The Beginnings of Ladino Literature: Moses Almosnino and His Readers

The Beginnings of Ladino Literature: Moses Almosnino and His Readers

by Olga Borovaya


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Moses Almosnino (1518-1580), arguably the most famous Ottoman Sephardi writer and the only one who was known in Europe to both Jews and Christians, became renowned for his vernacular books that were admired by Ladino readers across many generations. While Almosnino's works were written in a style similar to contemporaneous Castilian, Olga Borovaya makes a strong argument for including them in the corpus of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) literature. Borovaya suggests that the history of Ladino literature begins at least 200 years earlier than previously believed and that Ladino, like most other languages, had more than one functional style. With careful historical work, Borovaya establishes a new framework for thinking about Ladino language and literature and the early history of European print culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253025524
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/13/2017
Series: Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Olga Borovaya is Visiting Scholar in the Mediterranean Studies Forum at Stanford University. She is author of Modern Ladino Culture: Press, Belles Lettres, and Theater in the Late Ottoman Empire (IUP).

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The Beginnings of Ladino Literature

Moses Almosnino and His Readers

By Olga Borovaya

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Olga Borovaya
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02584-5


Ladino in the Sixteenth Century


During the sixteenth century, as a consequence of the 1490s expulsions and continuous mass immigration of Iberian Jews to the Ottoman lands, a new speech community emerged there. It consisted of tens of thousands of speakers whose linguistic interaction led to the formation of a new Ibero-Romance interdialect that later stabilized as the Ladino koiné. Forced conversions in Portugal and the adoption of Judaism by converts and their children upon immigration to the Ottoman Empire brought a new readership into existence: Jews with limited or no Hebrew proficiency in need of a Jewish education. This necessity led to the emergence of a vernacular literature for Sephardi Jews that had not existed in Christian Iberia where Jewish authors wrote in Ibero-Romance only for Christians, using the Latin alphabet for this purpose. The new vernacular audience, albeit numerically small, was more heterogeneous than ever, because it included a large spectrum of readers from barely literate Jews who had never abandoned Judaism to educated ex-conversos who were fluent in European languages. This historically unique sociocultural situation lasted only until the turn of the seventeenth century. This chapter looks at the sociopolitical processes that led to the emergence of a Sephardi community in the Ottoman lands; it discusses its linguistic makeup and examines the birth and decline of the vernacular literature that served its needs.

The Formation of the Sephardi Community in Salonica and Constantinople

On March 31, 1492, Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and its possessions. Proclaimed a month later, the Edict gave Jews three months to leave or convert. As a result, there were no more Jews in the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after July 31, 1492.

A similar decree was issued in December 1496 in Portugal, where a large number of Spanish Jews found refuge. Under these circumstances, most Sephardim, including victims of forced mass baptisms, left the country in 1497. After that, the borders closed for mass emigration. Those who preferred to convert and remain in Portugal were given twenty years to embrace their new faith without the fear of being prosecuted for religious transgressions. However, in 1536, under pressure from Spain, the tribunal of the Inquisition was instituted in Portugal, which caused a new wave of converso emigration. Unable to integrate into a hostile Christian society and fearing for their lives, great numbers of converts chose to join the first refugees in Italy, North Africa, the Low Countries, and the Ottoman Empire.

In the absence of reliable statistics, scholars estimated the total number of Iberian exiles to be between 100,000 and 150,000. While it was dangerous to return to Judaism in European states (none of which offered Iberian refugees permanent residency), Ottoman authorities, who accepted the largest number of Sephardi immigrants without imposing any restrictions, allowed them to practice their religion freely, and offered the Jewish community as a whole a great deal of autonomy.

The flow of Sephardi exiles coming directly or indirectly from the Iberian Peninsula continued through the first decades of the eighteenth century, but the majority settled in the Ottoman lands in the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth. Scholars disagree about the number of Iberian Jews who arrived in the Ottoman Empire after 1492, but the most realistic estimate, based on Ottoman tax registers, puts it at around 60,000. The two largest centers of Jewish immigration in the empire were Constantinople and Salonica. In the sixteenth century, the Sephardi community of Constantinople did not exceed 1,045 households, i.e., approximately 5,225 people, forming around one third of the city's Jewish population, the rest being mainly Romaniots (local Greek-speaking Jews) and some Ashkenazim.

