500 Years after the Spanish Inquisition: Language Ideologies, Law, Sephardi Citizenship

Author: Idil Ozkan (Northwestern University, U.S.A)
Speaker: Idil Ozkan
Topic: Language Ideologie
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL COMELA 2022 General Session


In 2015, the Spanish government enacted a law that offering Spanish citizenship to Jews worldwide, provided they can document Sephardic ancestry in Spain. Although presented as atonement for the horrors of the Inquisition, Spain’s citizenship offer is in fact temporally limited and contingent on passing Spanish language examination and a “culture” test. Looking at the meaning of “Sephardic” as a lived reality in Turkey and an imagined belonging in Spain, this paper centers the shifting language ideologies undergirding Spain’s offer, and wider conceptions of citizenship within the Turkish Sephardi community. First, I trace the linguistic and historical nexus that renders Sephardim lawful citizens of contemporary Spain while scrutinizing its ideological underpinnings. The legal and political discourses on Sephardim’s Spanish belonging focalizes on the community’s 500-year maintenance of their vernacular Ladino in the diaspora. Ladino contains medieval Castilian linguistic features and has been transmitted across generations since the expulsion in 1492. The idea of language maintenance as key evidence of national belonging is at the heart of ideologies about linguistic-cultural lineage in the case of Spain’s citizenship offer. Providing an indirect justification for valuing Sephardim’s belonging differently, the law excludes other groups expelled during the fifteenth century, notably Muslims. On the other hand, the 2015 law’s emphasis on and valuation of Ladino as evidence of Spanish cultural lineage contrasts with the declining number of Ladino speakers worldwide. Declared a “severely endangered language” of the world, Ladino, for the Turkish Sephardi community, has become a marker of lower-middle socio-economic profile, and a sign of separatism, in the last 100 years. This paper traces shifting indexicalities of Ladino from a marginalized minority language potentially signifying separatism within Turkish nation-state, into a sign that indexes membership in a national body.

Keywords: Language ideologies, law, citizenship