Grammars under threat: recording the grammatical legacy of Judeo-Spanish

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by Michael Barnes

How many romance languages could you name? French, Spanish, Italian… maybe you could guess Romanian from the name? How about Judeo-Spanish? If you’ve never heard of it, then you’re not alone – Judeo-Spanish is a romance language (that is, a language descended from Latin) originally from the Iberian Peninsula, but which in the centuries following the Spanish expulsion of the Jewish people in 1492  was transported as far afield as Morocco, Israel, and New York. Although the language, also known as Judezmo, Ladino, or, in its North African variety, Haketía, has been passed down through generations of Sephardi Jews, there are currently only an estimated 400,000 speakers worldwide, most of whom are older, and transfer of this key piece of cultural heritage to younger generations has all but stopped. For these reasons, Judeo-Spanish is classified by UNESCO as a ‘severely endangered’ language.

One of the key roadblocks to protecting the language is a lack of knowledge about its grammatical structure, in particular its syntax (sentence structure). Without this information, it is difficult for Judeo-Spanish to be classified as a unique language (some authors still refer to it as a variety of medieval Spanish!), to apply for minority language status in the countries where it is spoken, and to receive national and international support for its protection. The ‘Grammars under threat’ project therefore aims to explore the underexamined grammar of Judeo-Spanish, so as to enable the classification and protection of the language and to avoid it being lost.

My involvement in the project began with a little background research so I could know what I was dealing with. I became immediately fascinated by this new language: so similar to Spanish, yet with certain linguistic features that reminded me of Portuguese, and some totally unique structures I already wanted to explore further. I then moved onto systematising the literature that currently exists in and about Judeo-Spanish into a spreadsheet to make it easier for both me and the research lead, Dr Alice Corr, to find sources. The corpus was a lot larger than I expected for a language I’d never heard of until a few months ago!

For me, the most interesting part of the project involved reading through Judeo-Spanish texts – some of which dated as far back as the 17th century – and acting as a sort of ‘linguistic detective’, looking for any grammatical features that struck me as odd or interesting in comparison to modern Spanish. It was useful to be able to compare certain texts, such as the Targum to the Song of Songs, a religious text originally written in Aramaic, which have been translated into Judeo-Spanish in various times and locations, offering a clear view of the diachronic and diatopic variation of the language.

Two of the linguistic features that kept cropping up during my research were the use of possessive adjectives such as ‘su’ (his/her/their) and the order of verbs, subjects, and objects. I chose to investigate these phenomena further, making use of current literature to try to better understand the possible syntactic reasons behind them. This was challenging as I do not have much of a background in linguistics, and I therefore had to learn a lot of new theories and vocabulary in a short amount of time. Nevertheless, every time I was able to locate a particularly useful piece of information it felt like finding the key to unlock yet another part of this grammatical puzzle. It was daunting but ultimately valuable to go out on a limb on my linguistic hunches, even if they turned out to be wrong or difficult to prove. Meeting a dead-end in my research simply offered an opportunity to turn back and reconsider the data from another angle.

As I compiled my final report for Dr Corr, summarising my findings and suggestions for future research into these specific phenomena, I found myself excited to see where the project would progress without me. Next steps in the research include connecting with Judeo-Spanish speaking communities in New York and online so as to collect primary sociolinguistic data, a conference for the various stakeholders in the language, and an online ‘museum of hidden voices’ to allow members of the public to learn more about this language, its history, and its speakers. Hopefully one day, thanks to research projects such as this one and also the efforts of Sephardi communities themselves, more and more people will know Judeo-Spanish by its name. I will forever be proud to have played even the smallest role in helping better understand and hopefully protect such a valuable piece of cultural heritage.

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