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Description by Ora Schwarzwald

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At Sephardic Adventure Camp near Seattle in the USA, teams get extra points in Color War for using Ladino on their banners

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Flory Jagoda and her band perform traditional Ladino songs

Judeo-Spanish is a language used by Jews originating from Spain. It flourished in the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain and continued its existence there (Penny 1996). Some of the expelled Jews settled in North Africa and used the Judeo-Spanish variety known as Hakitia (Haketia) (Benoliel 1977). In the beginning of the 21st century, Judeo-Spanish is an endangered language for lack of new native speakers.


Names of the Language

The language is known as Spanyolit or Espanyolit (in Israel), Espanyol, Ladino, Romance, Franco Espanyol, Judeo-Espanyol, Jidyo or Judyo, Judezmo, Zargon, etc., in the Ottoman Empire communities, and either Hakitia or just Espanyol in North Africa. Other names are used as well, but Judezmo (meaning Judaism, too), Ladino, or Judeo-Espanyol (Judeo-Spanish) are the most common. It should be noted that among some scholars Ladino is used to denote the Judeo-Spanish mirror-image type language of liturgical translations from Hebrew.


Jews used Ibero Romance in Medieval Christian Spain as their main vernacular language. Apparently, Judeo-Spanish was developed at that time (Marcus 1962; Varvaro 1987; Revah 1970: 238-240). The Jews formed a religious ethno-sociological group that was different in customs and beliefs from the non-Jewish population. They used an extensive Hebrew-Aramaic fused component in their language. The linguistic similarity between Hakitia and the eastern Judeo-Spanish communities after the expulsion cannot be explained as accidental, unless developed in Medieval Spain. Some Iberian Spanish linguistic forms were adopted by the Jews and preserved in their speech while abandoned by their neighbors. Finally, they used aljamiado (Spanish text written in Hebrew characters) texts while still in Spain (Bunis 1992; Hassán 1988; Minervini 1992; Schwarzwald 1999).


After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Judeo-Spanish developed independently of Iberian Spanish. Written Judeo-Spanish in the 16th century followed Iberian Spanish literary norms, but the distance from Spain and the development of Judeo-Spanish resulted in literary and linguistic differences in the Judeo-Spanish of later centuries. Vernacular forms entered the written language, and many words and expressions from the local languages (Turkish, Greek, and Balkan languages) were fused in Judeo-Spanish.

Quick facts

Names of Language:

Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Ladino, Hakitia~Haketia

 (in North Africa), Spanyolit (in Israel)

Territories where it was spoken:

The Balkans, Turkey, Israel, Morocco (from 1500-2000)

Territories where it is still spoken:

Israel, Turkey, and a few isolated places in the Balkans, Europe, and the USA

Originated in Medieval Spanish, developed independently in the Diaspora after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 in the Ottoman Empire and north Africa.

Estimated # speakers:

There is no accurate count.
- 1900 ~ 350,000
- 2019 ~ 100,000

Vitality today: Endangered

Writing systems:

Hebrew letters, especially Rashi script; Latin alphabet from 1900.


liturgical translations, rabbinic, ethical and halakhic literature, belle-letters, poetry (romances, songs, coplas), press, history, drama, folk literature, medical literature, other scientific literature, biographies, etc.

Language family:

Romance languages, independent development of Spanish

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From World War I to the present, Judeo-Spanish has been marked by a gradual shift from Hebrew orthography to Roman script and by an increase of French and Italian influence that replaced local Turkish, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew elements by more "Romanicized" forms (Hassán 1995).

At the turn of the 21st century, the number of speakers is gradually decreasing and the quantity of creative writing is growing smaller. Today the youngest native speakers are over fifty years old; with their death, Judeo-Spanish will cease to exist as a native language. Harris (1994: 197-229) lists 24 reasons for the present status of Judeo-Spanish, including the attitude towards Judeo-Spanish and what it represented, the geographical dispersion of speakers, their assimilation into other communities, and their decrease in number after the Holocaust.

Orthography and Spelling

Judeo-Spanish has been written in Hebrew characters later referred to as Rashi script and in handwriting called Solitreo. Printed materials were written in either Rashi script or in square Hebrew letters, rarely vocalized. Judeo-Spanish developed a conventional spelling system to represent Judeo-Spanish words in Hebrew characters, which became standardized only during the 19th century (Pascual Recuero 1988, Bunis 2004). During the 20th century many of the Judeo-Spanish texts were written in Roman characters rather than Hebrew ones, and this orthographic change is controversial among scholars. The most popular conventions used are those established in Aki Yerushalayim (Shaul, ed., 1979-), though other options are in common use, especially by the Spanish school for Sephardic philology (Hassán 1978).



















