Daily Sabah (Turkey)

Reviving endangered Ladino language


A HOUSEWIFE by day and actress by night, Forti Barokas is one of the few people trying to revive an endangered language, Ladino, spoken mostly by Turkey’s Jewish community.

Barokas is among approximat­ely 8,000 speakers in Turkey of the Ladino or Judeo-Espanyol language – an ancient mix of Hebrew and Spanish.

The language is spoken by the descendant­s of Jewish refugees from Spain who sought shelter in Ottoman Turkey starting in the late 15th century – not the first time or the last that Turkey opened its arms to people fleeing violence and persecutio­n.

Earlier, she had been staging plays, at least 75% of which were in Ladino, to help revive the language. But over time this ratio dropped to only 50% and eventually ended up with only Turkish plays.

The 73-year-old expressed regret over the current situation of the language, “for we are the ones who killed the language,” she told Anadolu Agency (AA) at her home in Istanbul. “It’s my generation, so there is regret.”

Now all of their plays are in Turkish because the younger generation does not understand Ladino, she explained.

Also a playwright, Barokas and her friends mainly stage plays for charity at a Jewish school in Istanbul to help the community.

One reason behind Barokas’ generation leaving behind Ladino is Turkey’s Turkificat­ion policies. In the early days of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, a government-funded “Citizen, speak Turkish” campaign required members of the multicultu­ral country to speak the Turkish tongue.

According to Ethnologue, a world language database, there are over 51,000 Ladino speakers worldwide, including 43,000 living in Israel. Ethnologue also gives the population of Jews in Turkey as around 13,000 and claims that of those, 8,000 are Ladino speakers.

The language is mainly spoken in Turkey’s largest cities, such as Istanbul and Izmir, and people 50 and over make up the bulk of the speakers.

Barokas, who has been acting for the last 35 years, was busy at her home giving interview after interview to reporters, as a Netflix show in which she both acted and was a Ladino consultant became a hit.

“Kulüp,” or “The Club,” which debuted last year, found many viewers, especially in Turkey, as it focused on the life of a Ladino-speaking Jewish woman in the Istanbul metropolis amid some difficult days in the 1950s.

Following the first half of the 20th century, the number of minorities living in the country fell after republican-era Turkificat­ion policies. The 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, the 1942 wealth tax which hit non-Muslim communitie­s, and the 1955 attacks – also known as the events of Sept. 6-7 – saw many minority citizens leave the country.

“It’s my mother tongue, we used to only speak Ladino at home,” Barokas said, explaining how she kept the language alive.

But Barokas, a mother of two, did not speak Ladino at home, so today her children do not speak the endangered tongue.

According to Barokas, the younger generation­s are much more interested in learning to speak modern Spanish than Ladino.

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