How To Recognize a Secret Spanish Jew by His Marrano Accent

Could Distinctive Speech Pattern Live on for Centuries?

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By Philologos

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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The two go on talking. The man identifies Borrow as an Englishman by his accent, and Borrow says that the man’s own speech gives away his identity, too. “But you know nothing about me, [the man protests].’

“‘Be not sure of that, my friend, [Borrow replies]. I am acquainted with many things of which you have little idea.’

“‘Por ejemplo,’ said the figure.’

“‘For example,’ said I, ‘you speak two languages.’

“The figure moved on, seemed to consider for a moment, and then said, slowly, ‘bueno.’

“‘You have two names,’ I continued, ‘one for the house and the other for the street; both are good, but the one by which you are called at home is the one which you like best.’

“The man walked on about 10 paces, in the same manner as he had previously done; all of a sudden he turned, and, taking the bridle of the burra [female donkey] gently in his hand, stopped her. I had now a full view of his face and figure, and those huge features and Herculean form still occasionally revisit me in my dreams. I see him standing in the moonshine, staring me in the face with his deep calm eyes. At last he said: ‘Are you then one of us?’”

We are not told what Borrow’s response was, and the narrative now jumps abruptly to an inn in Talavera where the two men are put up for the night. The mysterious figure, whose “home name” turns out to be the typically Jewish one of Abarbanel, is indeed a marrano, a Spaniard living, along with his family and close friends, a secret Jewish existence 350 years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. He speaks freely to Borrow about this, and even uses the Hebrew word ru’aḥ , an evil spirit, while describing a case of demonic possession. This was a word that only a marrano could have known.

What was it about the man’s tone and use or articulation of bueno — “good,” “fine” or “all right” — that revealed him so quickly to be a marrano? Borrow doesn’t say. But he was an apparently honest reporter with a first-rate ear for language, and something — probably, as he implies, a resemblance to Judeo-Spanish speech he had heard elsewhere in his travels, in North Africa, the Balkans or Turkey — rang a familiar bell. Could he perhaps have had marrano blood himself? It doesn’t seem at all likely. Yet it is strange that, after being asked “Are you then one of us?” he skips to another scene as if eager to change the subject.

Thank you, Dr. Greenfield! You put me on to a fine if now forgotten writer who kept my attention riveted, especially on the road to Talavera. The survival into our own times of marrano memories and traditions in Spain has been well documented, but it sends chills down one’s spine to realize that as late as the mid-19th century there was still a living marrano society recognizable, if only to a man who had met Spanish-descended Jews in other places, by its speech.

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


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