Literary Genres

Sephardic Jews, like other Jewish communities, considered Hebrew to be the language of learning, the holy language. Therefore, a great amount of the literature written by Sephardic Jews was in Hebrew rather than in Judeo-Spanish (Romero 1992a). Very little was preserved in Judeo-Spanish prior to the expulsion, some exceptions being Coplas de Yosef by an anonymous writer (Girón-Negrón and Minervini 2006), Proverbios Morales by Sem Tob de Carrión (Ardutiel) (Díaz-Mas 1993, 2001; Díaz-Mas & Mota 1998), and various other aljamiado texts (Minervini 1992). The Kharjas and Valladolid Statutes (Taqanot) show the interaction among languages used by the Jews. Some texts were published by and for converted Jews in Latin script but they are more Spanish, rather than Judeo-Spanish, e.g. Sefer Tešubah (Lazar 1993a). 

After the expulsion from Spain, a variety of Judeo-Spanish texts were published and preserved:

  • Ladino translations of the Bible, prayer books, and other liturgical texts like the Passover Haggadah and Pirke Avot (Lazar 1964, 1992a, 1992b, 1993b, 1995a, 1995b, 2000; Hassán 1994; Revah 1970; Sephiha 1973, 1979; Schwarzwald 1989, 2008, 2012; Bunis 1996)

  • Rabbinical literature (Yaari 1934: 28-37), including Meam Loez (Romero 1998, 2001; Landau 1980; Romeu Ferré 2000; García Moreno 2004; Quintana 2006-2007), and other law books (Šmid 2012).

  • Edited translations of Halakhic and moral literature, like Ḥovat Halevavot and Shulḥan Arukh (Schwarzwald 2017).

  • Drama and belles lettres (Romero 1979, 1993; Barquín López 1977)

  • Press (Gaon 1965)

  • Popular genres including poetic literature such as romansas (or romances), coplas (or complas) and cantigas (or canticas) (Díaz-Mas 1992: 105-106, 119; 1994; Romero 1991, 1992b; Pedrosa 1995; Armistead & Silverman 1971, 1979, 1982; Armistead, Silverman & Hassán 1981; Refael 1998), proverbs (Alexander-Frizer 2004; Alexander-Frizer and Bentolila 2008), folk tales (Haboucha 1992), riddles, fables, jokes, etc.

Current publications in Judeo-Spanish are the result of some staunch believers in preserving Judeo-Spanish. The most prominent publication is Aki Yerushalaim: Revista Kulturala Djudeo-Espanyola, founded in 1979 by the editor Moshe Shaul as a supplement for the Israeli Radio broadcasting in Judeo-Spanish. Other publications around the world focus on Judeo-Spanish and Sephardic culture. Shalom (Şalom) Turkish Jewish newspaper in Istanbul includes one page in Judeo-Spanish by Silvio Ovadya. Los Muestros: La boz de los sefardim published in Brussels and edited by Moise Rahmani, is a multilingual quarterly. The articles on history, culture, language, folklore, music, and literature appear in French, English, Spanish, and Judeo-Spanish.

A number of poets, such as Margalit Matityahu, Matilda Koen-Sarano, and Avner Perez in Israel, Rita Gabbai Simantov in Greece, Clarisse Nikoidski in France, and Gloria Ascher in the United States, write or wrote Judeo-Spanish poetry. Since 2001 there has been an active Internet discussion list in Judeo-Spanish, Ladino komunita, moderated by Rachel Bortnick. In several places around the world, there are Sephardic language and culture clubs where Judeo-Spanish is the main mode of communication.

Linguistic Features

Several linguistic features are common to all Judeo-Spanish dialects and distinguish Judeo-Spanish from other varieties of Spanish. A few of the features are listed here (Crews 1935; Benoliel 1977; Zamora Vicente 1985: 349-377; Bunis 1992: 414-420; Bunis 1999; Bunis 1999, 2018: 199-202; Marcus 1965: 70-95; Wagner 1990(I): 116-135; Penny 2000: 174-193; Quintana-Rodríguez 2006: 3-23; Schwarzwald 2018: 152-154). The phonemes /š/ (English sh), /dğ/ (English g in George), and /ž/ (French j in journal) were retained in Judeo-Spanish (in Spanish they became /x/). The phonemes /š/ (English sh), /dğ/ (English g in George), and /ž/ (French j in journal) were retained in Judeo-Spanish (in Spanish they became /x/). The phonemes  /v/ and /b/ are distinct, while in Spanish they are allophones ([β] and [b]). The equivalents of the Spanish letters <ç> and <z> are pronounced /s/ and /z/, and often Spanish /s/ is realized as [z] between vowels. Historical /s/ before /k/ is pronounced š, and the Spanish swe and fwe (spelled sue, fue) is realized in Judeo-Spanish as [sxwe], [sfwe], or [xwe]. Metathesis occurred in many consonant clusters with d and r ([rd] > [dr]). In some dialects, the Latinate /f/ is preserved in words like favlar ('to speak') and fizhos ('sons'), which became hablar and hijos in Spanish.