In the city of Salonica, there were no Jews in 1478, because local Romaniots had been deported to Constantinople as part of Mehmed Il's plan for repopulating the Ottoman capital. A new community was established in Salonica in 1492 by Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. Already by 1519, 53.23 percent of households in the city were Jewish. By 1530–1531, 59.23 percent of the city's permanent inhabitants were European Jewish immigrants and their descendants who formed a community that consisted of twenty Sephardi congregations "comprising 2,548 households and one Ashkenazi congregation made up of 97 households."

In 1530–1531, about 127 families, i.e., 4.98 percent of "Sephardic" immigrants, were Italian Jews, some of whom had come from Sicily in 1493, and from Calabria and Apulia in 1497.9 Calabrian Jews continued to immigrate through 1551 when they were joined by refugees from Naples and, after the accession of Pope Paul IV (1555–1559), by Jews from the Papal States and other Italian cities. After the Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536, followed by the institution of discriminatory laws similar to "purity of blood" statutes adopted in Spain, a significant number of conversos arrived from Portugal. Between 1530 and 1567, Salonica's Jewish population increased from 2,645 households to 2,883 households and 2,271 unmarried adult males. In 1613, these numbers were 2,933 and 2,270 respectively, which corresponded to 63.98 percent of the city's inhabitants.

These statistics show that the overwhelming majority of Salonican Jews were Sephardim who continued to arrive through the early seventeenth century, and who spoke mutually understandable Ibero-Romance languages and dialects. In the sixteenth century, Castilian and Portuguese differed less than they do now. More important, in Portugal, where Castilian had higher cultural prestige and functioned as a literary language starting in the late fifteenth century, educated people knew both languages. Besides, it should be remembered that a significant number of Spanish exiles had spent at least a few years in Portugal. As a result, many Sephardim in Europe and the Ottoman lands were bilingual. Because of this, Almosnino, whose family came from Aragon, was able to serve as a rabbi at the congregation founded in Salonica in December 1559 for the purposes of accommodating a new wave of Portuguese refugees. Livyat Hen (Chaplet of Grace), named after its foundress, was established by Gracia Nasi, one of the most prominent Portuguese ex-conversos who had come to Constantinople via Italy and the Low Countries in 1553.

She was particularly dedicated to Jewish education and the welfare of Portuguese exiles. In 1554, Gracia Nasi was joined by her nephew and son-in-law, Joseph Nasi, a prosperous merchant and influential courtier whom, in 1566, Sultan Selim II (r. 1566–1574) made Duke of Naxos. Almosnino, undoubtedly, owed his new appointment to his acquaintance, or even friendship, with Joseph Nasi.

Initially, Sephardi congregations were established according to the immigrants' places of origin, and named after Castile, Aragon, Majorca, Portugal, Lisbon, Córdoba, or Sicily, uniting refugees who spoke the same language or dialect and shared the same customs. In the 1570s, a renowned Salonican rabbi, Joseph ibn Lev, noted that "every language group in Salonika had its own congregation," whereas in Constantinople people moved from one congregation to another.

Over time the congregations grew too big for one synagogue, which, together with tax assessment-related discord, often led to a proliferation of new ones that were organized along different principles. For instance, Almosnino's grandparents on both sides, who fled Aragon in 1492, were among the founders of the Catalan congregation. After a series of bitter conflicts, it split into Catalan Yashan and Catalan Hadash (Old Catalan and New Catalan), and then the former split once again.

The numerical predominance of Iberian Jews and the reinforcement of their vernacular, thanks to the continuous flow of new immigrants, led to the cultural and linguistic assimilation of Italian Jews. Sephardim who came from Italy in the 1550s were also fluent in Spanish, which would have accelerated this process. There is evidence showing that by the 1580s, Apulians were no longer able to read or write in their language. The weakening of linguistic and cultural barriers already in the 1550s is illustrated by the fact that Almosnino, who started his career as a rabbi at his own Catalan synagogue, was hired by the Calabria Yashan (Neveh Shalom), after the Calabrian congregation had split into three smaller ones in 1553.

What Languages Did Ottoman Sephardim Speak in the Sixteenth Century?

