Navon’s El Bustan Sefaradi),  storytelling (e.g. by Matilda Koen Sarano) and all manner of books. As in other aspects of Jewish culture, Israel is perhaps the dynamo that drives the rest of the Ladino Jewish world.

But other Ladino-speaking communities are also very active today. In Istanbul, despite Turkey’s current official distancing from Israel, a new Jewish cultural center was recently opened, and a new print weekly newspaper is being produced, fully in Ladino (El Amaneser). In Livorno, Italy, a large international conference on Ladino was held recently. France is particularly active, with classes, textbooks, publishing programs such as that of La Lettre Sépharade, which has published a journal and an invaluable Ladino-French dictionary,festivals such as the annual Djoha storytelling festival, and organizations (Association Vidas Largas) and also Belgium (the publication Los Muestros).  Spain’s former hostility to Jews has been replaced by much scholarly interest in all aspects of Spanish Jewish history, including Ladino, and many valuable research programs and publications, such as research into the romancero. Today there is a weekly radio program created by Matilde Gini de Barnatán and her daughter Rahel. All this reflects the contemporary anti-monolithic emphasis on ‘la España de las Tres Culturas’ which gained currency after the end of the Franco regime. Elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, Latin America has Sephardic novelists, some of whom, like Rosa Nissán of Mexico, incorporate Ladino words into the Spanish-language novels. An interesting phenomenon is the Argentine Juan Gelman’s poetry in Ladino, thereby symbolically incorporating Sephardim into the founding of Argentina. A new website in Argentina,, reproduces articles in Castilian and in Ladino.

This brief tour brings us finally to North America, where a century ago Ladino was flourishing in such immigrant centers as New York, and waves of immigrants from the Ottoman Empire provided a readership for La Amerika and La Vara. These instructional publications represented the interests of and gave advice and assistance to the newcomers on all aspects of American life. Both had ceased to exist by the 1940s, and today Ladino publication is largely located in New York and Seattle, where the Sephardic Heritage society has recently published a number of prayer books that are a rich source of Turkish and Rhodesli Ladino versions of prayers. Ladino has not really caught on in American academia, since only Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania currently offer courses, to my knowledge. The original Spanish-Portuguese congregations of New York and Philadelphia hold classes, theatrical performances or dramatic readings in Ladino. Several new language-learning textbooks (some with audio) have been published over the last decade. In Florida and Washington DC, groups called vijitas de alhad meet monthly for songs, study and conversation in Ladino. Publications such as Erensia sefardi (Connecticut), and until recently Ke Haber? (Florida) and La Lettre Sepharade English edition, publish in Ladino and English. Concerts of Ladino songs are always a popular draw for audiences in all the major American cities, by the many talented Ladino singers of North America.

Today the internet provides the most attractive forum for the generally low-budget and informal efforts in Ladino. Transcending national boundaries, new internet publications quickly attract a readership. This quarterly online journal, Sephardic Horizons, always includes an article or piece of fiction in Ladino. Online conversation groups, such as  run by Rachel Amado Bortnick, or  run by “Sharope Blanco,” both in Ladino, and the aforementioned in Spanish and Ladino, or other sites partially in Ladino bringing news of the Sephardic world, seem to represent the wave of the future, since even well-established print publications are also in transition to the web. The internet offers the advantages of being economical for both publishers and readers, relatively easy to set up and update, and with immediate impact anywhere in the world among the far-scattered remnants of Ladino-speaking communities. Thus an individual with no other Ladino speakers within driving distance, or even in the same country, can be part of a community of fellow Ladino-speakers on a daily basis. The majority who participate on the internet are generally native speakers, but many who have studied the language later in life are also venturing online.

Thus this ancient culture, battered by the waves of history, is benefitting from the new media and seems to be experiencing a form of revival.

What is the future of Ladino? It has been moribund for a long time. In 1972 Moshe Lazar wrote in the introduction to his anthology, The Sephardic Tradition, very pessimistically. He may have decided to amend the impression that this statement made, as in 1999 he published an invaluable anthology of extracts from important Ladino texts over the centuries, entitled Sefarad in My Heart. At the same time he undertook a major series of Ladino classic texts being published as the Henry Leir Library of Sephardica. Several university presses have strong series in Ladino original text publication or critical studies and scholars are now producing work on such previously neglected aspects as Ladino diglossia. Libraries around the United States have good collections of Ladino books (e.g. the Library of Congress, Harvard, Chapel Hill, American Sephardi Federation), and a new effort is underway in Seattle to collect and digitize Ladino books (Seattle Sephardic Treasury, with the Stroum Center, University of Washington). Musicologists are presenting their research results in concerts, CD recordings, and on the radio. Of course, native speakers speaking Ladino as their only or first language hardly exist today and certainly are not being produced.10 Over the centuries most Ladino speakers have also known at least one but usually several other languages. Speaking more than one language gives us an advantage in social interactions, and may help us to see more than one point of view at the same time. Ladino, the language, is one of the few monuments of Jewish life in Spain, so thoroughly and systematically eradicated on Spanish soil after the Expulsion.11 The exiles, with few exceptions, could take little of monetary value with them. A recent exhibit on “Remembering Sefarad,” which brought Jewish artifacts from Spain on exhibit in the United States, had surprisingly little. Books were burned, synagogues turned into churches. What they carried was their faith, their culture and especially their language, whose survival and adaptation over the last five hundred years, until today, is miraculous.

