Ladino in Turkey – The Situation Today as Reflected by the Ladino Database Project

Some Background in Recent History

In the 1970s Ladino was a dying language in Turkey. The prestige of the language was extremely low; no one was interested in learning or preserving it; and everyone considered it “not a language but a deformed mixture of languages”. People thought that if they taught their children Ladino, then those children would not be able to learn Turkish properly, would have a Jewish accent while speaking it, and of course consequently, would be discriminated against. Ladino was considered to be the language of the uneducated, and more so because of the tendency of the speakers to supply their vocabulary needs with Turkish words. So whenever people started criticising Ladino, they immediately came up with the examples: “el vapor yanasheyo al kyupri” (the boat approached the bridge) and “mozotros no mos karisheyamos en los meseles del hukumet” (we do not get involved in matters of government) where most of the words are in Turkish (written in bold). These examples of course always got a good laugh from the audience, but were the basic detrimental force in the decline of the language. People were certainly not proud of speaking a language like Ladino; they saw no use in teaching it to their children; and of course did not encourage them to learn it.

Many factors contributed to this state of affairs in the 50 years that the Jewish community progressed from a mostly non-Turkish speaking community to a mostly non-Ladino speaking community (1920s to 1970s). I will very shortly summarize these factors, which dominated the Jewish social life starting in the 1920s.

First of all, the full effects of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (henceforth AIU) schools were felt in the 1920s. The AIU schools, around 115 of them, had been founded all over the Ottoman Empire starting in 1860. The AIU, being a French organization, the instruction in these schools had been in French. Therefore, by the 1920s, the Alliance schools had created a generation of native speakers of French, for whom French was the symbol of civilization and intellectualism. This generation was the offspring of parents who took great care in teaching their children French, the lingua franca of the time, from the moment they were born. This was also the generation that preferred to communicate in French amongst themselves and read nothing but French books, magazines and newspapers. Ladino, on the other hand, remained as the language of the uneducated and also of religion, which was also considered to be an obstacle in the way to modernism, intellectualism and civilization. So, even though this would be a topic for another research, I would like to point out an observation of mine: that the religiousness of people declined in parallel to the decline in Ladino in those 50 years.

Secondly, with the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, a Turkification of Jewish subjects began, when the Jewish community refused to acquire special rights at the Lausanne Treaty (1924) and accepted full Turkish citizenship. When given the choice of using a community language for education, Ladino was not considered by the community leaders because it had never been taught in schools; French was out of the question as it was not a Jewish language per se; Hebrew was again not considered to be a language of education as it was the language of religion only, so education was done in Turkish. Furthermore, the “Vatandaş, Türkçe konuş”, or “Citizens, speak Turkish” policies in the 1930s to 1940s put a lot of pressure on the Jews to speak Turkish in public places and there were also social pressures to get the Jews to speak Turkish properly, without a Jewish accent. It was time for Jews to learn Turkish after 500 years of inhabiting the land.

One other factor which I consider to be very important in the decline of Ladino is the fact that all the written treasury in Ladino was lost to the people with the introduction of Latin letters. People educated in the Latin alphabet got cut off from the material written with the old Rashi alphabet, books, religious treatises, newspapers, magazines etc., with the result that by the time we got to the ‘70s, people were not even aware that a whole mass of reading material existed in that language. The only remaining newspaper in Ladino, the Şalom newspaper, which was founded in 1947, was not read extensively, and it was written in Latin letters. Nobody, except for a few religious men could read the Rashi alphabet any more. Most people did not even know that Ladino used to be written with the Rashi alphabet.

