Tradition vs. modern technology: Will electronic dictionaries have the last word?

By Avner Perez


Encyclopedia publishing ceased a few years ago. With the advent of Wikipedia, the demand for well-established encyclopedias, among them the famous Encyclopedia Britannica, plummeted and forced all publishers to launch digital versions on the Internet, eliminating all print versions.

In my opinion, that will also be the fate of dictionaries.

In a few years’ time updated versions will be published and no new dictionaries will be printed. Instead, there will be digital dictionaries on the Internet that will offer much more options than the print ones. Thus, following that trend, I recently uploaded the Trezoro de la lengua djudeo-espanyola a lo Largo de las Epokas—el diksionario amplio i istoriko (Treasure of Judeo-Spanish Throughout the Ages—Unabridged and Historical Dictionary) on the website of the Instituto Maale Adumim para la Dokumentasion del Ladino i su Kultura (Maale Adumim Institute for the Documentation of Ladino and its Culture).

With that mind, let's take a brief look at Judeo-Spanish lexicology.

Dictionaries exist to meet a need: people want to expand their knowledge of a language, understand words they don’t know in a text or look for the onethey need when writing or translating. Most of the Ladino dictionaries published can be classified as “practical,” although a true dictionary should go beyond the narrow limits of “practicability.”
Ideally, a dictionary is a cultural creation in itself and as such, it shows a language in a more comprehensive way, influences how it will be used in the future and contributes to expanding its reach, thus making it more flexible. It also adapts itself to the language for different uses. This can only be accomplished by unabridged and historical dictionaries, which contain, first of all, words and expressions from different linguistic standards and historical periods that reflect particular ways of speaking. Experience shows that words that were forgotten or that fell into disuse come back to life, sometimes with different meanings, to respond to society’s needs, thus enriching the language.

Another aspect of those dictionaries is that they also include idiomatic expressions, locutions and sayings that are unique to a language, which set them apart from other languages.

The third aspect, and perhaps the most important, are the examples and citations culled from literary works from different periods and genres, namely poetry and classical prose, popular and rabbinical literature, journalism and literary works. 

Such examples take center stage in unabridged and historical dictionaries, and give them their true depth and cultural value. Any dictionary that includes the above-mentioned features is a “showcase” for the language, such as the Muevo Diksionario Ebreo (New Hebrew Dictionary), by Abraham Even Shushan, or the Diksionario Ebreo (Hebrew Dictionary), by Yaakov Kenaani.

The first of the Ladino practical dictionaries is Heshek Shelomo (Venice, 1588), which is in reality a work of biblical Hebrew. In it, words and expressions, culled from the Bible, following the order of the verses, appear next to their Ladino translation. This work served as the basis for numerous editions of the Bible printed in Italy from 1633 on (the first was a miniature edition printed in Venice). In these editions a small circle appears next to the words translated from the verses. The translation appears on the right, or left, margin of the page depending on the line where the word is found. Surprisingly, this 400-year-old method is used by today’s technology.

At the Maale Adumin Institute we are currently considering the possibility of combining the Trezoro with the Proyekto de Periodizmo Djudio de la Universidad de Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv University Jewish Journalism Project) in which Ladino journals will be scanned and digitized, and made available on the Internet. The user can click on a Ladino word from those journals and find its English or Hebrew translation, which will be taken from the Trezoro.

More than 220 years passed between the second edition of Heshek Shelomo and the publication of a new dictionary, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay’s Darkei Noam (Belgrade, 1839), which was intended for the teaching of Hebrew grammar. A list of biblical words—arranged according to nouns, adjectives, verbs and grammatical forms, and the Ladino translation of each of them—appears at the end of the book.

Fast forward to the second half of the nineteenth century, when Jewish dictionary-publishing was still centered around the Bible’s language. In 1855, Schaufler’s Diksionario de la Lengua Santa kon la Deklarasion de kada biervo en la lengua sefaradit (Dictionary of the Holy Tongue With Each Verb in the Sephardic language) was published in Belgrade, which included expressions and examples. However, they represent Biblical Hebrew and not the richness and diversity of Ladino.

It’s only at the end of the nineteenth century that a new dictionary is published: Shlomo Israel Sherezli’s Nuevo 

Chiko Dicksionario Djudeoespanyol-Fransez (New Abbreviated Judeo-Spanish/French Dictionary, Jerusalem 

1898/9). Although this is a practical work (each French word appears next to its Ladino meaning), it’s limited in 

its number of words.

