Haketiya, the Spanish Yiddish

Like Ladino, Haketiya grew out of the Spanish of Jews exiled from Spain. Like Yiddish, it has a range of loving, spiteful, sarcastic, ironic, anxious, and superstitious expressions.

“A Jewish Wedding in Morocco,” c. 1841 by Eugène Delacroix. Wikipedia.

“A Jewish Wedding in Morocco,” c. 1841 by Eugène Delacroix. Wikipedia.

July 10 2024
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My friend, the novelist Robert Littell, who lives with his wife in Normandy, not far from a town called Domfront, has written me:

Last Sunday we went to a concert in Domfront’s lovely church. A French-Jewish-Moroccan woman with a beautiful voice sang Andalusian songs, some in Spanish and many in Ladino. One of her songs was listed in the program as being in a Judeo-Spanish dialect from Morocco called Haketiya. I’ve never heard of this dialect, but you will surely know about it, though I can’t imagine that there are many who speak it.

Indeed, there aren’t. Current estimates are that there are as few as a thousand speakers of Hakitiya, or Haketiya (pronounced kha-keh-TEE-ya), left in the world, presumably nearly all elderly. Once spoken extensively in the north of Morocco in such places as Tangiers, Tetouan, Larache, Ceuta, and Melilla, Haketiya is now on the verge of extinction. A generation from now it will be, barring a linguistic miracle, only a memory, a subject for articles like this one, and the language of a few songs that someone still knows how to sing from what was once a rich repertoire of medieval Spanish romanzeros.

Like its better-known Judeo-Spanish relative Ladino, Haketiya grew out of the Spanish of Jews exiled from Spain in the late 15th century. As might be expected, it differs considerably from Ladino, which was spoken by the exiles who settled in Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans and whose speech, laced with many Hebrew words, was heavily influenced by their languages, especially Turkish. (There is a close parallel here with Yiddish, the German-cum-Hebrew of medieval Jewish settlers in Eastern Europe that evolved through close contact with Slavic languages like Polish and Ukrainian.) Whereas both Ladino and Haketiya preserved much medieval vocabulary that was lost in modern Spanish while also retaining older grammatical and phonetic forms, the external influence on the latter was Moroccan Arabic.

A few hundreds of possible examples can help illustrate what Haketiya and Ladino do and don’t share. In both languages, the word for “much” or “many” is old Spanish muncho (from Latin multus) rather than mucho, as it is today. In both, the grapheme j has kept its medieval value, so that ojo, “eye,” is pronounced with the “j” of “jam,” not with the slightly guttural “h” that most Spanish speakers give it today. In both, one sees the medieval Spanish shift of “f” to aspirated “h” (which subsequently lost its sound entirely in many words) only partially completed, so that modern Spanish hierro, “iron” (from Latin ferrum), is fierro and modern Spanish horno, “oven” (Latin fornas), is forno. The Ladino and Haketiya verb for “to settle down” is archaic Spanish afincar as opposed to today’s establecerse. Their noun for “mattress” is old Spanish almadraque, not contemporary colchón.

Some of the things that Haketiya and Ladino have in common go back to pre-Expulsion times, in which Jewish Spanish differed in ways from Christian Spanish. Their word for “poverty,” for instance, is Hebrew aniyut, not Spanish pobreza. “God” is Dio, not Díos, thus avoiding the final “s” (which actually comes from the Latin singular form of deus) that Jews feared might be taken as a plural ending hinting at the Trinity. For Christian domingo, “Sunday,” from Latin dies Dominicus, “the day of the Lord,” Spanish Jews substituted Arabic [yom] el-ḥad, “first day” [of the week], which became Ladino alhad and Haketiya dia d’alḥat.