This was the situation in the 1970s, and everyone claimed that Ladino would be “dead” in at most 10 – 15 years. In the 1980’s, however, certain social and economic factors created a new hope for the future of Ladino. The law that limited Turkish people to travelling abroad only once every 3 years was abolished and people started travelling extensively and frequently. This enabled the Jews to realize that even a smattering knowledge of Ladino was useful for communicating in all countries where Spanish was spoken. During those years also, many linguists, historians, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, socio-linguists and sociologists came to Turkey to research the phenomenon of the survival of Ladino for 500 years. This of course, produced the halo effect that social scientists are very much aware of. Just the fact that prestigious academicians were interested in what they had been denigrating for some time, awakened people’s interest. Another factor was the preparations for the quincentennial anniversary of the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire in 1992, and the foundation of the Quincentennial Foundation. Again, at the beginning of the 1990s, the opening of the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul, and the great interest it showed in the Sephardic heritage made people realize the value of what they were about to lose forever.

Small-scale research about Ladino on young Turkish Jews

A small research I conducted in 2005 on the young people of our community (ages 18-25) yielded the following results:

  • The last generation of native speakers of Ladino today are the subjects’ grandparents. The youngest of these are in the age range of 61-70. This puts the date of birth of the ultimate native speakers in around 1945. When they are gone, there will be no native speakers left.
  • The subjects’ parents have learned Ladino from their parents but not as their first language. Turkish is the parents’ native language and also the language of communication amongst themselves and with their children. Transmission of Ladino to the next generations through natural means stops at this generation, the oldest of whom are at the age range of 61-65. We can therefore assume the cut to have occurred in the years 1945- 1950.
  • As to the subjects themselves:
    1. Their interest in Ladino starts in the early 20s, when they are more mature and culture conscious.
    2. They are aware that they cannot learn Ladino in the family and they find their parents guilty of not continuing the tradition.
    3. They would really like to learn Ladino, but admit that the situation is difficult.
    4. They are conscious of the fact that in order to learn Ladino they will have to spend time and money; and not many of them are willing or able to do that in today’s world, where everything is evaluated according to its functionality and financial rewards.
    5. They would like to learn modern Spanish because it is the second most-spoken language in the world nowadays; it has functional and economical value; and they deem it better to spend their limited time and money on a world language from which they feel they can make the transition to Ladino easily and thus kill two birds with one stone.
    6. If there were Ladino courses, not many would attend because of time/work/schoolwork limitations; therefore it would be best to think of some other kind of activities during their socializing time slots by which to teach Ladino. These could be activities like singing, acting or really fun lessons.
    7. Even though the situation does not look very promising, the performance of these youngsters on the vocabulary tests (which were given to them during the research) was actually not bad at all. Apparently they had been able to learn quite a few number of words, some with their metaphorical meanings as well! Just imagine what they would achieve with the right kind of incentive and teaching program. Obviously, a lot of responsibility falls onto our youth clubs, which should definitely take Ladino into their social programs and try to create a natural enough environment for the youth to learn without spending time and effort.

The results of this research did not bode well for the future of Ladino. We had to accept the fact that sooner or later there would be no native speakers of the language left to transmit it to future generations. Even though today there are tremendous efforts made for the preservation of the language in Israel, Turkey, France, the USA and in some of the Balkan countries like Bulgaria and Greece, these efforts can only last for a short time as their instigators are not themselves very young at this moment.

Introducing the Ladino Database Project

What can be done is to document as much of the language as possible and produce as much written material as possible for use by future generations, should they be interested enough to learn about this part of their cultural heritage. An initiative headed by Marie-Christine Varol of Inalco in Paris, gave me the idea to design a project of documenting spoken Ladino by its native speakers, of whom we still have quite a large number in Istanbul today. At the beginning of 2008, we set up the project we labelled the “Ladino Database Project”. A team of six good Ladino speakers trained to be the interviewers in this project.[1] Our only criterion in choosing the interviewees would be that they be native speakers of the language regardless of age, sex or other factors.

