"My grandmother’s mother tongue was Ladino—old Spanish, the language of the Sephardic Jews.
Like Yiddish, it’s a kind of pidgin language, a
collage of words drawn from multiple sources, among them: Medieval
Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Mozarabic, Greek, Bulgarian, French,
And like Yiddish, it’s a vulnerable language. Once the
trade language of the Adriatic Sea and the Middle East, and renowned for
its rich literature especially in Salonika, it’s now under serious
threat of extinction. UNESCO has called it “seriously endangered.”
never heard it spoken in person, though one can listen online at the
Ladino preservation council’s website. When I do, I feel like I should
understand the voice that sounds like my grandmother’s, with its purring
R’s, but I don’t. Not a single word.
I’m not sure how much Ladino my grandmother remembered when she died
in the American Midwest at 103. As a girl, she’d studied in Egypt at
French schools. Later, she studied law in France, married a Frenchman.
French was the only language I ever heard her speak, besides a richly
accented English. French was my mother’s first language. My brother and I
never considered taking Spanish in school. We took French, naturellement. And explained our interest, if asked, by saying our mother was French.
In researching my collection of linked stories, Heirlooms,
which is based on family stories, I came across old letters written in
what I came to understand was Ladino. I knew from reading other old
family letters that much about the writer could be revealed in their
word choice or turn of phrase. I stared at the undecipherable swoops of
cursive, wondering what the letters conveyed.
My mother could glean a
few words, because Ladino, like French, is a Romance language. My
mother’s cousin who grew up in Israel couldn’t help us, as he’d heard
Ladino only when the grown ups didn’t want the children to know what
they were talking about.
Read more from Rachel Hall's article in Guernica magazine here.