Ladino: A Judeo-Ottoman language that is dying in Turkey
The Ladino language has a Spanish sentence structure, and contains vocabulary borrowed from Turkish, Greek and Arabic. It is the mother tongue of Sephardic Jews, who were forced to emigrate from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and settled in the Ottoman Empire. Today it is dying.
A recent documentary directed and produced by journalist Deniz Alphan “A Fading Language, A Fading Cuisine,” addresses the issue of its decline. Turkish Sephardic Jews were able to preserve their unique language for centuries within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The documentary shows how after 500 years both the language and Turkish Sephardic cuisine has begun to fade away, unable to survive the transition from the 20th century to the present day.
Many notable figures are featured in the film, including the historian Professor İlber Ortaylı and the writer Mario Levi. As we watch, the aromas of Sephardic food drift to our nose and the melodies of Ladino resonate in our ears.
When the Alhambra Decree in 1492 ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, Sephardic Jews were forced to say goodbye to their Iberian homelands, resulting in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions and executions. Despite this troubled past, the language sustained a connection to their lost Iberian homeland. Now that connection is about to be lost, as Turkish Sephardic Jews choose to speak Turkish at the expense of losing their mother tongue.
In the 1860s, Alliance Israelite Universelle schools with French curriculum were opened in Ottoman territories. Sephardic Jews flocked to these schools and the language was weakened as a consequence, despite the best intentions of the schools’ patrons. According to Levi, Jews living in France built these schools on the grounds that their brethren living in the Ottoman Empire were badly educated and generally poor.
In these schools the students were taught both Turkish and French. The schools gave birth to a new bureaucratic and merchant class that increasingly preferred Turkish over Ladino.
Karen Gerson Şarhon, who is the director of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Center, said the Ottomans particularly admired French, which had begun to dominate the Sephardic communities. “Those who graduated from these schools and spoke French were seen as well-educated people while those who spoke Ladino were considered second-class citizens,” Şarhon said.
In the 1970s, when French was at its peak, Ladino started to fade away. Young people looked down on their language. In the film, Levi says he felt ashamed when his grandmother spoke Ladino outside the house, and this feeling of shame pushed him to perfect his Turkish. These days he regrets neglecting his mother tongue. “I made a big mistake,” he says.
Columnist and university professor Soli Özel also remembers his unwillingness to learn Ladino, and only became saddened once he became aware of how precious the language was. “But it was impossible to preserve this language in a period when Turkish nationalization had picked up speed and minority religious communities had started to integrate with other groups,” he said.
Modernization has also contributed to the erosion of Sephardic culture. “Ladino has gradually gone from being a spoken language to a language used for food names prepared on special occasions. Ladino and Sephardic cuisine share this common fate,” said Hürriyet’s gastronomy writer Aylin Öney Tan.
The documentary is due to be screened at this year’s 20th Rendezvous Istanbul International Film Festival or the 36th Istanbul Film Festival. I wish everybody could get to know this culture, which was born under the Ottomans but died in Turkey.
In 2015, some 523 years after Catholic Spain expelled its Jews, the Government of Spain passed a law allowing Sephardic Jews with a connection to Spain to obtain Spanish nationality by naturalization. As of Feb. 7, 2017, 100 Sephardic Jews had been granted Spanish citizenship, out of an official tally of 4,300 applications – including many from Turkey.