How To Recognize a Secret Spanish Jew by His Marrano Accent

Could Distinctive Speech Pattern Live on for Centuries?

Getty Images

By Philologos

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Dr. William Greenfield of Libertyville, Ill., asks: “Are you familiar with George Borrow’s identifying a living marrano in 19th-century Spain by his speech pattern? It’s in his book ‘The Bible in Spain.’”

Never having heard of George Borrow, I went to the Internet and found a digital copy of “The Bible in Spain.” A fascinating book!

George Borrow (1803–1881) was a British travel book writer, novelist, accomplished linguist and devout Christian who worked for many years for the Bible Society of Great Britain, disseminating Holy Scripture in non-Protestant European countries whose laity was not encouraged by clergy to read it. Five of these years, from 1835 to 1840, were spent in Spain, resulting in memoirs published in 1843.

The Spain that Borrow traversed was a poor, sparsely populated and largely illiterate country of superstitious villagers and wild landscapes, full of brigands and picaresque wanderers, and Borrow’s adventures were not the ordinary tourist’s. Once, he writes, as he was riding his donkey along a moonlit trail leading to the town of Talavera, near Toledo, he overtook a man walking in the same direction. This figure was “the tallest and bulkiest that I had hitherto seen in Spain, dressed in a manner strange and singular for the country,” with a broad-brimmed hat “insufficient to cover an immense bush of coal-black hair, which, thick and curly, projected on either side.” After riding beside him in silence, Borrow began a conversation.

Something Borrowed: George Borrow was a 19th-century travel writer, novelist and linguist, who encountered a marrano while wandering through Spain.
Wikimedia Commons
Something Borrowed: George Borrow was a 19th-century travel writer, novelist and linguist, who encountered a marrano while wandering through Spain.

“‘A cold night,’ said I at last. ‘Is this the way to Talavera?’

“‘It is the way to Talavera, and the night is cold.’

“‘I am going to Talavera,’ said I, ‘as I suppose you are yourself.’

“‘I am going thither, so are you, bueno.’”

The narrative continues:

“The tones of the voice which delivered these words were in their way quite as strange and singular as the figure to which the voice belonged; they were not exactly the tones of a Spanish voice, and yet there was some- thing in them that could hardly be foreign; the pronunciation also was correct; and the language, though singular, was faultless. But I was most struck with the manner in which the last word, bueno, was spoken. I had heard something like it before, but where or when I could by no means remember.”


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 don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • 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.