Judezmo

The Jewish Language of the Ottoman Sephardim

in European Judaism
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  • 1 Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Judezmo, the traditional language of the Sephardic Jews of the former Ottoman Empire, is presented as a member of the group of Jewish languages, fusing elements of Ibero-Romance, Greek, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, French, Italian and other linguistic stocks. In common with speakers of other Jewish languages, Judezmo speakers perceived their language as 'Jewish' and denoted it as such (Djudezmo, Djidyó). They wrote it in the Hebrew or 'Jewish' alphabet; used an archaizing variety of it (Ladino) to translate sacred Hebrew texts literally; and made frequent use in everyday language of words and phrases from Hebrew, and allusions to Hebrew texts, Jewish rituals and other facets of Judaism as a civilization. They preserved words from the pre-languages (Jewish Greek, Jewish Arabic) used by the ancestors of the Judezmo speakers in medieval Iberia, and following the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, incorporated much material from the languages spoken by ethnic groups encountered in the Ottoman Empire. Distinct from both medieval and modern Spanish, Judezmo served as a lingua franca among the Sephardim throughout the ethnically and linguistically diverse regions of the Eastern Mediterranean. A special variety functioned as a secret code among Sephardic merchants. Today, Judezmo is treasured by its speakers as the unique, independent Jewish language of the Mediterranean Sephardim. However, the number of its speakers is constantly decreasing, making Judezmo an endangered language.