Jewish Language Research Website





Description by Ora Schwarzwald

Judeo-Spanish is a language used by Jews originating from Spain. It flourished in the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain and continued its existence there (Penny 1996). Some of the expelled Jews settled in North Africa and used the Judeo-Spanish variety known as Hakitia (Haketia) (Benoliel 1977). In the beginning of the 21st century, Judeo-Spanish is an endangered language for lack of new native speakers.

Names of the Language

The language is known as Spanyolit or Espanyolit (in Israel), Espanyol, Ladino, Romance, Franco Espanyol, Judeo-Espanyol, Jidyo or Judyo, Judezmo, Zargon, etc., in the Ottoman Empire communities, and either Hakitia or just Espanyol in North Africa. Other names are used as well, but Judezmo (meaning Judaism, too), Ladino, or Judeo-Espanyol (Judeo-Spanish) are the most common. It should be noted that among some scholars Ladino is used to denote the Judeo-Spanish mirror-image type language of liturgical translations from Hebrew.


Jews used Ibero Romance in Medieval Christian Spain as their main vernacular language. Apparently, Judeo-Spanish was developed at that time (Marcus 1962; Varvaro 1987; Revah 1970: 238-240). The Jews formed a religious ethno-sociological group that was different in customs and beliefs from the non-Jewish population. They used an extensive Hebrew-Aramaic fused component in their language. The linguistic similarity between Hakitia and the eastern Judeo-Spanish communities after the expulsion cannot be explained as accidental, unless developed in Medieval Spain. Some Iberian Spanish linguistic forms were adopted by the Jews and preserved in their speech while abandoned by their neighbors. Finally, they used aljamiado (Spanish text written in Hebrew characters) texts while still in Spain (Bunis 1992; Hassán 1988; Schwarzwald 1999).

After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Judeo-Spanish developed independently of Iberian Spanish. Written Judeo-Spanish in the 16th century followed Iberian Spanish literary norms, but the distance from Spain and the development of Judeo-Spanish resulted in literary and linguistic differences in the Judeo-Spanish of later centuries. Vernacular forms entered the written language, and many words and expressions from the local languages (Turkish, Greek, and Balkan languages) were fused in Judeo-Spanish.

From World War I to the present, Judeo-Spanish has been marked by a gradual shift from Hebrew orthography to Roman script and by an increase of French and Italian influence that replaced local Turkish, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew elements by more "Romanicized" forms (Hassán 1995).

At the turn of the 21st century, the number of speakers is gradually decreasing and the quantity of creative writing is growing smaller. Today the youngest native speakers are over fifty years old; with their death, Judeo-Spanish will cease to exist as a native language. Harris (1994: 197-229) lists 24 reasons for the present status of Judeo-Spanish, including the attitude towards Judeo-Spanish and what it represented, the geographical dispersion of speakers, their assimilation into other communities, and their decrease in number after the Holocaust.

Orthography and Spelling

Judeo-Spanish has been written in Hebrew characters later referred to as Rashi script and in handwriting called Solitreo. Printed materials were written in either Rashi script or in square Hebrew letters, rarely vocalized. Judeo-Spanish developed a conventional spelling system to represent Judeo-Spanish words in Hebrew characters, which became standardized only during the 19th century (Pascual Recuero 1988). During the 20th century many of the Judeo-Spanish texts were written in Roman characters rather than Hebrew ones, and this orthographic change is controversial among scholars. The most popular conventions used are those established in Aki Yerushalayim (Shaul, ed., 1979-), though other options are in common use, especially by the Spanish school for Sephardic philology (Hassán 1978).

Literary Genres

Sephardic Jews, like other Jewish communities, considered Hebrew to be the language of learning, the holy language. Therefore, a great amount of the literature written by Sephardic Jews was in Hebrew rather than in Judeo-Spanish (Romero 1992a). Very little was preserved in Judeo-Spanish prior to the expulsion, some exceptions being Coplas de Yosef by an anonymous writer, Proverbios Morales by Sem Tob de Carrión (Ardutiel) (Díaz-Mas 1993, 2001; Díaz-Mas & Mota 1998), and various other aljamiado texts (Minervini 1992). The Kharjas and Taqanot Valladolid show the interaction among languages used by the Jews. The women's aljamiado Siddur published by Lazar (1995) is Ladino by definition because it is obviously a translation from a Hebrew text.

After the expulsion from Spain, a variety of Judeo-Spanish texts were published and preserved:

Current publications in Judeo-Spanish are the result of some staunch believers in preserving Judeo-Spanish. The most prominent publication is Aki Yerushalaim: Revista Kulturala Djudeo-Espanyola, founded in 1979 by the editor Moshe Shaul as a supplement for the Israeli Radio broadcasting in Judeo-Spanish. Other publications around the world focus on Judeo-Spanish and Sephardic culture. Shalom (Şalom) Turkish Jewish newspaper in Istanbul includes one page in Judeo-Spanish by Silvio Ovadya. Los Muestros: La boz de los sefardim published in Brussels and edited by Moise Rahmani, is a multilingual quarterly. The articles on history, culture, language, folklore, music, and literature appear in French, English, Spanish, and Judeo-Spanish.

