For the Sephardic Jews, exiled from Spain in 1492, the western areas of the Ottoman Empire held the promise of a place of refuge not unlike their Hispanic homeland. At the end of the Middle Ages, both the Iberian and the Balkan Peninsulas were the home of orientalised European societies, whose culture, language and folk literature reflected the intimate symbiosis of believers of three religions: Christians, Jews and Muslims. Populous communities of Hispano-Jewish exiles were established in Salonica and Istanbul shortly after the expulsion. However, Sephardic Jews do not seem to have reached Bosnia directly from Spain, but rather through subsequent emigration from other Ottoman communities, principally Salonica. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Sephardim were firmly established in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which has had a Spanish-speaking Jewish community in its multilingual and multireligious population to the present day.

The expellees mainly found refuge in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, of which Bosnia was then a part, and brought their language with them. The language is commonly referred to as Ladino; its native speakers in Bosnia call it điđo or djidyo, which simply means “Jewish”.

As Samuel Kamhi (2016: 12) points out, the Bosnian Jewish linguist Kalmi Baruh (1896-1945) reported in 1924 that Bosnian Sephardim also called the language španjol,žudio, džudio and džiđo (đigio). According to Baruh, these terms were synonymous with “Jewish” (in the cultural sense), and most Bosnian Sephardim assumed that speaking the language reflected their affiliation with the Jewish nation and religion. Until the early 20th century, Sarajevo’s Sephardim used Ladino as their everyday vernacular. Most Sephardi men also spoke Serbo-Croatian and Turkish, languages they needed to navigate the world of work. Women spoke much less Serbo-Croatian, often having only a rudimentary grasp of the language. Following the Austro-Hungarian occupation, the Sephardim also incorporated German into their linguistic repertoire. In the Austro-Hungarian census of 1910, 98 percent of the Sephardim stated that Ladino was their mother tongue. In the Yugoslav census of 1931, 60 percent of the Sephardim identified Ladino as their mother tongue, with the remaining 40 percent now opting for Serbo-Croatian (Friedenreich 2001: 22). This shift resulted due to modernisation and the Jewish desire to adapt to the new educational, economic and socio-political circumstances (Vučina Simović 2012: 44-45; Papo 2015: 185-187). According to Eli Tauber estimates, roughly 1,200 Jews now live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, organised into six Jewish communities. Two of these are located in Republika Srpska, in Banja Luka and Doboj, respectively, and four in the Federation of BiH. They are in Mostar, Tuzla, Zenica and (with its 1,000 members by far the largest) Sarajevo. Although the Jewish communal records list 1,200 community members, only 200 people identified themselves as Jews in the 2013 Bosnian census (Konačni rezultati popisa 2013). This indicates that most of the Jews in BiH have multiple, hybrid identities and do not consider their Jewishness their principal identifying feature.

According to data from the Sephardic municipality in Sarajevo, which was founded in 1565, 32,000 Ladino speakers lived in Sarajevo. Jewish cultural life in Sarajevo was very rich. In addition to the various associations in which they nurtured their culture, tradition, language and religion, they also published magazines in Ladino:

  1. La Alborada (published after the Austrian occupation, because Jews did not have their own magazines during the Ottoman rule)
  2. Jevrejski život (contributions were often written in Judeo-Spanish)
  3. Sefardski svijet (started by Jews who came from various parts of the former Yugoslavia to study in Vienna)

Jewish children were educated in the primary school Meldar, and the schools Telmada Tor and Yeshiva (Avram Pinto 1987: 81). All classes were conducted in Ladino. 

The most important writer who wrote in Ladino is Laura Papo. Writers who also wrote in Ladino are Dr Moric Levi, Dr Kalmi Baruh, Dr Isak I. Izrael and Jakub Culi.

According to data from the president of the Jewish community, Dr Tauber, as of August 2021, only two active and two passive Ladino speakers remained.