The Questionnaire

The most important part of the project was to devise the questionnaire by which our interviewers would make the interviewees talk. I thought that since we wanted to document as much of the language as possible, we should formulate the questions in such a way as to elicit as many grammatical forms and structures as we could. So, apart from the usual questions asking them to describe parts of their lives in their youth, we also asked them to make comparisons, talk about the present, the future (if at all possible), make conditional sentences and also make associations with certain words they were asked. The questionnaire was devised in five parts. The first part asked demographical questions to help future researchers in the social sciences make differentiations according to age, sex, education, demographical location etc. In this section we added some interesting questions like: “In what language do you count?” and “In what language do you dream?” the answers to which were quite varied and sometimes even quite surprising.

The second part of the questionnaire contained questions about the interviewee’s past and they were also asked to make comparisons with events in their past and the ones in the present, like the Bar-Mitzvahs of the past and those of today or the weddings of their youth and those of today, etc.  Again with these questions it was easy enough to see that there was more homogeneity in the society in the past than there is now. Even if people were quite wealthy in the past the difference in the celebrations was not quite as pronounced as it seems to be today.

The third section of the questionnaire contained questions about the present, what the interviewee’s life is like at present and what life in general is like today.

The fourth part of the questionnaire was composed of questions asking about the future and also about some imaginary situations like “Where would you like to have lived if not in Turkey?” or “What would you have done if you had had a lot of money when you were young?” etc.

The final section of the questionnaire was devised with the aim of eliciting some spontaneous responses to certain words in Ladino. We asked the interviewees to talk about the first thing that came to their minds on hearing those particular words, be it a proverb, a song, a poem, a tradition, a superstition or a story. We conducted a pilot study at first especially for these words. We took out some of the words which we had thought would produce interested responses, but which in fact blocked the subjects completely eliciting nothing and replaced them with other words.

Our interviewers conducted 68 interviews in the time range of half an hour to an hour and a half. It was interesting to note that as the interviewers became more familiar with the questionnaire and the questions, they were more successful in drawing out the interviewees and making them talk. As a result, we see the final set of interviews all being more than an hour long. These interviews were then transcribed by our interviewers so that we received both a sound file from them and a word file. What we then went on to do was to cut the sound files into small bits of 5-8 minutes and have their corresponding word files also ready for every bit of sound file. We then sent all this material to the software programmer so he could prepare a special programme where the material can be accessed on the internet in a “searchable” format.

Preliminary Findings

At first glance, on hearing the interviews one cannot help but notice certain basic issues. The first issue that stands out is that the older the interviewee is the more fluent s/he is when speaking Ladino. However even with the older native speakers, one notices hesitations when it comes to a more sophisticated kind of discourse. It is as if they are not really used to making these conversations in this particular language, which is probably the case. These are the times when we notice more interference from other languages, especially from French and from Turkish.

There is also a noticeable effort made on the part of the interviewees to include as little interference from Turkish as possible. We notice pauses when they are trying to find the Ladino word for a certain concept, and we also hear them ask the interviewer “How do you say ‘X’ in Ladino?” Somehow unless they are too obvious, interferences from French do not constitute as much a reason for discomfort as do the ones from Turkish. Needless to say, all borrowings from other languages are put into the grammatical forms of Ladino, be they conjugation of verbs or pluralisation of nouns etc.

Another interesting factor which comes to the fore but which should not come as a surprise is the fact that the most fluent speakers were the rabbis whose native language is Ladino. Now of course we were told that during their rabbinical training, these older rabbis were asked to recite verses of the Torah in Ladino from the original Hebrew texts. That is why they are extremely fluent and even in more sophisticated bits of discourse using a wider range of sophisticated vocabulary.

As pertaining vocabulary I also made lists of all the words used by the interviewees during their interviews. I was curious to see how many words people were using during a conversation. Here too, not surprisingly I noticed that the more educated the interviewee the more words used in their discourse which showed a range of 1600 to 2000 different words for this group.

