"You're speaking just like Cervantes," he said. I
was in a cantina in Madrid in 1957. I met a man there, he was a reporter.
We were conversing over a few drinks. I understood his puzzlement
and had to explain. I was speaking the Spanish dialect I had learned
at home. The dialect, or maybe it is a separate language, is commonly
called, Ladino. More properly it should be referred to as, Djudeo
Espanyol. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.
My ancestors found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, and settled on the
Island of Rhodes. Ottoman Jewish communities flourished in Rhodes
, Salonika, Izmir, Istanbul, Sarajevo and elsewhere for 500 years
and there they preserved the language that they had taken with them from
Spain; Fifteenth Century Spanish, the dialect of Columbus, Ferdinand, Isabella
and Cervantes. To that reporter in Madrid it was as if a modern American
were to meet someone who spoke the English of Shakespearean times. I grew up in a close knit Sephardic community in Los Angeles and
assumed that Spanish was the language of the Jews. Not
until I was in Junior High School did I learn that some Jews did not speak
Spanish, they spoke a strange tongue called, Yiddish. An even greater revelation was that our Spanish
was different from that spoken in Spain and Latin America today.
"Today we are going to learn some words in Spanish," said my fifth grade
teacher. She continued, "The first thing that you must learn is that
in Spanish the letter ‘j' is pronounced like an ‘h'". I thought she
was crazy or at least uninformed, at home we pronounced the "j" as an English
or French; "zh" or "dzh". Sometimes it was "sh" as in the word
dejar which we pronounced deshar, in modern Spanish it is
pronounced; dehar. And some of the words were
different; we would say, aninda (yet), trocar (change), chapeo
(hat) and chapines (shoes), for the modern Spanish words, todavia,
cambiar, sombrero and zapatos. Years later I found that
the first three words were Portuguese and the fourth was Catalan. Another major difference between Ladino and modern Spanish is in
the word for God. The Spanish say Dios, derived from the Latin,
Deus. But to the Spanish Jews this was unacceptable
because Dios ends in the letter "s" and that implies that Dios
is plural. The foundation of the Jewish faith is that God is
singular. This concept is reinforced every time we recite the
Shemah: "...the lord is One." We always referred to God as:
El Dio, always including the article El. Another difference is our word for Sunday.
In modern Spanish it is Domingo. But this comes from the Latin
word for the "Lords Day." To the Jews Saturday is the Lords
Day and we referred to Sunday as Alhát. I found later
that this was the Arabic word for "The First Day," it is related to the
Hebrew word Ehad (one). When I heard about the Crypto Jews of New Mexico, I wondered if
they had preserved any elements of the Ladino dialect. In my communications
with Crypto Jews I found many who's grandparents said El Dio rather
than Dios but none who called Sunday Alhat. Other possible Ladino elements were the including
of an extra "n" in many words and of reversing the "r" with another letter.
We say muncho (much) rather than mucho and godro (fat)
and prove (poor) rather than gordo and povre.
I found that it is very common for rural New Mexicans to add the extra
"n," but, few examples of the "r" shift. Does this indicate that the Crypto Jews of New
Mexico are indeed descended from the conversos of Spain. The linguistic
evidence is not absolute, but together with so much other evidence, it
strengthens the argument. The strongest evidence is in the preservation
of El Dio. No Christian would use such words.