Yet in still other cases, Haketiya and Ladino parted ways just as did the Jews who spoke them. In Haketiya the word for “son” is hijo, as in modern Spanish (although its “j” is still a palatal); in Ladino it remained medieval fijo (from Latin filius). In Ladino, a cemetery is a bedahayim, from Hebrew bet-ḥayyim (literally, “house of life”); in Haketiya it is me’ará, from the Hebrew word for “cave.” Spanish bofetada or bofetón, a slap in the face, was replaced in Ladino by Turkish shamar, in Haketiya by Arabic tarsha. Medieval Spanish had three different words for to rumple or crumple, despeinar, descachifar, and enjandrazonar: the first alone survived in modern Spanish, the second alone in Haketiya, the third alone in Ladino. A bar mitzvah in Ladino is a bar-mitzvá; in Haketiya, it’s a tefellímes, from the t’filin that the bar-mitzvah boy dons for the first time.

Like Arabic but even more so, Haketiya was a highly ritualized language with a host of stock phrases for practically any conceivable situation. In his Spanish study Dialecto Judeo-Hispano-Marroqui o Hakitia, the distinguished Jewish linguist Jose Benoliel (1858–1937), who was born in Tangiers, has separate chapters containing long series of Haketiya blessings, imprecations, oaths, exclamations, and customary responses. Here are a few examples:

Blessings. To someone going on a journey: Caminos de paz! (“Peaceful roads!”). To one’s host at a meal: A hartura lo tengas siempre! (“May you always have abundance!”). To someone who has had a bad dream: Sueños buenos se mos cumplan y los malos se desfagan como la sal en la agua! (“May good dreams be ours and may bad ones dissolve like salt in water!”).

Imprecations. Of someone parted with on bad terms: La ida de Yoná! ([May he have] A departure like Jonah’s [who was swallowed by a whale]!”). Of an enemy spied sitting: Se asente en un seffud hami! (“May he sit on a seffud hami!”Arabic for a spit for grilling meat). Of one in a prone position: Le echen en el aron!” (“May they lay him in an aron!”—Hebrew for a coffin).

Oaths. Por el Dió de Abraham! (By the God of Abraham!”). Como soy judió (“As I am a Jew”). Por esas agua de la mar, y sinó que me hunda y ahogue en ellos! (“By the waters of the sea, may I not sink and drown in them!”).

Exclamations. A la cara del Dió! (“O face of God!). A Liyyahu Hannabi! (“O prophet Elijah!”). Que negro mazzal! (“What black luck!”).

Required responses. A particularly interesting example given by Benoliel involves the use of the Spanish verb salir, to leave or to exit. He writes:

If someone praises . . . a child in its mother’s presence, the required response is salió [“he has left”], believed to affect the Evil Eye [who is thus no longer present]. . . . Good breeding thus calls for avoiding the verb salir when talking with friends. If one happens to say inadvertently voy a salir [“I’m leaving”], or mi hijo salió [“my son left”], or something similar, . . . the instant reply must be: A ueno, salgas del mal [“Oh, well, may you leave behind all bad things”].

Of all the languages I have some familiarity with, only Yiddish has such a range of loving, spiteful, sarcastic, ironic, anxious, and superstitious expressions for whatever life brings one’s way, and Haketiya resembles Yiddish, too, in its plethora of endearments and affectionate diminutives. (One theory of the uncertain origins of its name is that this comes from Hakito, the diminutive of Yitzhak, popular for boys among Moroccan Jews.) Is this true of Jewish languages on the whole? I don’t know most well enough to say, but in reading the words of Alicia Sisso Raz, who grew up speaking the language to her parents after they emigrated from Morocco to Israel, one could almost be reading one of the many emotional encomia to Yiddish that one frequently encounters. Here is the end of her article “La Ḥaketiya”:

When I think about it deeply, I have to shake off my pessimism [about Haketiya’s future]. Although we descendants of the [Haketiya-speaking] community now live scattered all over the world, Haketiya remains the tender language of our souls. It is our language of affection, the language that encapsulates memories of a wonderful, lost age that illuminates our beings. Even though these memories have reached us by word of mouth and not from first-hand experience, they are embedded in our minds and hearts. Can Haketiya have run its course? God forbid! . . . It is a heritage from our fathers and mothers, and it is our duty to pass it down to [the next generations of] ḥaquitos.

I hope, Bob, that I’ve translated that correctly, because it’s written in Haketiya.

More about: Jewish language, Ladino, The Jewish World, Yiddish