Some interviewees were a bit uncomfortable in the beginning because they said they had not talked in Ladino for a long time. They meant that they had not had such long conversations in only one language, in this case Ladino, for a long time. Usually what we see with these native speakers, especially the older ones, is that they continually change languages while speaking depending on the people they are talking to. If the people they are conversing with know all the languages in question (in this case, French, Turkish and Ladino) then they will go back and forth in all of these languages sometimes even mixing all three in one sentence! If the people they are talking to know only one of these language, then they will make an effort not to mix the other languages into their discourse; but this effort is usually made when the language in question is Turkish, so they are used to that. This project required them to speak in Ladino only, which was not something they were used to doing for a long long time. So for some interviewees at least we notice the discomfort of trying to be faithful to Ladino only.

All the interviewees expressed their pleasure in having participated in such a project of the preservation of Ladino. They all also expressed their regret about the younger generations not speaking it and about the fact that this is part of our heritage that is slowly dying out. Some of them have said that they are making a special effort to teach their grandchildren the language but the pressure of learning other world languages like English nowadays is making their job quite difficult. Some have said that the grandchildren are interested in learning modern Spanish and that they are encouraging them to learn because then at least they will be able to understand if they are spoken to in Ladino. None of them however, have any hope that there will be a revival of Ladino because it is not the language in the modern Jewish home any more. Young Turkish Jews speak Turkish at home amongst themselves, answer their grandparents in Turkish even if they understand Ladino and definitely speak Turkish with their parents.

Of course, these are all preliminary findings on first hearing and working with the interviews. More meticulous research in the future will assuredly yield many other results and observations. All that remains to be done is for all the project to be made accessible on the internet and that is what we are working on today.


One fact that emerged in this project is that even the native speakers of a language may lose their fluency in that language if they do not speak it as frequently as they used to. One then asks the question: how was it ever possible for the Turkish Jews to preserve Ladino for more than 500 years? The answer to that lies in the structure of the community during the Ottoman Empire and the new structure that was built after the end of the Empire and the foundation of the Turkish Republic. During the Ottoman rule, the Jews lived in communities that were tightly knit and closed to any outside influences. The fact that the women never went out except to visit their relatives and neighbours, who very conveniently all lived in the same street (or maybe two streets away), which was populated by Jews anyway, helped to maintain the traditions that were crucial for the make-up of the ethnic identity of the community. With the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the decision of the community administrators to open up also came the emancipation of the women, who once outside the home lost most of their main function as the perpetrators of all the ethnic values and traditions, i.e. language, religious traditions, cuisine and music. Loss of fluency of Ladino was some of the price that was paid for this emancipation.

As the interviews showed, today’s native speakers of Ladino are quite fluent while talking about matters that concern the home, family, children, grandchildren, or cuisine and religious traditions, but are not that fluent when they start to talk about matters outside the home like politics, economics, world matters etc. It was interesting to note that most of them said they counted in Turkish and made mathematical calculations also in Turkish. This, for me, is a good indicator of the loss of fluency and/or the shift in the strength of the primary language of a person.

We now have to accept the fact that when we lose these native speakers, the youngest of whom were born in 1945 at the latest, we will not have any native speakers of Ladino left in the world. When we have no native speakers left, then we cannot speak about the survival of a particular language. Ladino is unfortunately doomed to become a language to be studied and dissected at universities as a matter of academic interest. I see no hope in the future for it to become the language of the Jewish homes in Turkey again. A few words here and there that will still help to distinguish the ethnic identity of the Jewish community from the other communities are all that will be left for the younger generations to use.

The Ladino Database project realized by the Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul will remain as an invaluable document of spoken Ladino and the fact that it will soon be accessed on the internet will make it doubly so. Unfortunately our funding was not enough for us to complete 100 interviews, which was the original number I had in mind but hopefully with additional funding, we might continue with the project to document as many native speakers as we can. Time is of essence and we must do what we can while we still can!

[1] The team consisted of the following members: Karen Sarhon (coordinator), Coya Delevi, Seli Gaon, Feride Petilon, Dora Niyego, Meri Schild and  Anet Pase.

Karen Gerson Sarhon (coordinator)
Sephardic Culture Research Center (Istanbul, Turkey)