“Seriously Endangered” in the Era of Lingue Franche

Ladino

Silver coin commemorating Ladino
Source: 4Law

In all likelihood, you are lucky enough that you will never have to know the feeling one gets after reading his father’s mother tongue now being listed under the Seriously Endangered Languages List of UNESCO, the most authoritative index on all endangered languages in the world.

Ladino, as it is commonly referred, is the traditional language of the Sephardic Jews. It also goes by the names Judaeo-Spanish and Djudesmo. It is a Romance language based on the Old Spanish syntax, with heavy Portuguese and Hebrew influences, and a large vocabulary borrowed from Turkish, Greek, Arabic, French, Bulgarian, and even Aramaic. Today, it is spoken among only a small, rather old population in Turkey and Israel.

Years of oppression in the 20th century by state governments ranging from Italy and Greece to Turkey and Iraq, combined with the Holocaust, as well as forced and voluntary assimilation, and accompanied by the economic cost of learning one’s own ethnic language versus the national one, Ladino —like many other ethnic languages spoken by a small community— now faces the danger of being wiped out for good. Along will be forgotten a cultural heritage that has defined Sephardic Jews across Europe and the Middle East since they were expelled from Iberia in 1492.

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It is believed that a language becomes extinct every two weeks. Think about it: Every two weeks!

As we celebrate globalization and the universal lingua franca-ization of English due to the efficiency of having a common language for trade, business, diplomacy, and science, we are simultaneously sacrificing our human cultural heritage —a unique and intangible asset of unquantifiable value.

Of course we can always translate a sentence from one language into another, but we can never translate the tiny nuances in meaning, the real depth of wisdom carried in traditional idioms or phrases; sometimes even the simplest analogies or metaphors can no longer be understood. In translation, we forever lose the undertones contained in a particular phrase because we now lack the cultural heritage required to understand the true meaning… Lastly, of course, we lose the oral traditions (incidentally, Ladino is based largely on oral tradition) and a huge amount of folklore passed down from one generation to another…

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What now? I am not writing this entry to launch an unwinnable war against the irreversible tide of globalization. I, for one, am a big champion of globalization due to its tremendous benefits in making the human progress more efficient, our civilizations more advanced , and our nations more diverse. Yet, after seeing a number of articles come out recently, which mention Ladino’s now seemingly irreversible death sentence, I just felt the need —or rather obligation— to highlight the fact that with each extinct language, we are losing a great treasure that can never be recovered.

Occasionally, I try to help out scholars or artists who try to produce content in Ladino. Honestly, I doubt it makes a difference in the long-term but it definitely does for our own lifetimes. Hence, with this short article, I invite all readers to think about an issue that not many people seem to care about. And if you agree with me, you can try to support the continuation of local languages and folklore in any way that you can.

To get you started, here is UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas on all of world’s endangered languages. Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on ““Seriously Endangered” in the Era of Lingue Franche

  1. Not sure what side of the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide you’re on, Igal but I think it’s fair to say that the nature of language is that it reflects societal change, so when we stop being ‘global’ our use of languages will too. 🙂

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