Similar to Sherezli’s dictionary are two other works, published in the first half of last century: Albert Pipano’s 

Diksyonario Zhudeio-Espanyol Bulgaro (Judeo-Spanish/Bulgarian Dictionary, Sofia, 1913) and Menahem Moché’s 

Diksionario de adlikera djudeo-espanyol-ebreo (Judeo-Spanish/Hebrew Pocket Dictionary, Salonika, 1934).

In 1976 the Instituto Ben Zvi of Jerusalem launched a project to edit an unabridged and historical dictionary, under the direction of professor Moshe Lazar. Using all the methods available back then, a large collection of cards containing words culled from a large number of works of Judeo-Spanish literature, mainly rabbinical, were produced. Thanks to the efforts invested on the project, a sample copy of 800 entries of the letter gimel was published. The project, however, was discontinued.

Of all the lexicographic creation efforts in Ladino in the second half of last century, it’s worth mentioning Joseph 

Nehama’s Dictionnaire du Judeo-espagnol (Judeo-Spanish Dictionary, Madrid, 1977) and Isaac Moskona’s 

Dicksionario Ladino-Bulgaro (Ladino-Bulgarian Dictionary). Written on a typewriter, only a part of which was 

translated into English, the latter was published in the annual journal of the Bulgarian Jewish community, 

starting with the 1985 issue. Both dictionaries stand out for their high lexicographic level, with each word having 

several definitions, along with relevant phrases and examples.

According to Moskona, his dictionary has 17,447 words, thousands of which were not included in Nehama’s 

impressive work. Nahama’s, on the other hand, has thousand of words that do not appear in Moskona’s.

When I started to work on the Lashon meAspamia (Language of Spain) dictionary, at the initiative of the 

Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino (National Authority of Ladino), my job consisted in looking for words in the 

above-mentioned dictionaries and other sources (among them the dictionaries of Albert Morris Passy, Eli and 

Klara Perahya, Samuel Romano and Matilde Koen Sarano, besides glossaries and several lexicons) as well as 

preparing a collection of everything in existence in that field, and providing the most exact translations and 

definitions possible. The result was a most important and inclusive Ladino dictionary—a 50,000-word work.

From the lexicographic point of view, the dictionary, which came out in 2007 after eight years of work, 

represents several genres and eras of the life of the language. Its digital version, available on a CD, allows the 

user to search in two ways: from Ladino to Hebrew or from Hebrew to Ladino.

Two years after the publication of Lashon meAspamia, Koen Sarano’s Ladino-Hebrew and Hebrew-Ladino Dictionary 

came out, which contains about 25,000 words, half the number of the latter, but with a considerable number of 

neologisms of everyday use.

With the Trezoro we are currently entering a new phase in Judeo-Spanish lexicography. It is a work based on the Internet version of Lashon maAspamia, to which thousands of words, as well as citations and examples from Djudeo-Spanish works from several historical periods, were added. Currently, the Trezoro has, besides 51,000 primary and secondary terms, 40,000 citations from nine different catergories: couplets; refrains; popular literature; locutions and idiomatic expressions; lexicology; classic poetry and drama; novels and journalism; Bible, Mishna and Midrash; and religious literature. The citations are culled from dozens of books published throughout 500 years of Ladino works. Each category has its own dictionary, which allows the user to find the primary word. After clicking on it, the citations from all the categories included in the dictionary appear with all their possible meanings. The user can also look for Hebrew words.

The Trezoro is also “a dictionary that grows,” with a goal of reaching some 250,000 examples over time. If printed, it would require ten big volumes. Non-subscribers can have an idea the scope of the dictionary by clicking on the letter A, which has 11% of the words of the work, on the site of the Instituto Maale Adumim (http://web.macam.ac.il/~yon/av/htm).

I am currently at work developing an English version of the Trezoro. In its first phase the primary words of the 

dictionary (31,000) will be translated into English, which will open up the work to thousands of lovers of Ladino 

and Sefardic culture that do not know Hebrew. The next phase, to be completed shortly, will also include the 

primary words of the dictionary, but in Hebrew characters, as they were written in books and journals in Ladino 

for hundreds of years, which will help students and researchers of Ladino press and literature.

With the advent of the Trezoro, the lexicographic efforts in Ladino, which started with the publication of Heshek 

Shelomo in 1588, come full circle and conclude, for now, with the use of modern technology to show the language 

in all its greatness and cultural richness.

Avner Perez is the director of the Maale Adumim Institute and an award-winning poet. He has edited several books and translations in Ladino, among them Homer’s Odyssey, and is the author of Sinisa i fumo (Ashes and Smoke), a work on the Holocaust set to music. The Institute is located in Maale Adumim, a town north of Jerusalem.

Translated from Ladino by Daniel Santacruz

 © Daniel Santacruz

July 2013                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 


 

 

 

 

 

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