Ladino’s survival may also be one of the first examples of a language saved from disappearance by the internet. Ladino is currently used sometimes for communication, sometimes as an art or musical form, sometimes as a topic of foreign language study or linguistic or literary or culinary study. In our continuing age of the all-powerful nation-state, Ladino is hardly likely to have the same chance as Hebrew has had to emerge from the shadows and miraculously become a flourishing national language. Like Yiddish or Latin, it must survive partly through these ambiguous instances of often internet-enabled communication. Our consolation must be that for this type of language survival, Ladino’s future is looking good.


1. Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons. This article was originally written for and published in Midstream, 57:3(Summer 2011). I am grateful to the editor, Leo Haber, for giving his permission to republish here. An article by George Jochnowitz, “Ladino Lives,” was brought to my attention after this article was completed, and confirms and reinforces much of what I say here. It can be read at or Midstream, July/Aug. 2003.

2. Scholars refer to three versions of Ladino: one used in the home, one used in business with other Jews, and a rabbinical version.

3. David Bunis wrote in 2006 that “the Jewish and non-Jewish correlates [languages] can be considered distinct languages. Thus modern Judezmo [this scholar’s  preferred term] differs from modern Spanish not only in its lexicon, but also in its system of sounds, its grammar, its syntax and its stylistic variants” [my translation],  David Bunis, “Les Langues juives du Moyen-Orient et d’Afrique du Nord,” in Monde sépharade, ed. Shmuel Trigano (Paris: Seuil, 2006).  Daisy Braverman also spoke in these terms in a 2008 interview, “When Languages Collide,” by Naomi Tarlow, Kedma 7 (Fall 2008). It is the theories and work of Bunis,  however, that have largely informed this article. An early seminal publication of his is “Some Problems in Judezmo Linguistics,” Mediterranean Language Review 1 (1983), 103-129, where he discusses growth of the language before and after Expulsion and sets a research agenda.

4. See e.g. Maria Rosa Menocal, Jerrilynn Dodds, and Abigail Krasner Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), 144-156.

5. A new website created by Alicia Sisso Raz is devoted to the language and culture of Haketiya. See

6. See the series of texts edited by Samuel Armistead, consisting of chapbooks and other collections of ballads, in Spanish the romancero. These are largely fragments of long epic poems shared with Spanish tradition. Many of these collections have been published in Spain, and by the University of California Press.

7. Moshe Lazar reproduces a portion of a women’s prayerbook (but from before the Expulsion). Printed in meruba, the language is spontaneous, in a spoken and dialectal language that he says reflects a much older oral tradition. Moshe Lazar, Sefarad in My Heart: A Ladino Reader (Lancaster, CA: Labyrinthos, 1999), 3-20.

8. Recently republished in an annotated edition, edited by Michael Alpert (Nottingham: Five Leaves Press, 2009).

9. Angel Pulido wrote Españoles sin patria y la raza sefardí [Spaniards without a land and the Sephardic race] rpt. Granada: Univ. of Granada, 1993,about his encounters with Sephardim in the Eastern Mediterranean. He also authored Los Israelitas españoles y el idioma castellano (Intereses nacionales) [The Spanish Jews and the Spanish language (National interests)](Madrid: Rivadeneyra, 1904, rpt. Barcelona: Riopiedras, 1992).

10. "’I think that the only way the language can live as, you know, a true language, is if one teaches it to one's children - and that's really not happening,’ said [Daisy] Braverman” interviewed by Rachel Silverman for the  Jewish Exponent, Feb. 1, 2007, in connection with a Ladino class she was introducing at the University of Pennsylvania. The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture (FASSAC) introduced a live chat, Salon de Mohabet, in 2002.

11. As well as expelling the living in 1492, the dead were also expelled, jewish cemeteries being destroyed  at the same time. (see the dvd Toledo: El Secreto Oculto, 2008, directed by Jack Matitiahu, in spanish with english subtitles, produced by Casa Sefarad Israel/Sefarad Caminos y Vida, available from

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