Judeo-Spanish Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Ladino is a derivation of the medieval Castilian Spanish, which is preserved among the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain (called Sefardim or Sephardim) in 1492. At present time they are estimated to be about 700,000 and the major part of them is established in the State of Israel. No more than 200,000 are active Ladino speakers and these are mainly persons of old age. Most of them originate in the Balkans and Asia Minor, but, since World War II, were scattered around the world. About 11,000 speakers now reside in Israel, and many live in New York City and Buenos Aires.

Origin and History

The majority of the Jews, expelled in 1492 from Spain, fled mainly to the Ottoman empire and settled in the Balkans (especially in Thesaloniki in modern Greece, Constantinople, Sarajevo, Izmir), the Middle East and North Africa (Tangier, Tetuán, Fez, Algiers, Cairo), while others found havens in Portugal, which soon afterwards, in 1497, has to made the practice of Judaism a crime punishable by death, and in Italy.

During the course of the next century and a half, many Jews that were obliged to convert (called conversos, cristianos novos new Christians or marranos swines), also left the Iberian peninsula and settled in the Ottoman empire and Amsterdam. There they returned to the practice of Judaism.

These Jews also continued to speak Spanish and added to the ranks of the older Judeo-Spanish speaking communities, perhaps intensifying certain features of Judeo-Spanish that resemble Portuguese. However, we may appropriately characterize Judeo-Spanish as an heir to the Castilian Spanish spoken in Spain at the close fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth.

Earlier refugees, who settled in the Middle East, continued to produce learned works in a literary archaic form of Judeo-Spanish (called Ladino). The spoken dialects have differentiated considerably from this written language, mainly by borrowing from the local languages. After further dispersion during and after World War II, these dialects are now threatened with extinction, though Ladino survives with a mainly religious function.

Names of the Language

Judeo-Spanish is called differently among the communities in the various countries: (e)shpanyol / (e)spanyol (in Israel and Turkey) or (e)shpanyolit / (e)spanyolit (in Israel), spanyolo (in Israel), dzudezmo (in Bulgaria, Macedonia, partly in Greece and Rumania), hakitía (in Morocco); the most common self-designation is dzidió. Untill the end of the 19th century the term Ladino was also largely used to denote even the spoken language. In the scientific studies there occur the terms Sephardic, Judeo-Spanish, Hispano-Judaic (Sp. judeo-español), Judesmo, Ladino, Jidió...


The dialects in the Eastern Mediterranean are classified in two groups:

Both groups are, however, marked by words and grammatical forms of Portuguese origin, and they have also essential common features with thedialects of southern Spain (namely seseo and yeismo).

The dialect spoken in Morocco (hakitía) is rather different from the above mentioned dialects. The speech in Palestine is not systematically described.


The Lord's prayer in Judeo-Spanish: A passage from the translation of the New Testament (published in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1922).Since the 11th century Judeo-Spanish was written with Hebrew alphabet.

In the 19th century the Latin alphabet was gradually introduced for the non-religious writings. The orthographical conventions were not strictly established, however, and there were influences from French, Italian, Turkish and even English. Now orthography is more standardized, but it still differ from modern Spanish.


Judeo-Spanish is rather conservative, preserving the 15th century Spanish pronunciation with some kind of a Portuguese bias. There are 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and 25 consonants, among them the Old Spanish [], [], [t], [d]; there are oppositions among the dialects: [w] vs. [ß], [h] vs. [x].


The grammar also has archaic features -- some Old Spanish verbal endings were preserved and the usted / ustedes forms were never adopted. Judeo-Spanish has simple Pluperfect, and the compound tenses are constructed both with aver (= Sp. haber) and tener.


Vocabulary is rich in Hebraisms, concerning the religious practices and private life aspects, and Arabisms. A lot of Oriental words (mainly Turkish) were adopted after the Sephardim established in the Ottoman empire. Later on the vocabulary underwent an intensive French influence. The local dialects have borrowed Italian, Greek and Bulgarian words.

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