The Judeo-Livornese (Bagitto) Dialect
By Gabriele Bedarida1
Translated by Judith Roumani2

The Jewish Nation [Nazione Ebrea] of Livorno was born as the Portuguese Nation [Nazione Portoghese], since it was the Sephardim exiled from the Iberian Peninsula who were those really intended in the 1591 and 1593 edicts of Ferdinand I known as the ‘Livornine’; and it was as Portuguese that they were known in Italy, even though many of them were Spanish. Thus Portuguese and Spanish remained official languages of the Community up to the beginning of the 19th century: Portuguese for internal administrative acts, and Spanish as the literary language for sermons in the synagogue.

But among the majority of the Jewish population the Italian language, in the Tuscan version of the coast, soon took over, enriching itself with terms, expressions and proverbs that were typically Iberian, as well as words of Hebrew origin—some of them in a Spanish form—and, either because of the long-term commercial interchange with the southern shore of the Mediterranean, or because of the arrival over the 18th century of Jews from North Africa, of Arabic origin.

In this way Bagitto ( or bagito) came into being: it was neither a language, nor a dialect, but rather, as my father Guido Bedarida used to say, a slang [gergo], of the kind that melds familiar traditions and locutions with the occasional need to avoid being understood by the outside world: a street-smart slang, actually, that was trying to protect a certain reserve, in a city in which there had never been a ghetto, thus allowing the Jews to mix freely—or almost—with the surrounding environment.

As for the linguistic basis, as we have said, it was Tuscan, but with a particular singsong cadence (perhaps of Portuguese origin), and the pronunciation of certain words allowed listeners to distinguish the Jewish speaker from his Christian fellow-citizens.

Thus, for example the hard ‘s’ in casa became a soft one; a ‘g’ took the place of a ‘c’[pronounced like ‘ch’ in English—Trans.] (‘dogente’ for ‘docente’, ‘bagio’ for ‘bacio’); the ‘p’ weakened to become an ’f’ (‘fetto’ for ‘petto’); the ‘v’ became a ‘b’ (‘caballo’ for ‘cavallo’). Double consonants changed to single ones (‘balare’ replaced ‘ballare’), while the Livorno characteristic reinforcing of the consonant between two words disappeared: the Livornese say ‘ammé’ and ‘atté’ while the Jews say ‘a me’ and ‘a te’.

Discourse often opens with a question, “Siamo liberi? Non siamo liberi [Are we free? We’re not free],” or “C’è la su’ sposa? S’è intesa male [Is your wife here? She is unfortunately no longer with us].”

It would take too much space to list the contributions of the Iberian languages to the gergo of the Jews of Livorno: there are innumerable words enriching Bagitto, from aggasagliato [married and settled] to meldar [to pray], from tomar [to take] to stampita [a walk]. And what am I to say about the verbs formed from Hebrew roots with endings as in Spanish-- gannavear meaning ‘to steal’, shochear meaning ‘to sleep’, bachear for ‘to weep’? Hebrew words, in large numbers, have contributed to the formation of Bagitto and to giving it the character of a familiar slang, deriving specifically from religious tradition and the practice of Hebrew prayer. So we also have achlare and achleggio for ‘to eat’ and ‘food’, chacham for ‘rabbi’, scheghez for ‘boy’, shotè for ‘mad’, rasha’ for ‘bad, wicked’, davar for ‘word’, haratà for ‘retraction’ ‘ain arà for ‘evil eye’ and so forth.  It would take much too long to compile a sterile list of words by themselves, not inserted into a sentence, and that give a particular taste to the discourse.

Unfortunately, a Bagitto vocabulary list has never been drawn up and therefore, since its speakers are no longer with us, of necessity we have to turn to literature: comedies, rhyming compositions, sonnets, the little that has been set down on paper over three centuries, going from comic poets, or poets who declared themselves to be anti-Semitic, to enthusiasts who at all costs wanted to preserve the tradition since, whether we like it or not, it is a part of Sephardic history and culture.

In this area as well Livorno stands out from the great Sephardic tradition that, from Morocco and many other communities of the Maghreb to Salonika, Smyrna and Rhodes and other Balkan communities, created in Judeo-Spanish a great literary and journalistic production, the expression of the spirit, wisdom, and humor of a people. In Livorno, whether due to the small number of Jews living here, never more than 5,000, or to the absence of a ghetto which allowed free mixing with the rest of the population, or, finally, to the prevalence of Tuscan dialect, as we have seen, little was created and little was preserved.

Strange to tell, it was Christians who began by composing humorous poems, the first one being Natale Falcini with his Giuditta o la Molte d’Ulufelne [Judith or the Death of Holofernes] which, unfortunately, I am not familiar with, followed by the Betulia Liberata [Betulia Liberated] in Jewish dialect by Luigi Duclou (or attributed to him) in which the Bagitto element is limited to the change of P to an F and of V for B, and a few locutions: a humorous poem without anti-Jewish satirical intentions.

