Judeo-Spanish, Ladino, Judesmo, Espanyol and Ladino are the different names used for the same language which is still spoken by Sephardic Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire after having been expelled from Spain in 1492. When analyzed through sociolinguistics, it is observable that societies emigrating from one country to another lose their original languages in four generations at the most. It is quite a rare case to find that a language like Judeo-Spanish has been maintained for 520 years. Judeo-Spanish, a part of the massive linguistic diversity which is one of Turkey’s greatest treasures, unfortunately falls into the category of “endangered languages” today.

The Historical Past of Judeo-Spanish

Having gradually regained their territories from the Al-Andalus Umayyads who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the early 700s AD, the Spanish kingdoms established their full sovereignty by conquering Granada, the last castle of the Umayyads, on January 2, 1492. These small Spanish kingdoms that had previously been at continuous war with each other finally established a strong political unity with the wedlock of Castile Queen Isabel and Aragon King Fernando, which was an important step taken towards the realisation of their dream of building a United Catholic Spain. During those years various languages and dialects were being spoken in all the minor kingdoms located in the territories that are today called Spain. It is also widely known that not even the first steps towards the “standardization” of the present modern Spanish had been taken at the time. The Queen and King of Spain who signed the Granada/Alhambra Decree, also known as Edicto de Expulsion [Edict of Expulsion] on March 31, 1492, granted Jews until July 31 to leave Spain - so the post-Spain story of the society that would subsequently put their stamp on history with the name Sephardic Jews began. The reason they identify themselves as “Sephardi is quite simple: “Sephardic” means “Spanish” in Hebrew, so the phrase “Sephardic Jews” signifies the Jews “coming from Spain/of Spanish origin.”

Sephardic Jews who were allowed in the Ottoman territories by Sultan Bayezid II in 1492 settled in West Anatolia, Thrace, and the Balkans. Although at first they chose to dwell in the same cities and regions with their compatriots, with time they became an integrated community as they mingled with Ottoman society mostly due to the necessities of business life. Thus, the language we call Judeo-Spanish today was developed.

Ladino/Judeo-Spanish/The Jewish Language

Since Judeo-Spanish was the language spoken by the Jews in the Ottoman Empire, it has become known as a “Jewish language.” Most Sephardic Jews named this language as “Djudezmo” or “Djudio/Djidio,” which means “Jewish language” as well. Furthermore, the primary characteristic that makes Judeo-Spanish language a “Jewish” or “Judeo” language is that almost all the religious terms in the language come from Hebrew and that the Spanish terms that did not suit the Jewish religion were only used after having been corrected. For example, the word used for God in Spanish is “Dios.” The letter and sound “s” at the end of the word is also used as a plural suffix. Yet in the language of the Jews, who attach great importance to monotheism, the word God is “Dio.” That is to say, the letter “s” which may have evoked “more than one God” was immediately removed.

The gradual weakening of the ties with Spain resulted in the false supposition amongst the Sephardis that this language was one exclusively spoken by the Jews. There are many anecdotes on how the Ottoman Jews who encountered travelers or missionaries coming from Spain afterwards took these Catholic Spanish men for Jewish men simply because they were speaking Spanish.

Cultural Interaction

Although the Sephardic community rarely communicated with Spain, they were in continuous contact with their neighbors. Therefore, as a result of this contact they were, quite naturally, influenced by their neighbors in various fields such as music, traditions, cuisine, and language. Thus, having borrowed many words from the neighboring languages of Turkish, Romaic/Greek and Italian, they appropriated these to the Judeo-Spanish language, so much so that it became difficult to recognize the original versions of such words:

“fostan” from “fistan” in Turkish meaning “dress”
“çarukas” from “çarık” in Turkish meaning “slipper”
“piron” from “piruni” in Romaic/Greek meaning “fork”
“presto” from “presto” in Italian meaning “fast”

Of course, this interaction was not one-sided and there were words that passed from Judeo-Spanish language to Turkish by appropriation: “pandispanya” (angel-cake), “kaşar/kaşer” (a kind of yellow cheese), “abaşo” (lower), “boyoz” (a kind of pastry), and “palavra” (lie) are several among these.

Having heard the call to prayer every day, the Sephardi began to use the same maqams in their synagogues. Furthermore, those who said their prayers best in these maqams were named “bilbil” from the Turkish words “bülbül” meaning “nightingale.” Many myths, tales and traditional jokes were borrowed from the Turkish, Bulgarian, and Rum cultural treasures. The Sephardi shared many of the superstitions that are common among Muslim Turks and other cultures. Moreover, just as other religious members, they visited the mausoleums of divine figures like “Telli Baba.”

All these changes, interactions and borrowings lasted throughout the centuries under the roof of the Ottoman Empire where there was no pressure of language. Furthermore, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new influence began to make its presence felt: the French Revolution and its ideals of “liberty, fraternity and equality.” The emergence of a French-Semite relationship among the Sephardi as well as a French-Turkic relationship throughout the Ottoman Empire gave way to the mushrooming of French-language Alliance Israélite Universelle schools throughout the empire. The total numbers of these French-language schools attended by the children of the Sephardi were 115, with 52 of them being on the European side and 63 on the Asian side. As a natural consequence of this, French gradually became the cultural language of the educated of the whole society, no matter if they were members of a minority or the majority.

With the Alliance schools and the education, they offered, the Judeo-Spanish language was exposed to a new influence: the influence of French. Thanks to the French language, the Sephardi encountered the Latin alphabet and Western culture. Those who had written Judeo-Spanish in the “Rashi” alphabet, which consists of an adaptation of Hebrew letters, by then, realized that it could also be written in the Latin alphabet. Since the education was in French, the graduates of the Alliance schools eventually formed an elite social class, who used the Judeo-Spanish language only for communicating merely with their parents, relatives or with those who did not receive education in these schools. Thus, a social division emerged both in terms of use of langauge and of social structure.

