New documentary highlights how Ladino language in Turkey is on verge of extinction

New documentary highlights how Ladino language in Turkey is on verge of extinction

Nazlan Ertan -
New documentary highlights how Ladino language in Turkey is on verge of extinction “If Ladino is lost in our generation, it is the decision of the previous generation,” says one of the young people interviewed in “Las Ultimas Palavras” (The Last Words), a documentary by Rita Ender and Yorgo Demir looking at how the use of the Ladino language is on the verge of extinction in Turkey.

The film, recently screened at the French Cultural Center in İzmir, talks to 19 Turkish Jews between the ages of 25 and 35 to explore their knowledge of and their feelings toward Ladino, the Spanish-Jewish dialect spoken for centuries by Sephardic Jews in Turkey. As the Ladino language developed during the 15th and 16th centuries, it grew to include elements of Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French and Italian. The documentary was screened in Istanbul, Paris and Berlin last year – and was screened for the first time in İzmir.

The young people interviewed, three of whom are from İzmir’s Jewish community, say the only Ladino words they use are sudden exclamations, quick phrases, or household and culinary terms. Mostly they are in possession of an eternal childhood vocabulary consisting of words used by parents, such as “quiet” or “patience” or “your grandfather is sleeping.”

In that sense, Ladino is proof of what many linguists believe is the traditional pattern of death for a language: It is first confined to private homes before it dies a slow death. Particularly if the language is not taught at school, new generations will only pick up “household words” that are not enough for their professional and social life. In order to convey new ideas, hold abstract discussions or do business, the young people use the language of the host country. 

Rita Ender told the audience at the French Cultural Center in İzmir that it was her own experience that inspired her to make the documentary. “I couldn’t find sentences for everyday activities, such as asking directions. But I could easily form sentences that spoke of the pain of love or longing in Ladino, sentences from Ladino songs.”

Ender, a polyglot, appears to have a vast interest in difficult causes: A lawyer of minorities’ rights, she has defended Jews, Greeks and Armenians in Turkey. She has also conducted a series of interviews for Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos on people from Turkish minorities, starting with their names the response these names bring from other Turks (Typical question: “So when did you come to Turkey?” Response: “We were always here” or “In 1492.”) One of Ender’s other books is on the “lost professions” of Turkey. 

Severely endangered

The UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages describes Ladino as “severely endangered.” The language was once traditionally spoken in Greece and Turkey, primarily in Macedonia and Thrace, but also elsewhere in the Balkans, Morocco, Ceuta, Melilla and Algeria. Today, says the Atlas, it is spoken by probably less than 10,000 speakers, in a few locations in Turkey, largely concentrated in Istanbul (traditionally in the quarters of Balat and Hasköy). In Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans there are very few - if any - Ladino speakers left after the Holocaust. In North Africa the language is now extinct

But “The Last Words” documentary is far from being sad in its tone. On the contrary, the young people interviewed – bright, upbeat, sometimes slightly embarrassed – mostly think it is “natural” that Ladino is on the verge of extinction. Few feel a responsibility or even an ability to breathe new life into it. The predominant sentiment, not only among the young people interviewed but also in the İzmir audience, was that the young generations must focus on using Turkish at all times and mastering it perfectly. In the debate that followed, the predominantly Jewish audience explained the circumstances that led them to “hesitate” using the language and teaching it to the next generation.

It seems that the slow decay of the language was a result of fear and despair, rather than preference or even convenience. The (in)famous “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign that dominated the 1930s made it difficult - if not impossible - for minorities to use their languages on the streets without drawing anger from fellow citizens. Faced with ill-treatment, harassment and violation of their rights, many citizens from minorities abandoned their language and some changed their names to “merge” in.

“We believe, at least in İzmir, that multiculturalism is essential for the Turkey that we desire,” said Nesim Bencoya, who moderated the screening and the conversation with Ender. That may be too optimistic to reflect the current experience of minorities in Turkey. As for Ladino, there are many reasons for its eventual extinction vary – including the fact there is little literature in Ladino, little chance of reviving the language, a general global trend of minority languages dying out, and the community’s own desire to prioritize “more useful” languages - but the role of the host country in its treatment of minority cultures is undeniable.
An excerpt from “The Last Words” can be watched at