© Azra Hodžić-Kadić 2021-2022

Linguistic characteristics of Ladino in Sarajevo

Linguistic characteristics of Ladino in Sarajevo

Phonological observations

  • The Ladino language (Judeoespañol) preserved pronunciation of “dž/dz” [ʤ] and “žˮ [ʒ] from the medieval Castilian language, which has changed to “h” in modern Ladino. “J” in /dijo/ is pronounced as French “ž” [ʒ] or English “dj/džˮ [ʤ], or “šˮ [ʃ] in Ladino.
  • Ladino also has a phoneme, “h” [x], which originates from Hebrew (het) when it is found after kaf, in the middle or at the end of the word (חכ or חך).
  • The French “zˮ [z], has also been retained when an intervocal “s” is voiced; in all other cases it is pronounced as [s], as in zezeo or seseo.
  • Every unstressed “eˮ or “oˮ is closed to unvoiced “iˮ or “uˮ: fižu (son), miju (my), andjelitju (little angel), kiridu (dear), padri (father), tontu (stupid, fool).
  • There is vav [w] in the place of the Spanish diphthong “ueˮ: bwenu (good), gwevu (egg), gwesu (bone).
  • There is diphthongisation: “uaˮ or “oaˮ instead of “ueˮ or “oeˮ: puarta (door, gate), goaldonador (giver), moarti (death).
  • The consonant clusters “tj”, “gj” and “dj” stem from Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and are used to create diminutives instead of Spanish suffix “-ikoˮ: pašaritju (little bird), amigju (little friend), tridju (little wheat), midja (little crumbs), ritju (little rich man).
  • There is jeizmo, jod “jˮ [y]: juvia (rain), jo me jamo (I am called), jamar (to call), oja (pot).
  • There are metatheses: guadrar (to keep), tadrar (to be late), tadri (late), vedri (green).
  • There is vowel apocope between an adverb and an article that precedes a word which starts with a vowel: “d’una”, “desto”,” dunke”, “l’avogada” (female lawyer).
  • Consonants clusters /que/ [ke] o /q/ [k] are present: aunke, d’unke.
  • Ladino preserves the phoneme /v/ and its pronunciation [v]: vuelo, vapor.
  • Ladino maintains the initial f from Vulgar Latin: farina (flour), foja (leaf), faldukera (pocket), fjaru (steel).
  • /-s/ in front of velar /k/ changes to “šˮ [š] peškado (fish), moška (fly), buškar (to search).


Morphological observations


  • The plural form of nouns depends on the type of lexeme and the language from which it originates:
  • Nouns from the Spanish language: -s or-es
  • Nouns from the Hebrew language: -im or-ot
  • Nouns from the Turkish language: -lar



  • The cluster nue- changes to mue-: muevo (new), muestru (our)
  • Possessive adjectives in plural: sus kaza (their house)



  • nos and os change to mos and vos (us, to us/you, pl., to you)
  • nosotros changes to muzotrus (we)
  • vosotros changes to vuzotrus (you, pl.)
  • miju (my), tuju (your), suju (his, her)



  • The vocal cluster “-isˮ changes to “šˮ: seš (six)
  • nue- changes to mue-: muevi (nine)
  • doce, trece, catorce changes to dozi (12), trezi (13), katorzi (14), kinzi (15)
  • -ie- changes to -i-: dieciseis changes to diziseš or dieziseš (16)


Verb differences (when compared to contemporary Spanish):

Regular Verbs:

  • Present: second person plural:
    • -ar: -aš kantaš
    • -er: -eš komeš
    • -ir: -iš biviš
  • Perfect: second person singular:
    • -ar: kantatis
    • -er: komitis
    • -ir: bivitis
  • First person plural:
    • -ar kantimus
  • Second person plural:
    • -ar kantatiš
    • -er komitiš
    • -ir bivitiš
  • Imperfect:
    • -ar: -ava kantava
  • Second person plural:
    • -ar: kantavaš
    •  -er: komiaš
    •  -ir: biviaš


