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Bortnick is well aware that Ladino is spoken by a shrinking coterie of aging speakers. She said she would be surprised if there is anyone for whom Ladino — a blend of Hebrew, Spanish and other languages of the Mediterranean basin — is his or her sole tongue. Total estimates of fluent Ladino speakers range from 150,000 to 250,000, but Bortnick believes those figures may be inflated.
As for its cultural impact on Judaism, Ladino should not be compared with Yiddish, said Dovid Katz, of Vilnius, author of the 2004 book “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.”
“Judaismo is an important language, but it is nowhere comparable with Yiddish in the number of speakers, the literary output, the degree of internal development,” Katz said during a recent visit to Brooklyn to study resurgent Yiddish in the Haredi community.
Sarah Stein, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles agreed that Ladino has many fewer speakers than Yiddish. Even so, she said, Ladino has a “a rich legacy as a language of religious interpretation and secular print culture. It was a language of the home, a language of modernism, of instruction of children.”
To a Ladino lover the expressiveness of the language is second to none. Take the word “presiado,” Bortnick said, a term of affection lovingly bestowed on a child by a parent — a verbal caress.
“When you say the English word, ‘precious,’ it sounds fake, not coming from the heart,” Bortnick said. “When you say ‘presiado mio,’” it declares you are important to me, the treasure of my life.”
What is Ladino? Strictly speaking, Bortnick said, “It is the language of Sephardic Jews who went to the Ottoman Empire based on medieval Spanish.”