Ladino Lives. (Essay)

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Ladino Lives. (Essay)


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


The word Ladino once had a different meaning. It was used for the language of translations of sacred texts from Hebrew. It is described as follows in the introduction to a Ladino-English English-Ladino dictionary:

   Ladino is an archaic and artificial language which has
   been a vehicle [for] bringing the Bible, the prayers, and all
   the compositions which were more or less ritualistic to the
   ordinary Spanish-speaking Jew. Ladino renders a word by
   word juxtaposition of the Hebrew original with total disregard
   for Spanish syntax, the appearance and interpretation
   of phrases. (1)

The dictionary that includes this definition of Ladino is, surprisingly, a dictionary of the modern spoken language. The authors recognize that nowadays, when people say Ladino, they are probably not referring to an obsolete system of word-for-word translation but to the living speech of Jews whose ancestors left Spain in 1492.

Is it correct to describe the Sephardic Jews who fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire as "the ordinary Spanish-speaking Jew"? Did Jews in Spain before 1492 simply speak Spanish? Probably not. The word for "God," for example, was probably not Dios, as it is in Spanish, but el Dyo, which is used by Ladino speakers today. It has been suggested that Dios sounds like a plural noun, and Jews did not want to sound as if they were Christians who believed in the Trinity. One explanation for this form is that Jews said el Dyo; we must remember, however, the Hebrew word Elohim also sounds like a plural noun. It has also been suggested that we are simply dealing with the loss of the final consonant of the Spanish word. In addition to the word for "God," it is reasonable to expect that Jews in Spain, like Jews everywhere, had their own words to refer to religious practices.

David Bunis, a noted scholar, tells us that the language, which he calls Judezmo, antedates the expulsion from Spain: "Earliest Judezmo began to rise in Medieval Spain as a system of linguistic elements of Hispanic, Hebrew and Aramaic, (Jewish) Arabic and (Jewish) Greek origin." (2)

Quite a few names have been used for this language in addition to the names Ladino and Judezmo:Judyo', Jidyo' (also spelled Djudyo' and Djiyo'), Spanyolit, Spanyol, and Judeo-Spanish. In North Africa, it is called Hakiti'a or Haketi'a. I will follow modern usage and say Ladino, recognizing that a change of meaning has taken place.

In certain ways, Ladino pronunciation reflects old forms that have long since disappeared from Spanish. The letters j and x in Spanish are pronounced with a voiceless velar fricative sound, like the ch in "Bach" and "Chanukah." There was a time when Spanish had a j sound, as in English judge. This still exists in the Ladino word for "Jew," which is Djudyo or Djidyo. There was also a zh sound, similar to the s in English "pleasure." We hear this in the Ladino words ojo and ajo, meaning "eye" and "garlic" respectively. Spanish used to have an sh sound, which survives in Ladino basho, meaning "low."

It would be inaccurate to say that Spanish has changed and Ladino has not. Both have changed, but the changes were different. All languages change. Nevertheless, the phonetic system of Ladino does indeed preserve sounds that are no longer found in Spanish.

An interesting fact about Jewish languages, including Ladino, is that words about things that are somewhat unpleasant come from Hebrew or Aramaic. An examination of the words for "fear" in Jewish languages illustrates this fact. People always have feared fear itself, whether or not they said so in so many words. In Yiddish, moyre is the everyday word for "fear." In Judeo-Italian, we find a different Hebrew word, paxad (The x is pronounced like the ch in Chanukah or in Bach). That's not all. Judeo-Italian includes paxadoso, meaning "timid," and impaxadito, meaning "frightened." So we shouldn't be at all surprised to learn that in addition to the Ladino word espanto meaning "fear," paxad also exists in Ladino.

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