When a language becomes extinct, the culture of the people who spoke it dies. According to some experts, that will be the fate of what was the most widely spoken of all Jewish languages: Ladino. Every year, several languages around the world disappear, just like species of birds and animals. Ladino is slated to join them.

Every few years, the United Nations agency UNESCO produces a Red Book of Endangered Languages. Yiddish is listed as "endangered"; Ladino as "seriously endangered." Apart from a small group of enthusiasts and academics, the Jewish world has taken little notice of Ladino's demise.

What is Ladino? Where is it from? Why is it important? And why is it ignored by the Jewish world?

The development of Ladino was similar to that of YiddishLadino, also referred to as Judeo-Spanish, Spanyolit, Judezmo, Hakitia and various other terms, began its life in 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Some refer to it as a "fossilized" language, implying that it is an antique that has not changed since 1492. That is not true.

When the 150,000 to 300,000 Jews left Spain, they took with them their languages. They took Hebrew, the language of prayer and study. Like Yiddish, it was not used at home or in the streets. The language of daily use was Castilian Spanish as it was spoken in the late 15th century.

From Spain, the Jews traveled to Holland, England, Morocco, and towns and cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. Cut off from the influence of the Spanish of Spain, which also changed through the centuries and was modernized, Ladino maintained its 15th century roots, and also changed, but in a different way. Its changes were influenced by the many countries and cultures in which Spanish Jews settled.

In this way, the development of Ladino was similar to that of Yiddish, which developed over the centuries with constant infusions of other languages wherever Jews lived. Ladino borrowed from Greek, Turkish and French. Yiddish developed into a distinct language, not simply a dialect of German, though remaining a Germanic language. Ladino also meets the criteria of a distinct language, and is not merely a dialect of Spanish. Like Yiddish, Ladino was heavily influenced by Hebrew, which remained the language of study and prayer.

With the Ladino-speaking Jews having settled so widely, Ladino gradually developed two dialects. Oriental Ladino was spoken in Turkey and Rhodes and reflected Castilian Spanish. Western Ladino was closer to northern Spanish and Portuguese and was spoken elsewhere in Greece, as well as in Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania.

Like Yiddish, Ladino was written with Hebrew letters, except that Ladino used the Rashi script. The Rashi script was, in fact, originally a Ladino script to separate Rashi's commentary from the Torah. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that Ladino began to be written using the Latin alphabet, like most European languages.

At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Diaspora Jews were Ladino-speakingSince the Expulsion, Ladino has been spoken in North Africa, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, France, Israel, the United States and Latin America. At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Diaspora Jews were Ladino-speaking. However, the Holocaust wiped out about 90 percent of all the world's Ladino-speakers.

For many years, Israel discouraged the use of both Ladino and Yiddish in favor of Modern Hebrew. There has also been assimilation with Ashkenazi Jews and with non-Jews, and the enormous disruption of Jews from Arab countries. In countries hike the United States, Jewish life has been dominated by Ashkenazis with a Yiddish background, often to the detriment of those speaking Ladino. Mere remnants remain, thought to be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Ladino speakers, most of whom are not fluent, though a 2005 study suggested that only 110,000 Ladino-speakers exist, not one speaking only Ladino.

The Yiddish of the Sephardim

It is often said that Ladino is the "Yiddish" of the Sephardim. This is not exactly true, even though there are similarities. Some believe that, because at least in Israel there are now more Sephardim than Ashkenazim, Ladino will make a comeback. But while the word "Sepharad" refers to Spain, just as "Ashkenaz" refers to Germany, a high proportion of so-called Sephardim are not of Spanish origin, and Ladino was never in their history, including Jews of Yemenite, Kurdish, and Bukharan background.

The question is whether Ladino will become extinct. While scholars will still be able to read Ladino, once a language is no longer "living" it ceases to contribute to the cultural, social and intellectual development of a people. This is certainly true with Anglo-Saxon and Aramaic, and is likely to occur to Scots Gaelic.

The reality is that most Ladino-speakers are over 50 years of age, and many of them (according to studies) do not speak it well. This means that in about 30 years, Ladino will be dead.

A Ladino Revival

There are efforts being made to keep Ladino alive. Sephardic music, including Ladino songs, boasts a wider audience than ever before. There are Ladino cultural festivals, and the five major Israeli universities all teach Ladino and have departments concentrating on Sephardic studies, including a major world center at Bar Ilan University and the center for Ladino culture at Ben Gurion.

Major American rabbinical schools have largely ignored LadinoA few European universities have similar activities, but in the United States the only university regularly teaching it is Tufts University. There, Prof. Gloria Ascher is one of the world's leading Ladino specialists. Major American rabbinical schools have largely ignored Ladino, though Yeshiva University is making an effort to revitalize it. Some Spanish and Portuguese synagogues give classes in Ladino, but even the Sephardic organizations do not have any major activity in revitalizing the language.

The recent establishment of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul may become a catalyst in changing this situation. Israel, which has the largest number of Ladino-speakers in the world, has formed the National Authority for Ladino. The Maale-Adumim Institute for Ladino has also been established in Israel with the sole purpose of preserving the language. Kol Israel also broadcasts in Ladino. The Sorbonne in Paris has opened a Department of Judeo-Spanish, and there is renewed academic interest in Spain. The Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv takes a particular interest in the preservation of Ladino. The Ladino Preservation Council was established in 2002.

One of the most unique efforts to establish a worldwide community of Ladino-speakers is the Ladinokomunita, an internet site where approximately 700 Ladino-speakers worldwide socialize via the internet in Ladino. The weekly Turkish Jewish paper also publishes one page in Ladino.

Ladino, Yiddish and the Future

While Yiddish is still regarded as endangered, the current thought is that it will not die out. It seems to have reached a plateau in its decline. Unlike Ladino, there is a Yiddish population which is still large enough to keep the language going. The real strength in the preservation of Yiddish however, lies in the Hassidic movement. Yiddish is still used as a daily language in most Hassidic communities, and many Hassidic yeshivahs use the language as a daily means of communication and teaching. Because the Hassidic communities have a considerably higher birthrate than the general Jewish population, there is a young Yiddish generation to replace those who are dying out or who have disappeared. This is despite the virtual disappearance of Yiddish theatre, with a handful of exceptions like the Folksbiene in New York, and Yiddish popular publishing.

Enormous effort will be required to teach and use the languageLadino is not in the same position. Because the Hassidic movement arose exclusively in the Ashkenazi world, there is no equivalent in the Sephardic world which uses Ladino as its means of communication or education. Similarly, it would be rare to find a school that teaches in Ladino.

The result is that if Ladino and its rich culture are to be handed on to future generations of all Jews, not just Sephardim, an enormous effort will be required to teach and use the language, even in a secondary way. The zealous academics and other enthusiasts will not be enough.