Verbs are conjugated with some modifications. The suffixes -í (1st person), -tes (2nd person singular), and -teš (2nd person plural) are used in the preterit instead of -é, -ste and -eis in Spanish. The tense system of Judeo-Spanish is less elaborate than Spanish, and compound verbs are frequently formed with the verb tener ('to have, own'), rather than haber ('to have'). The Spanish ustedes formal polite form is absent. Although nos ('us') and nuestro ('our') are used in literary styles, the vernacular forms are mos and muestro, respectively. The Judeo-Spanish diminutive is -iko/-ika rather than Spanish -ito/-ita.

Judeo-Spanish retained a good deal of medieval Spanish vocabulary. Also, a considerable Hebrew-Aramaic component was integrated into the language (Bunis 1993). Hebrew influence is revealed through loan translations as well, as in El Santo Bendicho El ('God'), a reflection of Hebrew haqadoš barux hu ('The Holy One Blessed Be He'), kamino de leche i miel ('good journey', literally: 'a way of milk and honey'), a reflection of ḥalav udvaš ('milk and honey').

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The Sephardic Jews carried along dialectal varieties of Medieval Spanish to their various destinations in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. In the beginning they formed separate communities and continued their linguistic and cultural traditions as before. However, due to constant contact with other Judeo-Spanish speakers and with local languages, regional Judeo-Spanish dialects were eventually formed: Eastern Judeo-Spanish, including Belgrade, Sarajevo, Monastir, Bucharest, and Sofia; and Western Judeo-Spanish, including Istanbul, Izmir, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki. An example of the dialect differences can be seen in the following sentence:

  • Gloss: 'My mother-in-law hates me because I took her son.'

  • Spanish: Mi suegra me aborrece porque (le) tomé a su hijo.

  • Eastern Judeo-Spanish: Mi esxueγra me aborrese por ke le tomi a su fizhu.

  • Western Judeo-Spanish: Mi sfuegra me aborrese por ke le tomi a su izho.

The most comprehensive studies of Ottoman Judeo-Spanish dialects were conducted in the beginning of the 20th century by Crews (1935) and Wagner (1990). A serious study of the dialects of the last 150 years in the Ottoman Empire is being conducted today by Aldina Quintana (Quintana-Rodríguez 2006).


Today, four universities in Israel have special programs for the study of Judeo-Spanish: the Salti Institute for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, and Tel Aviv University. In Europe, Marie Christine Varol teaches Judeo-Spanish in INALCO in Paris, Michael Halévy Studemund in Hamburg, Winfried Busse and Almuth Münch in Berlin, Heinrich Kohring in Tübingen, Elena Romero in Madrid, Béatrice Schmid in Basel, Dora Mancheva in Sofia. In the United States, Judeo-Spanish is taught at Tufts University, University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Los Angeles, and others. Sporadic courses are offered elsewhere at universities, synagogues, and community centers.

Several textbooks have been published in recent years (Koen-Sarano 1999a, 1999b, translated by G. Ascher as Koen-Sarano 2003, 2002; Shaul 1999; Gattegno and Refael 1995, 1998; Bunis 1999; Varol 1998; Gomel and Refael 2018). Dictionaries have been published as well (Nehamas 1977; Pascual Recuero 1977; Romano 1995 [1933]; Bendayan de Bendelac 1995 (Hakitia); Perahya and Perahya 1998; Perahya et al. 1997; Passy 1999; Benchimol and Koen-Sarano 1999; Kohen and Kohen-Gordon 2000).

Various institutions carry on research and documentation of Sephardic heritage, not necessarily from the linguistic point of view, e.g. in Israel (Ben Zvi Institute, Society for Sephardic StudiesMisgav Yerushalayim, Instituto Maale Adumim). The National Authority of Ladino (Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino) formerly oversaw research and maintenance efforts in Israel. In 2018, the Real Academia Española announced that it will create a new Academy, the Academia Nacional del Judeoespañol en Israel. This organization is to become an independent entity in Israel that can, in the future, request admission to the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española. There are also institutions in Spain (Instituto Arias Montano, now part of the Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas del Mediterráneo y Oriente Próximo), in France (Aki Estamos and Association Vidas Largas), in the United States (the American Sephardi Federation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, the American Society of Sephardic Studies, the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, and others) and several other centers in Europe which sponsor conferences, concerts, film festivals, folklore evenings, etc.

Lecture on Ladino by Dr. Bryan Kirschen

Can Spanish speakers understand Ladino?

Universities that Offer Ladino Instruction

Print Resources


Kohen, Eli & Kohen-Gordon, D. Ladino-English/English-Ladino Concise Encyclopedic Dictionary Hippocrene, 2000.

Sample of Ladino speech beginning at 4:14.

To cite: Schwarzwald, Ora. n.d. Judeo-Spanish/Judezmo/Ladino. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.

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