Language of the Month: Ladino

Language of the Month: Ladino

Ladino…that’s Latin right? Has to be.

Well, yes and no. Ladino is Spanish with a Jewish twist. Think paella with gefilte fish. It has an interesting history. Spain (or to be more correct, the Iberian Peninsula) used to have many thousands of Jewish inhabitants. But in the 1490s the Jews were ‘asked’ to leave and as a result the rest of the Jewish community, spread over Central Europe, eventually North Africa and the New World received an influx of Spanish speaking Jews.

Ladino, then is medieval Spanish spoken by a diaspora of Sephardic Jews. It has been written in various scripts but today it uses the Latin script in which I am writing and you, hopefully, are reading….

Of course, with such a colourful provenance, linguistically it’s not that simple; while the vocabulary of Ladino is essentially Spanish (with loan words from other languages) the structures of Ladino mirror Hebrew formations. It’s almost as if Hebrew were translated word by word into Spanish. Less of a palaver than learning Hebrew, if you’re a Spanish speaker.

Very few words have escaped from this linguistic oddity into English, but one has. ‘Palaver’, surprisingly, is from Ladino. The word is related to ‘parabola’ (Greek) and has connotations of ‘talking big’. Hence English adopted it to means ‘a big fuss’.

Ladino was the dominant language of the Holy Lands from about 1800 into the 19th century to the extent that locals  were given the advice that if you hear someone speaking a form of Spanish, don’t assume that they are necessarily a Sephardic Jew- they might conceivably actually be Spanish.

Of late it’s had something of a revival, with US-based singers Jennifer Charles and Oren Bloedow releasing a cd called ‘La Mar Enfortuna” which you can hear by following this link.


It’s quite contentious, with Ladino speakers, (of which there are between 1 and 200 000 world-wide) dividing into those who welcome the revival of Ladino song and others taking a view that the material isn’t authentically Ladino.

Me, I just take the view that all cultures evolves, all languages change… and I’m happy to hear this wonderful, weird, language – this half-open window into medieval Spain – used and loved, danced to and sung.

Take a look at the TribaLingual offering for Ladino – you’ll be able to brush up your medieval Spanish as well as improving your Hebrew grammar structures.

Hola! Oy Veh….

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