Friday, July 15, 2016

Ladino - "On what a dying language leaves behind"

"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, Serbo-Croatian. 

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.” 

I’ve 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.

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