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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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 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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