By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow


The Lemon Tree Book Cover

During research for his book The Lemon Tree, in 2003, author Sandy Tolan heard Ladino spoken in Sofia Bulgaria.

Depends on what you are speaking. Both mean, “heart.” In Spanish, the spelling is corazón. But if you happen to be one of the few remaining Ladino speakers in the world, it’s korason.

What is Ladino exactly? Depending on where Ladino speakers lived, it was called Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Judio, Sefardi, Spanyol, Spagnol, Spañol, Haketia, or Ladino. The two most common names, used interchangeably, are Judeo-Spanish and Ladino, but to complicate things further, many speakers of Ladino refer to their language simply as

Where did it come from?

The Ladino Language is the product of Spain’s famous monarchs Isabel I la Católica (1451–1504) and Fernando II el Católico (1452–1516). The Catholic monarchs, as they would come to be known, were the first rulers to call their kingdom “España,” a decision they made to create a common identity among their Christian, Jewish and Muslim subjects.

If only they had stopped there. In 1478, the monarchs established the Spanish Inquisition to root out “false converts” and create a uniformly Christian empire. In 1492, they wrote the Edict of Expulsion. That gave Spain’s Jews exactly four months to convert, or leave the country.

No one knows exactly how many Jews went into exile. Most scholars agree on the figure of one hundred thousand, though studies range from as many as eight hundred thousand to as few as forty thousand. The massive exodus created large colonies of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews from Istanbul to Manchester, and from Morocco to Sarajevo (Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sefara). Spain’s Jews also went to Turkey, North Africa, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and the Balkans. The single largest contingent — twenty-three thousand by some estimates — went to Portugal, although they were later forced out of Portugal and fled to America and Western Europe.

For generations, even centuries, Spanish Jews maintained their language. No matter where it was spoken, Ladino remained close to Spanish. About 60 percent of the basic vocabulary is Castilian (the rest is mostly Turkisms, Hebrewisms, and Arabisms). The spelling, however, became even more phonetic than Spanish was in the first place. And that’s why the Spanish corazón (heart) is korason in Ladino.

Centuries later, during the Holocaust, the Ladino language made Sephardic Jews easily identifiable, particularly in the Balkans and Greece and Ladino came close to disappearing. Today, the largest remaining Sephardic communities are in Israel (which has 1.1 to 1.5 million Sephardic Jews) and France (which has about 350,000). But the largest Ladino-speaking community is in Israel, with about 100,000 speakers.

More information about The Expulsion of the Jews and the Spanish Inquisition can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish (St. Martin’s Press).