Jewish Language Research Website



Description by Yaakov Bentolila

The Origin of Haketia

Jews were expelled from Spain starting in 1391, followed by greater numbers in 1492. These exiles ("megorašim" in Hebrew) included an important contingent that settled in North Africa, in Morocco and Algeria, where they continued using the Spanish they brought with them. However, after two or three centuries, those living in the main cities of the Maghreb assimilated into the indigenous Jewish communities (the "tošabim"), and adopted their Judeo-Arabic dialect.

The communities established in the north, in parts of Algeria and later in Gibraltar (Benabu 2008) continued using Spanish. However, the influence of local (Muslim or Jewish) Arab dialects, together with the traditional Hebrew superstratum, resulted in the evolution of a Judeo-Spanish variant known as Haketia. The name Haketia probably comes from the Arabic root حكي (ḤKY) meaning 'speech' or 'chitchat,' as it is an oral variant that borrows many words from the local Maghrebian dialects.

The dialect also presents a higher written register, sharing in the general Judeo-Spanish (coiné) language common to the whole Sephardíc diaspora (Bentolila 2008). In Morocco the name "Ladino" was reserved for this variety. The register avoids using typical vernacular words (Bentolila 1999). It was used for translation of religious texts, such as the Passover Haggadá, sermons and rabbinical treatises, texts that understandably borrow a high proportion of words from Hebrew. We will use the name Haketia for both the oral and written varieties.

Overview of the Language


The first researcher of Haketia was José Benoliel, who wrote a detailed description of the dialect. His essay, which offers the first Glossary of Haketia, was serialized in the prestigious Boletín de la Real Academia Española (Benoliel 1926-1952). Benoliel's work provides the most important knowledge base for Haketia. He saved from oblivion many details in the fields of cultural heritage (oral texts, proverbs, etc.), grammar (phonology and morphology), and vocabulary. However, some of the features he listed had limited usage, due to the process of re-hispanización of Haketia already begun, as evidenced later with the discovery of the Protocols of the Community Council of Tangier dating from the second half of the 19th century (Pimienta & Pimienta 2010). Modern Spanish influence is evident not only in documents of formal register like these protocols, but also in manuscripts of narrative and popular character dating from the early nineteenth century (Bentolila 2007a).

Many of the linguistic features of Haketia have evolved under the influence of modern Spanish. Due to the re-Hispanization of Haketia in recent generations, many archaic features, evidenced in ancient texts, have disappeared from current use. Some however are preserved in sayings and proverbs. Many have been brought to life again, sometimes in an exaggerated way, in humorous texts of contemporary authorship.

Phonetics and Phonology

The following are characteristics of the phonetics and phonology of Haketia:


The Stress

Spanish words stressed in the antepenultimate syllable are reproduced as acute in Haketia: músicamuzicá ('music'), últimaultimá ('last' FEM.).

The Verb

The verb presents three conjugations in line with Spanish, identifiable by the suffixes: {-ar} (e.g. mirar 'look, see'), {-er} (e.g. comer 'eat') and {-ir} (e.g. abrir 'open'); although some verbs that are conjugated in Spanish in {-ir}, would articulate in Haketia according to the second conjugation; for example: durmer ('sleep', SP dormir), dizer ('tell', SP decir), cubrer ('cover', SP cubrir).

Haketia verbal forms coincide in the majority of cases with the Spanish. The following table shows the principal cases where Haketia differs from Spanish:

Spanish Haketia Forms
somos somos/semos 1PL.PRS.IND
fue fue/fe 3SG.PST.IND
fueron feron 3PL.PST.IND
entrad entrái 2PL.IMP
toméis tomís 2PL.PRS.SBJV
tuviereis tuvieris 2PL.IMPF.SBJV


In addition to an important number of Spanish words, the Haketia lexicon contains words of both dialectal Arabic and Hebrew origin. A survey of the entries recorded in Benoliel's glossary (Benoliel 1977) shows 34.5% Arabic terms compared to 18.5% Hebrew.

Words of Arabic Origin

Words of Arabic origin (see: Bunis 2008; El-Madkouri Maataoui 2004; Israel Garzón 2013: 63-68) serve to designate objects and concepts from everyday life; e.g.: zinzelá ('earthquake'), estormía ('cushion'), rabuz ('bellow'), meɦrez ('mortar'). In higher registers, religious writings and other formal records of the language, there is a clear tendency to exclude them. For example, sermons given at ceremonies like bar mitzvahs and memorials use a language that members of those communities would call Ladino, based on Spanish and Hebrew only, clearly avoiding the use of Arabic words (Bentolila 1999). The communities differed regarding the proportion of Arabic words in the currently spoken Haketia, with more in Tangier and Chauen, for example, and less in Tetuan.

