About Solitreo

Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) refers to the variety of Spanish that developed among Jewish populations who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and subsequently settled throughout Turkey and the Balkans, then of the Ottoman Empire. These Jews, known as Sephardim, preserved many features of Medieval (varieties of) Spanish, while incorporating linguistic elements from the languages spoken in their surroundings, including: Turkish, Greek, Serbo-Croatian, French, Italian, and Arabic. As a Jewish language, the Spanish of the Sephardim has always been in contact with Hebrew. And while Judeo-Spanish may sound like other Romance languages, in writing, it would have traditionally appeared more similar to a Semitic language.

In this project, we deal with documents in Judeo-Spanish written in Solitreo. Solitreo refers to the Hebrew-based cursive script once used by Sephardim; it is the cursive variety of the Rashi alphabet. Solitreo, or Soletreo, is derived from Galician/Portuguese, meaning ‘to spell.’ For many Sephardim, Solitreo was simply known as ganchos, meaning ‘hooks,’ due to the ligatures that form between letters. This style of writing is distinct from the Ashkenazi-based alphabet used for cursive Hebrew today, making documents in Solitreo undecipherable to the untrained eye. A similar style of writing can also be found in documents written in Judeo-Arabic. And while we present the alphabet below, variation in this handwriting will vary slightly from person to person. Today, Solitreo is a relic of the past, as most writers of the language utilize Roman characters.

The Solitreo alphabet is presented below where it is written “Spanish-Hebrew Hand written.” In this table, you will also see the Rashi (Rabbinic) and Hebrew (Meruba) characters, as well as the English equivalent. After reviewing the principal letters, you will find examples illustrating the formation of syllables and words in Judeo-Spanish. When reading or writing Judeo-Spanish in Solitreo or other Hebrew-based styles, start at the far right of the page; the direction is right to left.

“Livro de Embezar las Linguas Ingleza i Yudish” (Book for Learning the English and Yiddish Languages,” published by New York City’s La Amerika newspaper in 1916.
Source: Ma’ale Adumim Institute

Compare the century-old document above with our table below. You will notice that some letters appear differently; this is because there is often more than one form for a given letter. Aside from the name of each letter or combination at the top of each box, you will find the corresponding Romanized character (or information suggesting its sound) below each letter.

click image to enlarge

A few notes in regard to the table above:

1. Several letters take diacritical marks, which can often look like an apostrophe placed to the side of the letter or a horizontal bar or v-shaped symbol directly on top of the letter. These marks indicate a change in pronunciation. Compare the letter zayin without a diacritical mark to zayin with a diacritical mark (zayin + rafe). Without a diacritic, zayin is pronounced as in the initial sound in the English word <zoo> (International Phonetic Alphabet symbol: [z]); it is often represented in Roman characters as <z>. With a diacritic, zayin is pronounced as the <s> in the English word <measure> (International Phonetic Alphabet symbol: [ʒ]); it is typically represented in Roman characters as <j>. And while these diacritical marks are helpful, note: a) writers do not always include them, which can lead to uncertainty if the context is not clear, b) they may appear much farther away from the letter than you might expect, and c) depending on the age and condition of the document you are reading, they may have faded, making you ask whether the mark in question is a diacritic or just a spot on the paper.

2. Like in Hebrew, there are five final letters; they are often referred to as “sofits” (e.g. pey sofit). Similar to Hebrew, these five final letters (k/haf, mem, nun, pey, sadik) also have special forms in Solitreo for Judeo-Spanish. While several letters may look somewhat different when they appear in final position of a word, it is worth noting that the letter ey (often written as hey), typically replaces an alef in final position of a word. Example: nona (‘grandmother’), would use the following letters: nun, vav, nun, ey (instead of nun, vav, nun, alef).

3. You will notice that, sometimes, two letters are provided underneath the Solitreo characters; this is because, often, letters often represent more than one sound. For example, the letter vav can represent either the [o] or [u] sound. While this may cause confusion for learners of Solitreo (or printed Judeo-Spanish in Rashi or Meruba characters), speakers of the language who read Judeo-Spanish in a Hebrew-based alphabet like Solitreo would be able to discern differences in line with either their dialect or context.

4. The alef + lamed ligature represents the sound [al] (e.g. alma ‘soul/spirit’) or, at times, [el] (e.g. Israel). This combination is not mandatory, and many writers opt for keeping these letters separate (i.e. alef and then lamed).

MLA Citation:
Kirschen, Bryan. “About Solitreo.” Documenting Judeo-Spanish, 2020, www.documentingjudeospanish.com/solitreo.