Jewish Studies Ladino
Olga Borovaya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0013


Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) is an Ibero-Romance language used by Sephardim (descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews) in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean from the 16th century to the mid-20th century. Most Sephardi Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s and their descendants settled in the Ottoman lands from the 16th to the early 17th centuries. Hence they were cut off from Spain while its dominant dialect was still in the process of active evolution, so that Ladino developed in isolation from Castilian Spanish and in close contact with numerous other languages and dialects. Consequently, its phonology, morphology, and syntax are mainly those of 15th-century Castilian, while its vocabulary includes a significant number of borrowings from other Romance languages and dialects as well as Hebrew, Turkish, and Balkan languages. With some local variations, the major influences on Ladino were Hebrew on the syntax of the written language and the vocabulary; Turkish, Portuguese, and Italian on the vocabulary; and, starting in the last third of the 19th century, French at all levels. The vernacular of a stateless people that always existed in a diglossic relationship with at least one high-prestige competitor (Hebrew, French, Turkish, or Greek), Ladino was not standardized and almost never formally taught. In the 20th century, the nation-states that replaced the Ottoman Empire discouraged or even suppressed the use of Ladino as a minority language, which accelerated the loss of most of its functions. The Holocaust dealt it the last blow by eliminating more than a third of Ladino speakers and dislocating most of the others. As a result, almost no monolingual speakers of Ladino were left. In 1999, the UNESCO Red Book Report on Endangered Languages classified Ladino as “seriously endangered,” that is, a language with twenty to tens of thousands of speakers but without children among them. Currently, most native speakers of Ladino live in Israel, Turkey, and the United States.

General Overviews

Since it is impossible to discuss a language without being acquainted with the history and culture of the people that uses it, and nonspecialists are generally unfamiliar with Sephardi history, it is necessary to start with an introduction to this subject. Rodrigue 2002 provides a framework and the basic terms that enable readers to follow the general discussions concerning Ladino. Among the books and articles produced between World War II and the early 1990s, it is hard to find a purely scholarly work on Ladino that presents different positions without engaging in passionate polemics. Among the first truly academic studies are Lleal 1992 and Harris 1994. Lleal 1992 is a comprehensive diachronic overview of Ladino that contains many suggestions and hypotheses later developed by other linguists. Harris 1994 is a detailed sociolinguistic study that summarizes the history of Ladino, its functions, and the debates around it. However, since the author is not a historian, her summary of Sephardi history is flawed. For an overview of Sephardi history one should turn to Rodrigue 2002. Lazar and Quintana 2007 is a short overview intended for nonspecialists, whereas Zamora Vicente 1989 is a longer article meant for linguists. Another article meant for linguists is Friedman and Joseph 2014, which studies Ladino as a member of the Balkan Sprachbund (a group of geographically interconnected languages that through contact have come to share certain characteristics). Ladino is of particular importance in this field because the existence of other Ibero-Romance varieties, some of them are also spoken by Jews, “provides a control for distinguishing convergence from coincidence.” Quintana 2012 examines the evolution of Ladino’s social functions in the phonic and graphic media vis-à-vis Hebrew. This insightful and innovative study, however, is unnecessarily complicated and sometimes lacks historical evidence. Bunis 1981, while obviously outdated, can be useful because it lists the main topics that were discussed in the field before its appearance. Wagner 1930 illustrates the state of the field before World War II.

  • Bunis, David M. Sephardic Studies: A Research Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1981.

    An annotated bibliography of works in Ladino linguistics, divided into thematic sections.

  • Friedman, Victor A. and Brian D. Joseph. “Lessons from Judezmo about the Balkan Sprachbund and contact linguistics.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 226 (2014): 3–23.

    The study asks whether Ladino is a “Balkan language in the sense of participating in the linguistic convergence with other languages in the Balkans. The answer is “a firm” yes, in some respects.”

  • Harris, Tracy K. Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

    A comprehensive description of Ladino and a summary of its history and the main debates in the field. Each chapter is a self-contained discussion of a specific question. This well-written book remains the best sociolinguistic monograph on Ladino and can be used for both undergraduate and graduate courses. Includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Lazar, Moshe, and Aldina Quintana. “Ladino.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. 2d ed. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Detroit: Macmillan, 2007.

    A concise description of Ladino and a summary of its history.

  • Lleal, Coloma. El judezmo: El dialecto sefardí y su historia. Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona, 1992.

    A comprehensive history of Ladino. One of the first studies to show that it is not an extremely conservative language or a frozen 15th-century Castilian. Contains a bibliography and an annotated anthology of Ladino texts. Should be used in graduate courses.

  • Quintana, Aldina. “From Linguistic Segregation Outside the Common Framework of Hispanic Languages to a De Facto Standard.” In Studies in Modern Hebrew and Jewish Languages Presented to Ora (Rodrigue) Schwarzwald. Edited by Malka Muchnik and Tsvi Sadan, 697–714. Jerusalem: Carmel, 2012.

    Offers a sociolinguistic description of Ladino as a pluricentric language and analyzes the formation, in the 18th century, of two de facto standards. Can be used in graduate courses.

  • Rodrigue, Aron. “The Ottoman Diaspora: The Rise and Fall of Ladino Literary Culture.” In Cultures of the Jews: A New History. Edited by David Biale, 863–885. New York: Schocken, 2002.

    A brief yet comprehensive overview of the cultural history of Ottoman Jewry produced by a leading scholar in the field. Focuses on Ladino print culture and the changing functions of this language. Discusses at length the role of French in Sephardi culture. Can be used both in graduate and in undergraduate courses.

  • Wagner, Max Leopold. “Carácteres generales del judeo-español de Oriente”. Revista de Filología Española Anejo 12 (1930).

    A short synchronic description of Ladino, produced when it was in active use.

  • Zamora Vicente, Alonso. “Judeo-español.” In Dialectología española. 2d ed. By Alonso Zamora Vicente, 349–377. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1989.

    This description treats Ladino as a dialect of Spanish and focuses mainly on its deviations from the latter.

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