By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
Last November, the Spanish government announced it would grant citizenship to descendants of Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. In the first month, the government received 6000 requests.
Little known to most gentiles, the Expulsion of Spain’s Jewish population had a tremendous impact on the history of Spain, and the Spanish language. It stunted the development of Spain at a time when it could ill-afford it. And at the same time, it created the first large migration of Spanish-speakers outside of Spain.
The year 1492 is forever associated with Columbus’ voyage to the New World and the fall of Granada, but the Expulsion of the Jews was the most immediate and dramatic event of that year.
In his first voyage’s journal, Columbus remarked that he set sail five days after the Expulsion of the Jews, on August 3rd, 1492. It would not have been possible for him to set sail earlier: Spain’s ports were swamped with exiles and their belongings.
The cause of the Expulsion was a combination of religious fanaticism and politics which all culminated in the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1480. In 1492, after 10 years of lobbying Spain’s monarchs to force Jews to convert to Christianity or be exiled, Spain’s Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada finally obtained permission to have them banished.
It is impossible to know exactly how many Jews went into exile. Most scholars agree on approximately 100,000, though different findings range from as few as 40,000 to as many as 800,000. All of the world’s Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who were exiled from Spain as the result of the Spanish Inquisition – the term Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word Sefarad for Spain.
The Expulsion of the Jews was a disaster for Spain, psychologically, intellectually and economically. It boosted the legitimacy of the Spanish Inquisition, whose stifling effect would be felt by the society until the 19th century. It also stripped 2% of Spain’s most urbane, educated and affluent inhabitants. At a time when Europe’s economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial, Spain could not afford this loss. The effect was compounded when the Spanish Inquisition managed to have 300,000 Muslims expelled a century later. Such a massive exodus would be an enormous loss for any country at the time – but especially for Spain, which was only a third the size of France.
Many Sephardic Jews and their families rose to great prominence where they settled. Renowned figures include British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani and French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In the United States, prominent Sephardic Jews include the Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, the poet Emma Lazarus, and the actor Hank Azaria.
Despite all the injustice of the Expulsion and the damage it did to Spain, the Expulsion of the Jews had a revolutionary effect on the Spanish language. For the first time in history, Spanish spread massively beyond the peninsula. Dozens of Spanish-speaking Sephardic communities took root in the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, and Northern Europe. In the Mediterranean, Spanish became a trade language, achieving a status it never had had before due to the dominance of Genoa and Venice. Judeo-Spanish became so common in the Ottoman Empire that people mused, “Castilians speak the Jewish language.”
The influence of Judeo-Spanish was the greatest in the Portuguese and Dutch empires, especially because of Portuguese-Jewish planters and the middlemen, who remained in the same place long after the Dutch and the English started divvying up the Portuguese trade empire in 1663.
For generations, even centuries, Spanish Jews maintained their Judeo-Spanish language, which had different names depending on where it was spoken, the most common now being Ladino. Yet, everywhere it was spoken, Ladino remained close to Spanish. About 60 % of the basic vocabulary is Castilian (the rest is mostly Turkisms, Hebrewisms and Arabisms). The spelling, however, evolved to a form even more phonetic than Spanish.
Although it was historically important, Judeo-Spanish is on the brink of extinction, partly because of the Holocaust, partly because the French assimilated many Ladino-speakers of North Africa through French colonialism. The largest Ladino-speaking community is in Israel, with about 100,000 speakers.
Considering how much French was bolstered by the expulsion of some 400,000 French Huguenots and antirevolutionaries, it is curious that the Expulsion of Spain’s Jews, and later of its Muslims, did so little to bolster Spanish as an European language.
This was due to subsequent Spanish kings and their failing European policies as Spain focused its ambition on colonialism and the New World.
One million Spanish migrants would go on to create a totally new type of empire in the New World.
More information about The Expulsion of the Jews and the Spanish Inquisition can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish, to be released in May 2013, St. Martin’s Press.