Words of Hebrew Origin

The Hebrew component (see Bentolila 2015) assumes the expression of religious and cultural concepts, e.g. šabbat ('shabbat'), Pésaḥ ('Passover'), šabuot ('Pentecost'); legal concepts, e.g. neeman ('trustee'), get ('bill of divorce'); historical and sociological concepts, e.g. galut ('exile'), kehiŀlá ('community'), goyim ('gentiles').

Hebrew nouns and adjectives have been incorporated with notable frequency, but verbs are scarce e.g. niftar ('died'), nizkar ('mentioned'), used mainly in set phrases like min haššamáyim tenuḥamu ('be comforted from heaven'), or lexicalized, like misabberaj ('blessing') or vaydabber ('topic'). To express actions using Hebrew words, Haketia resorts to verbs such as hazer ('to do'), dezir or dizer ('to say'), etc.: hazer ḥanifut ('to do flattery=to flatter'), hazer una kusiá ('to do a difficulty=to raise an objection'), dezir berajjá ('to say a blessing'), dezir tefillá ('to say a prayer').

Any Hebrew word or expression may be inserted into both oral and written texts in Haketia. There are however cases in which Haketia offers its own version of a word that does not appear in the Bible and, therefore, lacks canonical configuration; for example: kemeˁá ('amulet') and taŀlet ('prayer shawl'), other traditions exhibit kaméaˁ and taŀlit respectively, etc. There is another interesting case when a word is created in Haketia from a Hebrew root, as in hamayot ('making a fuss') or doḥaká ('trouble').

Hebrew words integrated into Haketia may exhibit changes in phonetics, morphology or meaning, as illustrated by the following examples:

Phonetic Change

/š/ → [s], for example: šammáš ('caretaker') → sammás; kušiá ('difficulty, question') → kusiá.

Morphological Change

The use of Spanish prefixes and suffixes, e.g. enkaˁasarse ('to get angry') from Hebrew kaˁas ('anger'), desḥamezar ('to clean for Passover') from Hebrew ḥāmēṣ ('bread and the like').

Modification of Meaning

šajén (HB 'neighbor') → sajén (HK 'Christian, Spanish'). The change of meaning of a word is in itself a phenomenon of merging, even without any alteration of phonetics or morphology: ḥarboná (HB Biblical proper name → HK 'beating, reprimanding'), ḥalḥalá (HB 'fear, quake' → HK 'hurry, trouble, urgency').

Loan Translations

Another category of merging is found in translations in which Hebrew words taken from canonical texts are replaced with the corresponding Spanish expression, generally known from Ladino versions: el amo del ˁolámribbōnō šel ˁōlām (HB 'master of [the] world'), hiĵas de Israelbᵉnōṯ yiśrāēl (HB 'daughters of Israel').

On the other hand some Hebrew expressions may show loan translations from Spanish. For example: ˀōr lᵉyōm šel ˀarbāˁā yāmim lᵉḥ[odeš] nisān miš[šᵉnaṯ] tqṣd ('On the eve of the 4th of Nissan 5594') – both šel and mi- translate the Spanish preposition "de."

Decline of Haketia

As early as 1860, with the short two-year Spanish occupation of Tetuan, speakers of Haketia were increasingly exposed to modern Spanish, and with the establishment of the Spanish protectorate in 1912 it did not take long for the young people to favor the use of modern Spanish, a prestigious European language. Haketia was thus relegated to use mainly in domestic contexts. In the diglossia that evolved, Haketia became the Low Variant, especially among the youngsters of the community. Indeed, the Spanish regime was offering not only seductive distractions, but also cultural emancipation and higher education. Modern Spanish, with all its linguistic richness, became their first language.

Benoliel's description of Haketia (Benoliel 1926-1952) had already, during the second quarter of the XXth century, conferred on the language some status worthy of respect. A new appreciation of Haketia evolved after the achievement of the longed-for western-oriented emancipation and was aided by the distancing of communities immigrating to other countries. From afar, when Haketia could be seen not as defective Spanish, but as an idiosyncratic dialect worthy of interest, evoking its memory brought an increasing nostalgia with the resumption of some of its uses – particularly encouraging and consolidating community identity. The renewed interest in Haketia was shared both by learned persons and laymen, some very talented and creative, producing literary writings and theatrical works, often humorous in nature.

In communities living in the diaspora, outside the State of Israel, Haketia often fills the role normally played by Hebrew in naming religious and traditional concepts. For example, what is called in Israel a bar-mitsvá, is called in the Haketia diaspora tefeŀlimes; berit milá ('circumcision') is called sercusión; kaŀlá ('the fiancée') is called novia; roš haššaná ('new year') is called rosaná; šabbat ('sabath') is called Sabbá or Sabbad; taref ('unclean') is called terefá; etc.