The French influence that manifested itself in the 1860s did not of course suffice to sweep away the Judeo-Spanish culture. The French language’s social influence reached its apogee in three generations and it rapidly began to decline in the latter generation. Moreover, following the 1920s, the waning of the influence of both the French and the Judeo-Spanish languages was a direct result of the fact that the Turkish language became the mother tongue. The establishment of the Turkish Republic and as a result, the Turkish language having become the compulsory primary education language and the implementation of the policy of “Citizen, speak Turkish” gave way to the gradual loss of the efficiency of Judeo-Spanish language and its gradual oblivion in the Sephardic community. In addition to this, the wish to have a well-spoken Turkish language as a way of avoiding discrimination from other individuals of the larger society rendered Judeo-Spanish a less spoken language. The children who received a Turkish-language education from very early ages began to see Turkish both as their mother tongue and the language they spoke best. As for the languages they learned either from their grandparents or in secondary education (English, French, German, etc.), they began to categorize as foreign languages.


Having significantly decreased with the mass migrations in the Republican period, the Jewish population today is around 20.000, and a great majority of this population lives in Istanbul, while nearly 1,000 dwell in Izmir.

In the 1970s, Judeo-Spanish was already a language that was sinking into oblivion and extinction. Linguists were arguing that it would completely fall into extinction within 10 to 15 years at most. Furthermore, the Turkish Jewry was taking this quite normally, thinking that this language was outdated and even ceased to be a “language” for it was being spoken worse day by day. In the ’70s, Judeo-Spanish even became a language used by the youth to ridicule their elders.

Quite interestingly, just in those years an influx began of foreign researchers and scholars to Turkey. Linguists, musicologists, ethno-musicologists, historians and sociologists flooded into Turkey for the purpose of investigating this “dying” language and of documenting it in its last breaths. Hence, to do this they quite naturally they got in contact with the Jews speaking this language, and asked them to merely speak the Judeo-Spanish language in contrast to speaking other languages. Though regarded as odd in the beginning, the members of the community who were pleased with the scholars’ concerns, began to compete with each other to demonstrate what they knew around these “prestigious” people.

Moreover, the celebration planned for the 500th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the Ottoman territories in 1992, which had been suggested in the beginning of the ’80s further raised the importance of this culture. Within the scope of this anniversary celebration, first the 500th Year Foundation was established, then it was followed by the founding of the 500th Year Jewish Museum.

With the freedom of travel that was granted in the ’80s, Jews began to take advantage of cheap holiday tours and they saw how advantageous it was to know Ladino. They were surprised to see that especially in the U.S.A. Spanish held the status of a second language. Hence, having seen that they were losing this “gratis” language inherited from their parents, they started contemplating.

The chain of coincidences did not finish here. In the beginning of the ’90s, the Cervantes Institute, founded by the Spanish government for the expansion of the Spanish language and culture opened a branch office in Istanbul as well. The Cervantes Institute also opened private courses for the Sephardic Jews, which was attended by many, young and old alike. Thus, another important influence has recently been added to the Judeo-Spanish language spoken by the Turkish Jews: modern Spanish. It is as if the circle has closed and everything has returned to the beginning.

The Status of Judeo-Spanish Abroad

In the ’90s, many steps were taken abroad in an effort to keep the Judeo-Spanish language alive. The “Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino i su Kultura” (National Authority of Ladino and Its Culture), was founded as a governmental institution under the presidency of Yitshak Navon, the 5th Israeli president who is of Sephardic origin, carried out many important activities for the protection of this language and its popularization among the youth. Today the largest Judeo-Spanish speaking community of Ottoman-Turkish origin lives in Israel. The second largest one with a population of 20,000 is the Turkish Jews. At two major universities of Israel (Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion Universities) Judeo-Spanish language and culture departments have been opened, while other courses in this language are being offered.

In many European countries (Italy, France, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Germany, England, Croatia, etc.), the Judeo-Spanish language and culture have become a field of research and a seminar subject. At the international congress held in Paris by UNESCO in 2002, it was stated that Judeo-Spanish is a language in danger of extinction and several measures were offered in order to prevent this process.

In the past few years, Spain officially recognized Judeo-Spanish as a variant of Spanish, and with Casa Sefarad which was opened in Madrid in the beginning of 2007 as an affiliated organization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ministry, the investigation and protection of this culture has been ascended to state-level.

The proliferation of the Internet and of virtual means of communication has promoted the foundation of a virtual group called “Ladinokomunita,” which has become a group with more than 1,500 members from all over the world, communicating exclusively in this language.

Today in Turkey

The Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center founded at the end of 2003 with the initiative of Silvyo Ovadya, the Turkish Jewish Community Leader of the period, has carried out a good many activities in the name of the protection and archiving of the Judeo-Spanish language and culture. The most important among these activities is the preparation and publication of El Amaneser, the 24-page monthly supplement of Şalom newspaper that has been published with one page in Judeo-Spanish since 1984. While El Amaneser is the only monthly newspaper published completely in Judeo-Spanish throughout the world, Şalom is again the only newpaper publishing one page in Judeo-Spanish every week.

Today the mother tongue of Turkey’s Jewish community is Turkish. Judeo-Spanish has long lost its characteristic as a domestic language. According to a study I conducted in 2005, the last people dwelling in Turkey, whose mother tongue is Judeo-Spanish were born in 1945 and for those who were born afterwards, Judeo-Spanish has the status of a second language. In other words, when all those born in 1945 pass away, there will remain no one in Turkey, who speaks Judeo-Spanish as their mother tongue.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.