In the nineteenth century, Sephardi intellectuals erroneously believed that Iberian exiles had initially spoken "pure" Castilian, and that their own language was a product of its "corruption." First of all, in the Ottoman Empire Castilian was spoken only by immigrants from Castile. Second, Ladino is not a form of Castilian, but a koiné, that is a new language formed as a result of contact between two or more mutually intelligible varieties of the same language. So, while refugees from Castile spoke Castilian, those from other parts of Iberia and Italy used Aragonese, Catalan, Calabrian, and other languages or dialects. Furthermore, the varieties spoken by their descendants born in the Ottoman Empire differed from those of the immigrants, which is reflected in private letters and court statements included in rabbinic responsa.

Until recently, the corpus of generally available non-literary texts from the sixteenth century consisted only of some communal ordinances, a few letters found in the Cairo Geniza, and a few testimonies included in responsa. The vernacular fragments from eighty-four rabbinic responsa published by Annette Benaim in 2012 significantly expanded this corpus. Benaim's material is as close to the speech of Ottoman Jews as one can expect given the fact that responsa were usually published after the rabbis' deaths, and were edited and corrected by various scribes and scholars.

These eighty-four vernacular fragments, whose length varies from three lines to a few pages, were inserted into the Hebrew frame of rabbinic responsa, arguably for the sake of preserving the authenticity of testimonies. Among the respondents are such celebrated scholars as Samuel de Medina, Isaac Adarbi, Moses Trani, Joseph ibn Lev, and a few others. As for the witnesses whose vernacular testimonies are discussed by these rabbis, we do not always know in what part of the Ottoman Empire they lived, but it is clear that many were residents of Salonica and Constantinople. Judging by their testimonies, some were well-off merchants while others were less prosperous and less educated men.

Since these 84 texts cover a large variety of topics — such as betrothals, divorces, trade, travel, financial operations, the status of ex-conversos, and all other legal matters that Jewish courts in the Ottoman Empire were entitled to adjudicate — they contain lexis from all spheres of Sephardim's lives. The bulk of this vocabulary consists of Romance elements, yet it also includes Hebrew and Turkish loans. Most Hebrew terms, including many abbreviations, are related to religious practices and halakhic (legal) matters, while others are used as euphemisms of various kinds. Since Ottoman Turkish was the official language of the empire, several administrative, judicial, and financial terms of Turkish and Arabic origins entered Ladino, even though few Sephardim actually knew vernacular Turkish, let alone Ottoman (the artificial language of bureaucracy).

In Benaim's corpus, Turkish terms are mainly used in texts dealing with taxes and judicial or administrative issues. Thus, text 47, which discusses a payment receipt, contains six Turkish words in four lines. On the other hand, some testimonies, especially those dealing with marriage and travel, contain no or very few non-Romance loans. Some of these texts would have been fully comprehensible to Spaniards if the Hebrew terms had been replaced with Spanish ones. Yet testimonies treating halakhic matters, such as text 1, on wine importation, could not have been easily adapted because the translation of Hebrew terms would have rendered this testimony meaningless. It is evident, therefore, that Sephardim were able to speak an Ibero-Romance variety comprehensible to all Spanish speakers, but in certain situations their speech, regardless of their intentions, would have been unintelligible to non-Jews. The linguistic analysis of the eighty-four vernacular texts published by Benaim confirms the conclusions reached in earlier studies of very few non-literary sources available at the time. It is evident that the language spoken by Ottoman Jews in the sixteenth century had numerous phonological, morphological, lexical, and syntactic features that, at the time of the expulsion, were no longer present in Castilian but still found in Aragonese, Leonese, Catalan, Galician, or Portuguese, while others were never attested in Castilian. For instance, the initial /f/ was dropped by Castilian but retained by Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese and was adopted by Ladino (e.g., (h)allar ~ fallar). The Ladino adverb onde ("where") was borrowed from Aragonese rather than the Castilian donde. Some nouns preserved their Latin gender in Aragonese but not in Castilian (e.g., el fin in Castilian ~ la fin in Aragonese and Ladino). Among other morphological borrowings attested in sixteenth-century Ladino texts is the Portuguese article a occasionally used instead of the Castilian la. Portuguese influence is also observable on the syntactic level, namely, in the frequent use of tener as an auxiliary verb (instead of haber). In addition to Ibero-Romance, Hebrew, and Turkish loans, sixteenth-century Ladino had numerous Italian ones, some of which were later dropped. For instance, eskiraso (from schirazzo, "boat with square sails") is not found in later Ladino texts.

