Judeo-Spanish--also known as Ladino--mixes 16th-century Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and other languages.

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spanish mosqueSpanyol is perhaps the most commonly used among speakers of the language, with its unmistakable reference to their linguistic and cultural origins. Its widespread use is confirmed by the Modern Hebrew coinage Spanyolit (Spanyol + Heb. suffix for forming language names), the name by which the language was referred to until quite recently in Israel. Ladino, probably the earliest attested name, has the widest currency today, and certainly so in Israel where the largest speech-communities in the modern world are to be found. The term has another application which is discussed below.

The names Judezmo and Judió/Jidió, which are registered in some 19th- and early 20th-century communal publications, clearly have the function of underlining a Jewish identification among speakers. Judezmo is the Spanish word for "Judaism", and, for this reason, is used by certain scholars today who wish, on ideological grounds, to draw a semantic equation between Judezmo and Yiddish; however, it seems rather late in the day to rename the language. Faced by this terminological plurality, scholarship has generally opted for the more descriptive and neutral "Judeo-Spanish."

In the western Mediterranean, the language is frequently referred to as hakitia (formed on Moroccan Arabic haka "to converse" + diminutive suffix), although it is interesting to note that with the renewed impact of Modern Spanish in this area in the 19th century, the term is reserved by speakers to describe an artificial language of humor which abounds in archaic forms of Spanish and Hispanicized Arabisms, or else to the language as spoken in some distant past. However, though it is more similar to Modern Spanish than its eastern counterpart, the language continues to preserve many characteristic features.

Up to the beginning of the 20th century the language was almost always written in Hebrew characters using the standard Hebrew alphabet with some modifications, mostly in the form of diacritical marks, to accommodate Hispanic phonemes. The earliest texts appeared in "square" characters either with or without vowels, but the bulk of printed material is in a cursive (rabbinic) script. Some early manuscripts preserve a cursive script known as solitreo, which is still in use among native speakers in personal correspondence, for example.

Origins of the Language

Two views about the origins of JS prevail. One holds that Jews in medieval Spain spoke the same language as their non-Jewish contemporaries, while drawing on Hebrew terms to express religio-cultural concepts not current in Spanish (for example, Shabbat), and preserving, at the same time, a number of archaisms. The language thus acquires a separate linguistic identity only after 1492.

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Dr. Isaac Benabu is a professor in the Institute of Languages, Literature and Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.