Ladino Is Not a Dead Language

Sephardic Turkish writer Nesi Altaras spoke to Hey Alma about queer linguistics and Ladino Wordle.

Nesi Altaras is a Sephardic Turkish intellectual in Montreal. He graduated with a Master’s in Political Science from McGill University, and works on the side as a writer, translator and editor. He writes and publishes prolifically in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of his ancestors, often for the last magazine in the world published exclusively in Ladino, El Amaneser, which is based in Istanbul.

While he is not a native Ladino speaker, Altaras has learned and is an avid reader of its books, such as by contemporary secular authors like Matilda Koen-Sarano. He edits the Turkish-language forum, Avlaremoz, a media platform for Turkish Jews to speak on alternative, sociopolitical issues independent of Turkey’s mainstream Jewish newspaper, Şalom.

In a recent essay for the new online magazine Zaman Collective, which foregrounds Mizrahi Jews and others outside of “Ashkenormative” narratives, he presented research on queer vocabularies in Ladino, particularly in reference to male homosexuality, returning the language to millennial society from its apparent endangerment, as no native speakers yet remain under the age of 40. In the piece, titled “Ladino: A Sephardic Glossary of Queerness,” Altaras discusses Greek, Persian, Turkish and Spanish words that are part of the vocabulary that Ladino has preserved to identify male homosexuality in the LGBTQI+ community, such as “karucha” in Greek, meaning “wheel,” or “kulo alegre”, literally “happy ass,” from Spanish.

As a young man of letters, Altaras is a leader in the cultural history of Ladino and its postmodern revivification in politics and literature. By phone, I spoke with Altaras about the origin stories of Ladino, its proximity to modern Turkish society, and his independent studies to revivify its use in diverse communities around the world, particularly in the Sephardic diaspora.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What was your introduction to Ladino, or Ladino studies? 

I didn’t grow up speaking the language. I was familiar with it, from my family. I learned modern Spanish, but only much later, as an adult, did decide to immerse myself in Ladino. I mostly learned by reading El Amaneser. Now, I write in it.

While writing in Ladino, do you feel how different it is from Turkish or Spanish?

The difference from Turkish is immediate. Spanish is a little harder. In the beginning I definitely had a more modern Spanish inflective style, because that’s what I knew. As I read more in Ladino and learned all of these words that are of Greek origin or Hebrew origin, or stylistic differences in the way Ladino uses connectors, I was able to bring those into my own writing. The different uses of “i” not only to mean “and,” but “although,” or “nevertheless.” You can use “i” for any connector you need if you use it correctly.

Why is queer vocabulary in Ladino a particularly compelling topic for you to study?

As I’ve written, I had seen a similar phenomenon in Kurdish, and with queer issues being important in Turkey I wanted to investigate. There are all sorts of different aspects of the language that are undocumented and this is one of them. I thought this would be a good place to get some writing done so that we have the information.

How does your Turkish-language publication Avlaremoz fit into your efforts and studies to revitalize Ladino? 

The work there is to create a space to educate the Turkish-speaking public about Jews, Jewish culture and antisemitism, and also to create a space for Jews in Turkey, or Jews in Turkish, to speak to each other, disagree and discuss, to create a culture of speaking amongst ourselves in public space. Ladino is a part of that. It’s not the daily language of communication but its value has been realized more and more.

There’s a lot of coverage about revitalization efforts and about Ladino at Avlaremoz. And we are independent. It’s not the official publication of any communal institution. It doesn’t follow the government line. We welcome dissent. We have a commitment to the autonomy of writers.

Jews in Turkey often follow the conservatism of the Turkish government in order to stay safe under its protection, as a minority vulnerable to state oppression and domestic terrorism. What are your thoughts on that?

I’ve critiqued this many times. The idea that we need to be close to the government or be quiet in order to be safe or have a better life has failed as a policy because, as this policy is being implemented, we keep seeing more emigration [from Turkey], mostly to Israel, and elsewhere as well. We keep seeing our community getting smaller, and safety threats continuing, so it hasn’t worked. The community has changed in some ways. There is more and more desire to speak.

What are you reading these days for Ladino literature? 

Right now, I’m almost done with “Kuentos del bel para abasho” by Mathilda Koen-Sarano, who is one of the very prolific Ladino authors. This book is a collection of jokes or folk stories. The title means “stories below the belt” or naughty stories. There’s a lot of sex or toilet humor and stuff like that. Some of them are funny, because a lot of them are old. They are told by all different people who have different accents and use different words. She preserves those differences in the writing. Some people are more Italian, Spanish, Turkish or Hebrew.

What type of Ladino or Sephardic community exists in Montreal?

I just hosted an event with the Museum of Jewish Montreal about Ladino, through its sayings. There is definitely increased interest in Montreal in Ladino. It was remote, on Zoom. It was well-attended, with about 90 people. It was mostly people in the U.S. and Canada, definitely some Montreal representation for sure.

Is Ladino endangered? How do you see its future? 

I think the framing of how people talk about minority languages needs to change. I think this is happening a little, especially with Yiddish, about post-vernacular use. Obviously, Ladino is not going to return to the daily language of communication like it was, but that doesn’t mean a language is dead or endangered or dying.

Ladino is currently going through a revivification. It’s becoming more actively a part of people’s lives now, and there’s more interest today than two or three years ago to use the language in new ways. For example, two collaborators and I created a Ladino Wordle as a way to engage with the language.

There are more and more translations from Ladino and into Ladino. There’s a Tin Tin comic book coming out in Ladino soon. More and more classes are being offered. The idea that the language is dying or endangered overstates the current state of it. The people who use the language for daily communication are over 60, but to say that the language is going to die because they’re the only people who use the language every day is an overstatement.

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