Ladino or, as it is called more appropriately, Judeo-Spanish is today accepted as a legitimate variant of the Spanish language. This was the language that was spoken in 15th century Spain, before the decree of the Inquisition to exile all its Jews in 1492. This was also the language that the exiled Spanish Jews brought to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Sultan of the time, Bayezid II, was only too happy to receive these new subjects, who brought with them a whole civilization, philosophy and technology.
Judeo-Spanish is a language that carries a lot of Jewish elements in it. Most of the religious words and expressions are in Hebrew. There is a whole view of life that is present in the language, in the idioms, proverbs, songs and manner of speech. That view of life is predominantly jewish, with elements of all the major cultures around them for hundreds of years like the turkish and greek incorporated in it. That is why, the name Judeo-Spanish is more appropriate as a name for this language: it is Spanish of course, but a Judaicized form of Spanish that evolved for many years independently.
I was born in 1958. My parents both spoke French perfectly, my father having studied at an Alliance Universelle Isrealite school and my mother at one of the French Catholic missionary schools in Istanbul. At the time, French was the lingua franca, so speaking French was an important status symbol. That’s why my parents decided that I should learn French first of all; and that is how my first language happened to be French. A lot of families did this in those years and the kids acquired a lingua franca for free! However, there was a big problem when I started primary school because I could not speak Turkish! My teachers advised my parents to revert to speaking Turkish at home. So in came the second language, Turkish. Then as I grew up, my mother began to socialize and a lot of her friends came to visit, and all of them spoke Judeo-Spanish; so in came the third language, Judeo-Spanish!
Both my brother and I grew up with these three languages used interchangeably at home. The only one among these three that did not have any prestige was Judeo-Spanish, mainly because we were told that those who spoke Judeo-Spanish could not learn Turkish properly and if they spoke with a Jewish accent they would be discriminated against. At the time this thinking did not seem wrong. It was only when we grew up and grew out of our complexes concerning Judeo-Spanish that we realized the danger that that way of thinking had put the language in: the danger of extinction. People did not want to speak the language and there was barely any written material available for anyone who happened to be interested. Everything that we learned came to us through auditory channels.
Even while in Spain, the jews never wrote the Spanish that they spoke in Latin letters. They used a form of the Hebrew alphabet that was called “Rashi” to read and write in Spanish. The Rashi alphabet is an alphabet that was devised by Rashi, an ashkenazi jew who lived in France around the 11th century to write Biblical commentaries in Hebrew. The Spanish jews adapted this form of writing to Spanish, incorporating forms of the same letters for sounds in their Spanish that did not exist in Hebrew. For example the letter “gimel”, which was used for the sound “g”, was adapted for the sounds “dj”, “j”, “ch” in the form “gimel-yod”; or the letter “aleph” was used for the vowel sound “a”, which is not the case in Hebrew.
The Rashi alphabet and its counterpart for handwriting, Solitreo, continued to be used throughout the hundreds of years of Sephardic Jews’ lives in the Ottoman Empire. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk tried to implement many reforms so as to make a modern country out of the remains of the Empire. One of these reforms was the transition to the Latin alphabet for the whole country and the compulsory primary education in the new Turkish Ministry of Education system. That is when chaos started for Ladino! All the communities started to write in the form of the Latin alphabet that most suited their education. Some wrote it using the Turkish alphabet with its “ç” (for ch), “ş” (for sh) and “c” (for dj); some wrote using the French system of writing; some a hybrid form using whatever seemed best! This went on for years and years and was one of the main factors that caused the decline of Ladino. The fact that there was no standardized system of writing like the at-the-time most prestigious language, French for example caused people to start considering Ladino as “not a language at all”! The situation continued until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when for all intents and purposes Ladino was considered to be a “dying language”.
Human beings usually react when it is nearly too late to do anything. In the early 1980’s, when my generation was in their early twenties, we realized the richness of the treasury that we had in this language and culture. I was the first Turkish university student (and the only one for a long time to come) to do academic research on Judeo-Spanish in Turkey. The singing group my friends and I founded, Los Pasharos Sefaradis, was instrumental in awakening the interest of the community in their culture; showing them that this ancestral culture was nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that the Jewish community decided to celebrate the quincentennial anniversary of the arrival of the sephardic jews in the Ottoman Empire also helped to enhance people’s awareness of what they were about to lose.
Today, when it is nearly too late, there is some sort of revival. The great interest of the academic world toward this language and the culture it represents, which were able to survive for more than 500 years also triggered the interest of the younger generations who had been exposed to the language in one way or another. Today there are centers of Ladino studies in Israel, like the Salti Center at Bar-Ilan University and the Gaon Center at Ben-Gurion University. The Autoridad Nasyonala del Ladino i su Kultura, a government subsidised institution in Israel is also doing a lot of research for the preservation and promotion of the language. The yahoogroups on the internet called Ladinokomunita also unites more than 900 people from all over the world on the net to communicate in Ladino.
In 2003, the jewish community administration offered me the job of founding a center that would do research on sephardic culture. I accepted with alacrity because this had been one of my dreams ever since I had written two master’s theses on the subject. That is how the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul was founded in December 2003. The center has also done a lot to unify all the interested parties in the world and also to promote the language with its publications, like the monthly supplement to the newspaper Şalom, El Amaneser, which is a 16-page publication wholly in Ladino; books, CDs etc…, its very comprehensive website (www.istanbulsephardiccenter.com) and its substantial research projects. We have research projects that we do in cooperation with other research centers around the world, like an oral history project we do with Centropa (www.centropa.org); the Ladino Summer School project we did with the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Studies (Ben Gurion University) here in Istanbul in 2005; the publicaiton of El Amaneser, which we do with material that is sent to us from all over the world etc… Istanbul has always been regarded as one of the most important centers of the sephardic culture and people around the world expected a lot from the community here. We are slowly trying to meet those expectations as we are the second largest Ladino-speaking community in the world and we still have a lot of native speakers with whom to build a database large enough to leave to future generations.
Today all the Cervantes Institutes in the countries where there are Sephardic communities support all sorts of projects that have to do with the Sephardic language and culture. In Istanbul for example, the Sephardic Center has been able to open courses in Ladino since 2005 thanks to the logistic support provided by the Cervantes Institute.
Many young people in the Jewish community feel that learning Spanish is an important qualification to gain. A lot is being done in terms of preserving and promoting the language. Of course, Ladino will never again be a home-language like it used to be. A research that I did in 2005 on young people between the ages of 17-30 showed that the last people whose native language was Ladino were born in 1945 at the latest. When those people die, the last native speakers of Ladino will have disappeared. It is of paramount importance to collect as comprehensive a database as possible of the language for future generations to access as their cultural inheritance.
A language is never an abstract entity existing in a vacuum in space. A language is a living, breathing, developing entity that needs care and affection to survive. It is also the storeroom of a people’s collective memories, their philosophy, way of life and personalities. A language also has a function for the people who speak it. Judeo-Spanish constituted an important part of the Turkish Jews’ identity and today when we are about to lose it, an important chunk of the ethnic identity of a whole people is being lost as well. What the young people say is that they have a problem with their ethnic identities, but they do not know why exactly. Losing the ethnic language of the community is part of the answer. However, I am not completely without hope. I would like to finish with the motto of El Amaneser, that says “Kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser” (When it is at its darkest, the day is about to dawn).