200,000 People Still Speak Medieval Spanish?

When I wrote this article in 2018, I mistakenly thought so. Since then I’ve read more about Ladino, language of the Jewish diaspora from Spain. Many aspects of Medieval Spanish grammar, pronunciation, and even some spelling have been preserved by the Jewish communities that were founded in Turkey and Morocco. New words from the host countries entered in the language, even a few English words are in modern Ladino.

The Sephardic story begins with a decree. Imagine the government decides you must change your religion, go into exile, or be executed. On 31 March 1492, the Jewish population of Spain was given until 31 July to make that decision in the Alhambra Decree or the Edict of Expulsion. That’s only four months! They were only allowed to take what they could carry, although money and gold were not allowed to leave the country. Most of their resources were left in Spain, sold at liquidation prices. The Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, wanted to keep maximum treasure for their own coffers. Curious about the Decree? See a copy of the document with the Spanish transcribed and an English translation.

Djudeo-Espanyol or Ladino are names for the language the Jewish population conserved when they were forced to leave Spain in 1492. This language is sometimes compared to Yiddish, in that it was preserved for centuries by a Jewish population exiled from their homes, but instead of German as its base, it uses Spanish. The people are called Sephardic, from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. The speakers often call their language simply, Spanyol. It has similarities to the Medieval Spanish that the expulsed Jewish families took with them with Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic words added to the mix.

200,000 Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism in 1492 and some 100,000 to 200,000 (estimates vary) left. Jewish backers had financed the Catholic Spanish King’s Reconquista of Southern Spain. However, in the name of Nation Building, Fernando and Isabel asked for unwavering Christian loyalty in the pursuit of; one language, one religion, one Spain. When the Hebrews left, these foolish heads of country lost medical practitioners, intellectuals, financiers, book printers, playwrights, and eliminated a culture that had been in Spain for over 1500 years.

The Sephardim (Spanish Jews) emigrated to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. Sadly, some 20,000 died during their journeys. However, Jews were welcomed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who sent his navy to pick up the persecuted exiles and transfer them to his area. Sultan Bayezid II wanted the printing press knowledge, the insights into Europe, and the resources these immigrants represented. Additionally, as a civically minded ruler who had build a large medical facility with a training center in Edirne in 1488, he was interested in welcoming the emigrating Jewish physicians.

Bayezid II made fun of Fernando II of Aragón and Isabel of Castilla for their harebrained decision. He is quoted as saying, “You venture to call Fernando a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

Turkey was a refuge for Sephardic Jews for five centuries. The situation had its challenges; the Jews lived apart with their own schools and civic organizations. From a positive perspective, that arrangement allowed them to conserve their unique language and cultural traditions. The Turkish respite saved the Sephardim and Djudeo-espanyol from extinction. However, once Turkey worked on nation building of its own in the 1930s, the Turkish language only sentiment dominated the country and Ladino began to decline.

Today an estimated 200,000 Espanyol speakers can be found across the world. Many now live in Israel. To preserve their heritage, several of the remaining cultural members formed a website for online conversations called ladinokomunita. They now have weekly Zoom meetings to keep the language alive. Click here to look up a word in this fascinating language.  Very few Sephardic Jews in Turkey today know how to say more than curse and food words in the language of their ancestors. No speakers hold Espanyol as their primary language any longer, only as a secondary one. Will it survive to the next generation? Or has that ship sailed? Only 200,000 souls still understand parts of Djudeo Espanyol. Are they teaching their children what they know?

To circle back to the first question. Where would you go if you needed to leave your country forever at the drop of a hat? I think I might move our family to Montevideo, Uruguay or Valdivia, Chile. What would you take with you? Your language?

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco! Ole! -Rebecca

P.S. I’ve researched this topic for a week, and there are sure to be errors in my short summary of 526 years of Sephardic history. I invite you to make corrections in your comments. Gracias! -R

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en ¿200.000 personas hablan el español medieval hoy en día?

Revised August 29, 2022

Turkish Navy Ship During Sultan Bayezid II’s Reign – Rescue Ships Sent to Recover Spanish Jews       Art: Rebecca Cuningham
Rebecca Cuningham

11 thoughts on “200,000 People Still Speak Medieval Spanish?

  1. My favorite Sephardic songs so far include Bibilicos and Adio Kerida. One that seems very amazing to me is Fel Shara, which seems to randomly shuffle through words in Arabic, English, French, Italian, and Ladino 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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