Examples of irregular verbs

  • ser (to be); second person singular present indicative: sos
  • traer (to bring): /truši/, /trušites/, /trušu/ (perf.)
  • ver (to see): /vidi/, /vitis/, /vjo/ (perf.)
  • guler (to stink, to smell): /guelo/, /guelis/, /gueli/ (pres.)
  • ir (to go); the perfect form is similar to ser: /fuej/, /fuitis/, /fui/
  • kerer (to love): /kiži/, /kižitis/, /kižu/ (perf.)
  • aver (to have):
    • Present: a amus as aš a an
    • Perfect: uvi uvimus uvites uvitiš uvu uvijerun
    • Imperfect: avija avijas avija avijamus avijaš avijan


    Lexical level

    The Jewish-Spanish language was influenced by the languages of the peoples with whom the Sephardim came into contact, with whom they lived and traded. Turkish, Italian, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Greek, German and French had the greatest influences. In addition to these languages, Hebrew, the language of religious texts, also had a significant influence (vgl. Jevrejskošpanski zbornik, 2015).The Yugoslav dialects of Judeo-Spanish differ in the number and type of loanwords from Slavic and other Balkan languages (primarily Turkish and Greek). The Judeo-Spanish of Macedonia, which has been closely associated with the Judeo-Spanish of Thessaloniki for centuries, shows fewer Slavic loanwords than the Judeo-Spanish of Bosnia and Serbia. In addition, the Judeo-Spanish of Belgrade lacks some words of Turkish origin used in Sarajevo. However, all dialects have both Balkan and Slavic elements, and all have common Hebrew loanwords (Stanciewicz 2015: 45).

    In our interviews, one can also notice a great interference of borrowed words that are phonetically-phonologically adapted Ladino in the Balkans. Here are some examples of borrowings:

    • Archaisms: goalardonador (giver), abrašu (freckle)
    • Catalanisms: kaler (need, must)
    • Hebraisms: tefila (prayer), kal (temple), hanukiya (Hanukkah candleholder, menorahs), talet (prayer shawl), ketuba (marital agreement), bedahé (cemetery)
    • Slavisms: guzka (goose), ječam (barley), vladike (bishop)
    • Spanishised verbs: trpiniyar (to endure), razbiyar (to break), klaniyar (to worship)
    • Hellenisms: piron (fork), esnoga (Synagogue), portokal (orange), pita, fustan (skirt), agra (square), kandil (candle, oil lamp), makar (at least)
    • Arabisms: alhad (Sunday), afet (accident), alhašuf (almond), ahmak (mallet, fool), agar (heavy, thick), agir (a stud horse, stallion), alaša (mob, crowd), alčak (rascal), almeša (plum)
    • Turkisms: tevter (notebook), oda (room), ašikuvar (flirting), ćemane (violin), paras (money), maya (swimming trunks), belá (misfortune, mischief), bulbul (nightingale), yali (riverside), hal (difficulty, anguish)
    • Lusitanisms: agora (now), muitu (many, a lot), drago (dragon), duzpues (after, later), poru (leek), alfinete (needle), kazal (little village), ainda (yet, still), akavidar (be careful)
    • Italianisms: alora (now), faća (face), prasa (leek), lavoru (work, job), lavabo (washbasin), butiga (shop), univerzita (University), komunita (municipality), varda! (look!)
    • Germanisms: špital (hospital), ligeštul (rest chair), markale (market), ausvajs (pass), banovo (railway station), bircaus (pub, tavern), feš (harmonius), hoh (proud, tall), cigla,pigla (iron), faifa (smoking pipe), šnajder (tailor), torta, šlang (slim), trafika,kufer,hofrijar (courtship)
    • Galicianism: frízer (freezer), madam (Mrs.), ćapeju (hat), komité (committee), kombiné (overalls), komuna (community, municipality)


    © Azra Hodžić-Kadić 2021-2022



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    © Azra Hodžić-Kadić 2021-2022