Defending Ladino

By Philologos

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.
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In response to my May 11 column on Ladino, Rachel Bortnick, who identifies herself as “a native Ladino speaker and an activist for the preservation and appreciation of that precious Jewish language,” has written a lengthy letter to protest my statement that “the Jewish texture of Ladino isn’t quite as rich or as thick” as that of Yiddish. In this letter, she makes three basic points:

  1. “One cannot [judge the amount of Hebrew in Ladino] just by perusing a Ladino dictionary, and an imperfect one at that. Dr. Elli Kohen and Dr. Dahlia Kohen-Gordon’s Ladino-English/English-Ladino Concise Encyclopedic Dictionary, which was consulted by Philologos, does not list many common words, among them Hebrew-based ones, nor does it consistently indicate the origin or derivation of a word. For example, the popular atakanar (to fix, to repair, from Hebrew le-taken) does not appear there and only its past participle, atakenado is given. Another word absent from this dictionary is the Hebrew niftar, universally used in Ladino parlance for “died” with the Spanish verb ser, as in El padre fue niftar el anyo pasado, ‘his father died last year.’”

  2. “While it may be true that Ladino does not have as many Hebrew words in it as Yiddish, this does not mean that its ‘Jewish texture’ is inferior, as there are many other indicators of the Hebrew influence on a language and its degree of ‘Jewishness.’ In Ladino, many expressions use Hebrew syntax, or are literal translations from Hebrew. There is also an overall tendency to use simple declarative sentences, rather than complex Spanish ones, as in Hebrew.”

  3. “As to theories for why Ladino might have fewer Hebrew words than Yiddish, Philologos espouses the one that puts the Jewish learning of Yiddish speakers at a higher level than that of Ladino speakers. I would suggest an explanation more firmly based on historical facts: While Ashkenazim were forced to live in ghettos and shtetls, Sephardim were integrated in the gentile communities where they lived, in pre-expulsion Spain as well as in the Ottoman Empire. It was because of their daily contacts with their non-Jewish neighbors that they naturally absorbed much of the lexicon of those neighbors’ languages.”

I’m sorry if my column offended Bortnick or other speakers or lovers of Ladino, the “Jewishness” of which I would never question. As I specifically stated there, Ladino has a perfectly normal amount of Hebrew words in it for a Jewish language, and the question is not why it doesn’t have more but rather why Yiddish does. That having been said, however, I don’t think that her points are very good ones. Here’s why:

  1. Bortnick’s argument from the insufficiency of the Kohen and Kohen-Gordon dictionary is not logical. Apart from the fact that my impressions come from many sources other than this dictionary, including the writings of Ladino scholars, and that I am quite capable of recognizing that such words as atakenado have a Hebrew source, the question of the dictionary’s inclusiveness is simply beside the point. After all, even if it leaves out words, one has to assume that these have been left out randomly and not because of their Hebrew origin, and that the proportion of Hebrew-derived words among them is therefore not significantly different from the proportion of such words that appear in the dictionary. How, then, could tracking them down possibly be germane to the issue?

  2. Yes, Ladino does show a Hebrew influence that goes beyond that of Hebrew-derived words. There is no question that a Ladino expression like kado uno i uno — that is, “every single one” (literally, “every one and one”) — comes from Hebrew kol, and numerous other examples could be given. But my May 11 column never implied otherwise. Its subject was Hebrew-derived words in Ladino, not Hebrew-derived expressions.

  3. Historically, Yiddish-speaking Jews never lived in ghettos, and I think Bortnick both underestimates the extent of Jewish-gentile contact in the Eastern European shtetl and exaggerates its extent in the Ottoman Empire. In both cases, Jews lived largely insular lives but did have some exposure to the world around them, which is why they both continued to speak their own languages and why these languages, over the centuries, absorbed a great deal of Slavic or Turkish vocabulary. There is certainly not the slightest evidence for her theory that either Yiddish or Ladino started out with a higher percentage of Hebrew words than it has now, and that this percentage was then diluted to its present level as words from the environment were absorbed — more of them under the Ottomans, she thinks, than in Eastern Europe. The language of old Ladino songs, for example, many of which go back hundreds of years, does not have any more Hebrew in it than does contemporary Ladino.

In speaking of such Jewish languages as Yiddish or Ladino, we should do our very best to stay clear of the Jewish culture wars — particularly, in this case, of those between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Why Yiddish has more Hebrew words in it than Ladino is an interesting question, but whatever the answer to it might be, it doesn’t, in my opinion, make Yiddish speakers “more Jewish” than Ladino speakers. If I didn’t make that clear May 11, I’d like to make it clear now.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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