Arts & Entertainment

Preserving the Sephardic tongue with technology

By Ilya U. Topper

Istanbul, Jun 5 (EFE).- The descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 have kept Ladino alive for 500 years but the language, which is now mainly spoken by Sephardic communities in Israel, Turkey and the Balkans, is at risk of disappearing.

Alp Öktem and Pelin Dogan, members of the Catalan initiative CollectivaT, seek to prevent this by digitalizing the language, which is derived from Old Spanish.

“The digital era poses a threat to the survival of this language. We are developing tools such as automatic translation and speech synthesizers,” Öktem tells Efe during a workshop at the Cervantes Institute in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

The city is home to nearly all of Turkey’s roughly 12,000 Sephardic Jews. But as with other Sephardic communities in cities like Thessaloniki and Sarajevo, only the older generations still speak ladino.

By the mid-20th century, many Sephardic families in Turkey preferred their children to learn Turkish or French — if means allowed — at school, meaning that nowadays most people can only remember their grandparents speaking Ladino.

This is the case for photographer Alberto Modiano, 60, who was born into a Sephardic family originally from Thessaloniki.

“My grandmother and grandfather spent their whole lives in Thessaloniki speaking Ladino. I understood it when they spoke, this is how I can speak a bit of Ladino now,” he told Efe in Ladino.

Öktem believes that in order for a language to survive in the 21st century, it must exist on the internet. He pointed out that while English is spoken by 15% of the world’s population, it accounts for 50% of the language online.

“We are developing the first automatic translator for Ladino — between Ladino and Turkish, English, Spanish and vice versa,” he added.

The language center in Istanbul published a monthly review in Ladino, which now counts on a standardized writing system following years of debate.

Ladino was spoken for centuries in Morocco, but from the beginning of the 20th century, Sephardic families in the North African nation began to swap it out for modern Spanish.

A similar pattern can be seen in Istanbul, where many younger Sephardic Jews prefer to learn Spanish in order to tap into Spanish and Latin American culture. EFE


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