Spain honours Ladino language of Jewish exiles
More than five centuries after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled Spain’s Jewish population, the still-spoken language of the exiles is to be formally honoured by the country’s leading linguistic authority.
The Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) has announced plans to create a Judeo-Spanish branch in Israel that will sit alongside the 23 existing academies dedicated to the Spanish languages across Latin America and in countries such as Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines.
Speakers of Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, fled Spain and settled elsewhere in Europe as well as in the Middle East, north Africa and Latin America.
The director of the RAE, Darío Villanueva, described Judeo-Spanish as “an extraordinarily important cultural and historical phenomenon” that was overdue an academy of its own.
“The Jews who were expelled in 1492 dispersed around Europe and the Americas, taking with them the Spanish language as it was spoken at the time of their expulsion,” he told the Guardian.
“All of this has been miraculously preserved over the centuries. There’s literature, folklore, translations of the Bible and even modern newspapers written in Ladino.”
Not only did Ladino preserve many archaic Spanish words, Villanueva said, it was also influenced by the languages of the countries in which the refugees settled.
Villanueva said nine Ladino specialists had so far been appointed to help pave the way for the new institution, which will form part of the Association of Spanish Language Academies.
“Through these nine academics we can now [lay the foundations] for a Judeo-Spanish academy to be based in Israel, just as we did in the 19th century with the Latin American academies.”
He added: “The idea isn’t to absorb Ladino into modern Spanish, it’s the opposite: to preserve it.”
Isaac Querub, the president of Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities, welcomed the move to recognise what he called the “rich and profound cultural legacy” of Ladino.
“It’s the language that mothers have used to rock their babies to sleep with for more than five centuries,” he said. “It’s the language that’s been used to pass down recipes and the one that is spoken in the intimacy of home. Even after all these hundreds of years, it’s still being used.”
Querub said the move was one of the encouraging steps that Spain had recently taken to make up for the injustices of 1492, but he said he would prefer the institute to be based in Spain rather than Israel.
Shmuel Refael, director of the Salti Centre for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said the language represented a “culture and an identity” for the Sephardic Jews whose community developed on the Iberian peninsula before 1492.
He estimated there were around 400,000 people in Israel with some knowledge of the language. “It depends on what you consider a ‘speaker’ to be: someone who knows a few words of the language, or someone who can read and write the language,” he said.
Two years ago, both Spain and Portugal brought in laws to facilitate the return of the descendants of the thousands of Jews who were forced from the countries at the end of the 15th century.
The Spanish government said its offer of citizenship was intended to correct the “historical wrong” in which the country’s Jewish population was banished, forced to convert to Catholicism or burned at the stake.
Portugal said that although it was impossible to make amends for what had been done, the offer of nationality represented “an attribution of a right”.