Ladino’s Hebrew Dearth

By Philologos

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

David Pollack writes:

“My girlfriend’s grandmother spoke Ladino. Her family was originally from Spain and moved to Greece following the Spanish expulsion of 1492. What features of Hebrew does Ladino have? Is it like Yiddish, where most of the vocabulary is from the surrounding gentile language with Hebrew making up a smaller percentage of the vocabulary?”

There is indeed a significant Hebrew vocabulary in Ladino, or Judezmo, as it has been more commonly called by its own speakers. (The word “Ladino,” although adopted by the outside world as a term for the now close to extinct Judeo-Spanish once spoken in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, has generally been used by its speakers to refer, more narrowly, to the archaic language of old Judeo-Spanish translations of the Bible.) This vocabulary includes not only words referring to Jewish religious practices and rituals, but also everyday words and expressions having to do with ordinary life, sometimes with phonetic or lexical changes, or with Spanish prefixes or suffixes added to them. To take just a handful of examples, one finds unchanged Hebrew words like haver (“friend”), sakana (“danger”) and azpan (“insolent”); changed Hebrew words like balabaya (“housewife,” from Hebrew ba’alat bayit) and dibur (“promise” or “commitment,” from Hebrew dibbur, “speech”); semi-Hispanicized words, such as seheludo (“intelligent,” from Hebrew sekhel, “intelligence”), and mazaloso, “lucky,.” from Hebrew mazal, “luck”). And there are partially Hebrew idioms like azer kavod, “to respect” (from Spanish hacer, to make or do, and Hebrew kavod, “honor”), and dar edut, “to testify” (from Spanish dar, “to give,” and Hebrew edut, “testimony”).

Yet all in all, the proportion of Hebrew words in the vocabulary of Ladino is significantly lower than that of Hebrew words in Yiddish. In Yiddish, this has been estimated to be 10% or more, depending on the subject and the speaker; in Ladino —or at least such is my impression after leafing through Dr. Elli Kohen and Dr. Dahlia Kohen-Gordon’s Ladino-English/English-Ladino Concise Encyclopedic Dictionary — it’s probably 2% or 3% at most. Not that all the other words are Spanish; like Yiddish, which has a large stock of Slavic words in addition to its original German vocabulary, Ladino has a sizable Turkish lexicon. (All Ladino-speaking areas were part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century.)

Why is the Hebrew component in Ladino so small? That’s probably the wrong question, since my guess is that a look at other Jewish languages spoken in the past — Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, different dialects of Judeo-Arabic, etc. — would show Hebrew vocabularies on the scale of Ladino’s. The better question is probably this: Why is the Hebrew component in Yiddish so large?

I know of two answers that have been offered to this question. One of them might be called the Khazar theory. Basing itself on the belief that Eastern European Jewry was originally formed from a merger of two different elements — a larger, Western-Yiddish-speaking one migrating eastward from Central Europe, and a smaller one, speaking Khazar (which was a Turkic language), migrating westward from the destroyed Jewish kingdom of Khazaria in the Volga basin — this theory holds that when the two met, Hebrew, or at least many Hebrew words, served as a lingua franca between them, so that even after the Khazar Jews switched to speaking Yiddish themselves, this Hebrew component remained prominent.

There are, however, two main problems with this theory. The first problem is that we have no proof that there ever was a significant Khazar contribution to Eastern European Jewry — and if there was, why don’t we find at least some Khazar words in Yiddish, too, when in fact none can be identified? The second problem is — Ladino. That is, since Ladino was also a language that came to be spoken by two population groups that merged — the Spanish exiles and the local Greek-, Turkish- or Slavic-speaking Jews living in the areas in which they settled — who eventually adopted their language? Why wasn’t Hebrew used as a lingua franca by them, too? Why would it have functioned in this way in one case and not in the other?

That leaves us with the second answer, which might be called the “Jewish learning theory.” Eastern European Jewry, this theory goes, was far more Jewishly educated than any other Jewish community in history; not only did it have an elite yeshiva system that was unique both the quality and quantity of its students, but it also had a system of heders and adult study groups for ordinary Jews, which made them more literate in basic Jewish texts than Jews were elsewhere. And since these texts — the Bible, the Mishnah, the prayer book — were all in Hebrew, even ordinary Jews knew a great amount of Hebrew and used it and understood freely in their Yiddish speech, which thus absorbed a great amount of its vocabulary over the centuries.

This second theory is almost certainly the correct one. Although Jews, throughout history, have been an unusually literate people, Jewish literacy in Eastern Europe, in terms of both the simple ability to read and write and what this ability was used for, was amazingly high even for Jews. This is what gives Yiddish its special place among Jewish languages, of which it is in a sense the most Jewish of them all. The Jewish texture of Ladino, though it was spoken by Jews for centuries, isn’t quite as rich or thick.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.