A number of poets, such as Margalit Matityahu, Matilda Koen-Sarano, and Avner Perez in Israel, Rita Gabbai Simantov in Greece, Clarisse Nikoidski in France, and Gloria Ascher in the United States, write or wrote Judeo-Spanish poetry. Since 2001 there has been an active Internet discussion list in Judeo-Spanish, Ladino komunita, moderated by Rachel Bortnick. In several places around the world, there are Sephardic language and culture clubs where Judeo-Spanish is the main mode of communication.

Linguistic Features

Several linguistic features are common to all Judeo-Spanish dialects and distinguish Judeo-Spanish from other varieties of Spanish (Zamora Vicente 1985: 349-377; Bunis 1992: 414-420; Marcus 1965: 70-95; Wagner 1990(I): 116-135). The phonemes /š/ (English sh), /dğ/ (English g in George), and /ž/ (French j in journal) were retained in Judeo-Spanish (in Spanish they became /x/). The phonemes /v/ and /b/ are distinct, while in Spanish they are allophones ([β] and [b]). The equivalents of the Spanish letters <ç> and <z> are pronounced /s/ and /z/, and often Spanish /s/ is realized as [z] between vowels. Historical /s/ before /k/ is pronounced š, and the Spanish swe (spelled sue) is realized in Judeo-Spanish as [sxwe] or [sfwe]. Metathesis occurred in many consonant clusters with d and r ([rd] > [dr]). In some dialects, the Latinate /f/ is preserved in words like favlar ('to speak') and fizhos ('sons'), which became hablar and hijos in Spanish.

Verbs are conjugated with some modifications. The suffixes (1st person), -tes (2nd person singular), and -teš (2nd person plural) are used in the preterit instead of , -ste and -eis in Spanish. The tense system of Judeo-Spanish is less elaborate than Spanish, and compound verbs are frequently formed with the verb tener ('to have, own'), rather than haber ('to have'). The Spanish ustedes formal polite form is absent. Although nos ('us') and nuestro ('our') are used in literary styles, the vernacular forms are mos and muestro, respectively. The Judeo-Spanish diminutive is -iko/-ika rather than Spanish -ito/-ita.

Judeo-Spanish retained a good deal of medieval Spanish vocabulary. Also, a considerable Hebrew-Aramaic component was integrated into the language (Bunis 1993). Hebrew influence is revealed through loan translations as well, as in El Santo Bendicho El ('God'), a reflection of Hebrew haqadoš barux hu ('The Holy One Blessed Be He'), kamino de leche i miel ('good journey', literally: 'a way of milk and honey'), a reflection of ḥalav udvaš ('milk and honey').


The Sephardic Jews carried along dialectal varieties of Medieval Spanish to their various destinations in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. In the beginning they formed separate communities and continued their linguistic and cultural traditions as before. However, due to constant contact with other Judeo-Spanish speakers and with local languages, regional Judeo-Spanish dialects were eventually formed: Eastern Judeo-Spanish, including Belgrade, Sarajevo, Monastir, Bucharest, and Sofia; and Western Judeo-Spanish, including Istanbul, Izmir, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki. An example of the dialect differences can be seen in the following sentence:

The most comprehensive studies of Ottoman Judeo-Spanish dialects were conducted in the beginning of the 20th century by Crews (1935) and Wagner (1990). A serious study of the dialects of the last 150 years in the Ottoman Empire is being conducted today by Aldina Quintana.


Today, four universities in Israel have special programs for the study of Judeo-Spanish: Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, and Tel Aviv University. In Europe, Marie Christine Varol teaches Judeo-Spanish in INALCO in Paris, Michael Halévy in Hamburg, Winfried Busse and Almuth Münch in Berlin, Heinrich Kohring in Tübingen, Elena Romero in Madrid, Béatrice Schmid in Bazel, Dora Mancheva in Sofia. In the United States, Judeo-Spanish is taught regularly at Tufts University by Gloria Ascher. Sporadic courses are offered elsewhere at universities, synagogues, and community centers.

Several textbooks have been published in recent years (Koen-Sarano 1999a, 1999b, translated by G. Ascher as Koen-Sarano 2003, 2002; Shaul 1999; Gattegno & Refael 1995, 1998; Bunis 1999; Varol 1998). Dictionaries have been published as well (Nehamas 1977; Pascual Recuero 1977; Romano 1995 [1933]; Bendayan de Bendelac 1995 (Hakitia); Perahya & Perahya 1998; Perahya et al. 1997; Passy 1999; Benchimol & Koen-Sarano 1999; Kohen & Kohen-Gordon 2000).

Various institutions carry on research and documentation of Sephardic heritage, not necessarily from the linguistic point of view, e.g. in Israel (Ben Zvi Institute, Misgav Yerushalayim, Instituto Maale Adumim, National Authority of Ladino), in Spain (Instituto Arias Montano), in France (Association Vidas Largas), in the United States (the American Society of Sephardic Studies, the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University) and several other centers in Europe which sponsor conferences, concerts, film festivals, folklore evenings, etc.

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)

Online Resources

Online Courses
Online Dictionary
  • Online dictionary [Djudeo-Espanyol to Castillian, English and Turkish]
  • Online Corpora