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Old men on a bus

January 30, 2010

Unwittingly overhearing and classifying foreign languages is an unconscious hobby of mine. Yesterday as I was daydreaming on a bus in Tel Aviv, I heard two men speaking Spanish, which piqued my curiosity. But after a moment I realized they sounded like very old men speaking very fluent Spanish with a thick Israeli accent, only there was enough Hebrew mixed in that even I could pick out a word here and there. While I’ve never studied Spanish, like most Americans I’ve been around it enough to have a feel for it and understand a little. The rhythm was completely natural, but something was very different than the Spanish I was used to hearing in the U.S. The two old men weren’t just bilingual Spanish/Hebrew speakers who intermixed the languages for fun. This was a linguistic mystery.

I mentioned the experience to my father in law the next day, and he immediately knew what I’d heard: לדינו (Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish). It’s the language originally spoken by the diaspora exiled from Spain in 1492 that settled around the Ottoman Empire. Ladino is a mixture of Old Spanish and several other languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Arabic, and Greek. The development of the language is said to be parallel to that of Yiddish, which is also a mixture of many languages, primarily German, originally spoken by the diaspora in Central and Eastern Europe beginning in the 10th century.

Ladino hasn’t been transferred to new generations as much as Yiddish, so it seems most native speakers tend to be elderly. My husband said he doesn’t know any Ladino speakers, though several of his friends’ parents or grandparents speak it.

Due to the geography and origins of the languages, Ladino is spoken primarily in Sephardic communities, while Yiddish tends to be spoken in Ashkenazi communities. In Hebrew, ספרדית (Sepharadit) means “Spanish,” and אשכנז (Ashkenaz) is the medieval Hebrew name for a place in Germany. The two communities have different cultures and traditions that evolved over many centuries of living far apart, but all are Jewish and now both communities coexist in Israel along with other communities, such as the Mizrahim (Jews from Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other surrounding countries).

Part of what makes living in Israel so fascinating is that overhearing a few words spoken by old men on a bus inspired all this research. There’s a lot to learn when you know nothing.

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