Giovanni Guarducci has an entirely different style in the anti-Semitic tone of his Pensieri e mosse di un eroe della Nazione [Thoughts and Deeds of a Hero of the Nation] or in Leone Cesana o un passo abanti della Nazione [Leone Cesana or a Step Forward for the Nation]:in the first a zealot tries to organize a revolt of the Jews to revenge themselves for the offenses and humiliations to which they have often been subject, but the attempt ends in ridicule; in the second the Jews defend their merits and their organization in the face of the town in which they live; while in the Statuti del Teatro Rossini [Rules of the Rossini Theater] he wants to point out how the Jews are supposedly taking over city life after emancipation. All of this is written in scurrilous and—why not?—entertaining verses which however are expressed in a venomous tone that one would not have expected in a city like Livorno: the language that Guarducci uses is similar to that of Duclou.

Raffaello Ascoli’s Gli Ebrei venuti a Livorno, [The Jews who Came to Livorno] a short poem in Italian, deserves note. Printed in the late nineteenth century, in an edition of only twenty copies, and believed lost until Professor Fornaciari fortunately discovered it, it has information of such quality and quantity about the Jewish Community of a hundred and fifty years ago, and so many phrases in Bagitto with explanations of their origin, that it constitutes almost an illustration in verse of what Jewish life was like at the time in Livorno.

The principal author of Bagitto literature remains, however, Guido Bedarida who, as a native of Ancona arriving in Livorno at the age of fifteen, fell in love with the spoken language which already, eighty years ago, was disappearing, and took as his task to try to save its memory. Whenever he heard what he used to call a sbagittata he would make a note of it, on whatever piece of paper came to hand, and then, when he could not sleep at night, he would compose a sonnet based on a particular phrase. His main work is, in fact, Ebrei di Livorno in 180 sonetti giudaico-livornesi [The Jews of Livorno in 180 Sonnets in Livornese Jewish Dialect] which is a sequence adding up to practically a history of the Nazione Ebrea from the dispute between a marrano and an inquisitor in 16th century Livorno, to the farewells of a Livornese Jew who, after suffering persecution, moves to Israel. A work that attempts to present a fresco of the lives, mentality and customs of the Jewish population from the birth of the Community up to our own day.

It does not make for easy reading, though, since the characters, obviously, all speak in verse, there are often several speakers within the same poem, and they use a large number of slang expressions [gergali] often no longer in use and therefore difficult for today’s readers to understand. The portrait that emerges is still varied and lively: words from the marketplace, family and business quarrels, gossip; all come together to form a colorful fresco of life in the Jewish quarter of Livorno, between joy and pain, wealth and poverty, seasoned with Tuscan wit combined with Sephardic vivacity, bringing back today, in our age of illustrated newspapers, cinema, television, mobile phones and supersonic travel, an atmosphere that no longer exists.

From the same author we have some comedies, Vigilia di Sabato [On the Sabbath Eve], Il siclo d’argento [A Silver Ring], Un intermezzo di canzone antiche [An Interlude with Old Songs], that were also, in the twenties and thirties of the last century, put on stage by a Jewish theater company in several Italian cities. The first two plays have recently been republished by Umberto Fortis, while the third, the closest to the subject of this conference, is being brought out now by Professor Fornaciari, in an anthology of Bagitto writings that also contains a selection of sonnets, as well as compositions by another two Livornese authors, Cesarino Rossi and Mario della Torre.

There are two short poems by Rossi, “Le Nozze” [Wedding] and “La Milà,” [Brith Mila] that are truly delectable, due to the jokes expressing popular psychology and creating a humorous effect to be savored. From the second poet we have some appealing sonnets that are easily understood.

I have tried, as a layman and neither a linguist nor a dialectologist, to give some idea of the former speech of the Jews of Livorno, which can justifiably be included in the broad family of Sephardic dialects that characterized the Diaspora of the refugees from the Iberian Peninsula, and today gives testimony to the vicissitudes of their history and to their everyday life.


1 Dr. Gabriele Bedarida is the author of a number of research reports on the history of the Jews of Livorno. He is the author of Gli Ebrei a Livorno (Tuscany: Debatte, 2006), and is currently the reference librarian of the Archivio Storico of the Jewish Community of Livorno. This paper was delivered at the conference, “Judeo-Spanish (Ladino)/Giudeo-Spagnolo (Ladino),” Livorno, 2005. It was published in Italian in Il Giudeo-Spagnolo (Ladino), Proceedings (Livorno: Salomone Belforte, 2007.

2 Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons.

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