The Case of Ladino (Forward, November 29, 1996)

You'll recall that we ended last week's column by asking why, of the many Jewish languages and dialects in history, only Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, and Yiddish, or Judeo-German, were spoken for hundreds of years in geographical areas whose coterritorial languages were totally different--Slavic and Baltic tongues in the case of Yiddish, and Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Arabic in the case of Ladino.

The case of Ladino is simpler, or at least, better documented, for we know exactly when its speakers emigrated from Spain to the Ottoman Empire and a great deal about them both before and after their arrival. Four factors help explain why they went on speaking Spanish:

1. Numerical dominance. Although there are no accurate statistics on Jews living in the Ottoman Empire on the eve of the Spanish expulsion of 1492, centuries of on-again, off-again Byzantine Christian persecution (the Muslim Turks finished their occupation of most of Byzantium only in the 15th century) had reduced their numbers to a minimum. At the time of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, there were probably fewer than 200 Jewish families in it--yet by the mid-16th century, after the Turks opened their gates to refugees from Spain, there were 30,000 Jews there, nearly all Spanish. It was thus natural for a small minority of indigenous Ottoman Jews to switch to Judeo-Spanish rather than the other way around.

2. Cultural dominance. The exiles from Spain were the bearers of a long rabbinic, Hebraic and European intellectual tradition on which they greatly prided themselves even in relation to culturally developed Jewish communities in France and Germany. By contrast, not only were the indigenous Ottoman Jews backward by comparison, the Turkish conquerors themselves belonged to a pre-urbanized warrior class with little literate culture. The superiority felt by the Spaniards encouraged them to cling to their old language rather than assimilate to groups they considered beneath them.

3. Linguistic diversity. Within the Ottoman Empire many different languages were spoken, none of which was a clear majority tongue. Speaking Judeo-Spanish, therefore, was not anomalous and had the advantage of enabling its speakers to maintain far-flung contacts with each other for the purpose of business and trade.

4. Social segregation. The Ottoman millet system, which extended a large measure of autonomy to different ethnic and religious communities, also compartmentalized them and discouraged intermingling. Spanish-speaking Ottoman Jews had little contact with speakers of other languages and lacked both the opportunity and the incentive to assimilate to them.

Although the early history of Yiddish speakers in the Slavic and Baltic lands of Eastern Europe is far murkier than that of Spanish Jews in the eastern Mediterranean, all four of these factors are commonly assumed to have been operative with them, too. Taking the traditionally held view that German-speaking Jews pushing into Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages entered an area with almost no Jews, the prominent historian Salo Baron put the Jewish population of German-speaking Central Europe in 1300 at about 100,000 and that of Eastern Europe at only 10,000; while his colleague Cecil Roth, though believing that the proportion of Judeo-German speakers in the Slavic lands "can never be ascertained," observed in reference to the low level of Jewish learning in the Slavic east that "in any case (in precisely the same manner as the refugees from Spain in the Balkans after the expulsion of 1492), they [the Judeo-German speakers] were able to impose their superior culture upon their indigenous brethren," who "adopted German costume, standards of culture, methods of study, and even language."

Linguistically, Eastern Europe was even more diversified than Ottoman Turkey, a patchwork of Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Wendish, as well as non-Slavic tongues like Lithuanian, Gothic, Old Prussian and German--the latter, significantly, spoken by a large burgher class that dominated much of urban commercial life and that the JudeoGerman-speaking immigrants had their greatest contact with. And lastly, Jewish autonomy in Eastern Europe outstripped that of the Ottoman Empire, too. The largely independent Va'ad Arba ha Aratsot, the Council of the Four Lands of Great Poland, Little Poland, Podolia and Volhynia, ran the Jewish affairs of most of Eastern Europe with minimal interference from non-Jewish authorities and enabled the average Jew to get along perfectly well in an entirely Yiddish-speaking environment.

This is the traditional picture. Recently, however, as part of a general revolution in historical Yiddish linguistics that has been taking place, at least one of these assumptions--that of the numerical dominance of the Judeo-German-speaking immigrants to the Slavic east –has come under attack. The implications of this will be the subject of another column next week.