Un Ladino, Dos Ladino, Tres Ladino, Cuatru

By Philologos

Published December 31, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
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A reader who prefers that his name not be published writes:

“I am trying to learn how to count to ten in Ladino. I found a list of the written words, but with no pronunciation guide. Also, this written list appears to be inconsistent with some pronunciations that my young son came home with in a song he learned. Can you help me?”

The inconsistencies that our shy reader encountered may have to do with the fact that there were different regional dialects of Ladino, or Judezmo, Spanyolit, or Judeo-Spanish, as it is also known. Spoken for hundreds of years in what is today Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, and in Greece and Turkey, Ladino was brought to the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean by Jews exiled from Spain in the great expulsion of 1492. Many found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where they continued to speak Spanish while linguistically assimilating the small Jewish communities they found there on their arrival. With the passage of time, the Spanish spoken by them became unique for two reasons. One was its admixture of Hebrew, Slavic and Turkish words. The other was the fact that while developing new features of its own, it continued to retain various phonetic and grammatical aspects of 15th-century Spanish speech that eventually vanished in both Spain and Latin America.

Broadly speaking, Ladino can be divided into two main dialects: a Western one, spoken in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and northern Greece, and an Eastern one, spoken in Turkey. Although in both dialects, the numbers from one to 10 are identical or close to those in modern Spanish, there are a number of departures from the latter, especially in the Western dialect. Thus, modern Spanish has uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve and diez; Eastern Ladino changes seis to sesh, siete to sieti (SYEY-tee) and nueve to mueve, and many forms of Western Ladino also change the final vowel of uno, cuatro, cinco and ocho from “o” to “u,” yielding unu, cuatru, cincu and ochu. (There are some areas in which the final “s” is dropped, as well, giving us do and tre.)

Final -u in place of -o is typical of the Spanish spoken in various Northwest dialects of Spanish, such as Asturian, Leonese and Gallego, and its characteristic presence in Western Ladino has been used by some linguists, along with other evidence, to argue that the Jewish exiles settling in the Balkans came more from northern Spain, while those making their new homes in Turkey came from Castile in central Spain. Yet, other linguists have dismissed this argument as both inconsistent with other features of Ladino and overlooking the fact that o-to-u is a common vowel shift in many Romance dialects, such as Neapolitan and Sicilian in southern Italy. So is the thickening of the “s” to “sh” that one finds in Ladino sesh, “six,” which is common in many parts of Spain, as well as in Portugal.

The initial n-to-m shift that one finds in mueve, “nine,” on the other hand, is, to the best of my knowledge, unique to Ladino. (Final m-to-n, however, is common in Portuguese, in which Spanish bien, “good,” is bem, Spanish ordèn, “order,” ordem, etc.) Initial n-to-m also occurs in other Ladino words, such as muevo, “new,” in place of Spanish nuevo; mosotros, “we,” instead of nosotros; muestra, “our,” instead of nuestra, and so on. This is a feature of all dialects of Ladino.

But to those of you who know Spanish, the most striking phonetic difference between it and Ladino is a sound shift that did not take place in the latter, which missed it by a few decades. It was in the 16th century, not long after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, that Spanish underwent a major phonetic transformation in the course of which, among other things, the sounds represented by the letters x, j and g, which until then had resembled the “sh” in English “shout,” the “z” in English “azure” and (before front vowels) the “g” in English “gem,” moved farther back along the roof of the mouth to a common position on the velum or soft palate, where all turned into a “kh” like the “ch” in “Bach.”

Thus, in contemporary Spanish, the words dejar, “to leave” (which in medieval Spanish was spelled dexar); hijo, “son,” and gente, “people,” are pronounced “dekhar,” “ikho” and “khente,” all with the same velar fricative. Yet in Ladino, none of these changes took place. These words, and others like them, are still pronounced as they were in the 15th century. If you’re merely ticking off the numbers from one to 10, this doesn’t matter, but if you’re counting sheep in bed at night, each newborn Ladino lamb is 500 years old in Spanish. Un hijo de oveja, dos hijos de ovejas, tres hijos de ovejas… by the time you get to 10, you should surely be sound asleep, because 5,000 years have already gone by.

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

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