Aside from containing loans and retentions (which led many scholars to describe it as an extremely conservative language), already in the sixteenth century, Ladino produced several innovations on the phonological and lexical levels, though not all of them were successful. In fact, Ralph Penny, who studied phonetic and phonological innovations, emphasizes the openness of Ladino to change, which he explains by certain social processes generated by the resettlement of Iberian Jews. While some innovations (such as seseo and yeísmo occurring in other Spanish dialects are accounted for by dialect contact, others have no antecedents in any of Ibero-Romance varieties.) Thus, Judeo-Spanish is the only Spanish variety that neutralized the phonological opposition /r/ ~ /r:/ in all positions (cf. pero ~ perro in Castilian). Another successful innovation is the metathesis rd>dr (e.g., tarde > tadre) widely attested both in literary and non-literary documents.

Still, the most salient feature of sixteenth-century Ladino, widespread polymorphism at all levels, often found within one text, was a result of dialect contact and innovations. Among the variations generated by dialect contact is the variation between forms with the diphthong /ue/ and /ie/ and with a simple vowel /o/ and /e/ respectively (as in ruego ~ rogo or prieto ~ preto). In both cases "the diphthongal forms were contributed by speakers from the areas of Castile, Leon, and Aragon, while the non-diphthongal forms originated in the speech of those from Galicia, Portugal, and Catalan-speaking regions."

The number and character of innovations and the co-occurrence of competing forms attested in the available sixteenth-century sources indicate that it was a period of active formation of a Judeo-Spanish koiné, resulting from contact between a number of mutually intelligible Ibero-Romance dialects that led to their mixing, followed by leveling and simplification. The widespread heterogeneity of forms, however, shows that the process of leveling through reduction of competing variants was only incipient. In other words, in the sixteenth century, Ladino was still at the stage that Peter Trudgill called "interdialect."

It is believed that the second stage of koineization, namely, focusing (variant reduction) when the new dialect chooses the simplest available variants, can happen as early as in the first generation of native-born speakers and usually no later than the fourth. But in the case of Ladino, it took much longer. Among other factors, this results from the fact that later immigrants, who had significant linguistic influence due to their higher social mobility, brought many non-Castilian innovations. Furthermore, the process of leveling was somewhat delayed, owing to Sephardim's tendency to establish congregations on the geographic principle, which also facilitated penetration into the Judeo-Spanish koiné of a larger number of non-Castilian elements, especially on the lexical level. Finally, unlike the koinés in nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrant communities studied by Trudgill and others, Ladino emerged when mass media did not exist, and it was not taught in school, which would have accelerated the process of focusing.


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Table of Contents

Note on Translations, Transcriptions, Titles, and Proper Names
Prologue. Jewish Vernacular Culture in Fifteenth-Century Iberia
1. Ladino in the Sixteenth Century: The Emergence of a New Vernacular Literature
2. Almosnino's Epistles: A New Genre for a New Audience
3. Almosnino's Chronicles: The Ottoman Empire Through the Eyes of Court Jews
4. The First Ladino Travelogue: Almosnino's Treatise on the Extremes of Constantinople
5. Rabbis and Merchants: New Readers, New Educational Projects
Epilogue. Moses Almosnino, a Renaissance Man?
Appendix. The Extremes of Constantinople

What People are Saying About This

Vincent Barletta

Like the best scholarship, Olga Borovaya's book is quietly revolutionary and serves to open up many new conversations in various fields.

Vincent Barletta]]>

Like the best scholarship, Olga Borovaya's book is quietly revolutionary and serves to open up many new conversations in various fields.

Julia Phillips Cohen]]>

Olga Borovaya uncovers previously unacknowledged or misunderstood aspects of the literary, philosophical, and historical underpinnings of early Ladino literature. An impressive and erudite work.

Julia Phillips Cohen

Olga Borovaya uncovers previously unacknowledged or misunderstood aspects of the literary, philosophical, and historical underpinnings of early Ladino literature. An impressive and erudite work.

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