Here’s a little quiz. What language was spoken three centuries ago by the Jewish community of Istanbul? Of Bordeaux? Of Hamburg? (Hint: three different answers.)
Answers (and much more) within….
The first answer is easily guessed by anyone who knows the basic history of the Sephardic community: Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). The second is not surprising to those who know the assimilative capability of France: French. The third answer surprised the hell out of me when I learned it: Portuguese.
The best-known Sephardic community is that from Spain (Sepharad is a Hebrew term that occurs once in the Bible and eventually became used for Spain). As everyone knows, it was expelled in 1492; some went to Portugal, but the same thing happened there five years later. The bulk of the community went to North Africa (where some still speak the dialect called Haketia), from which many later moved eastward into the Ottoman Empire and concentrated in cities like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Salonica. There, where they lived in large numbers and were not competing with significant preexisting Jewish communities, they kept their Spanish language, larded with Hebrew and, more and more, with borrowings from the languages that surrounded them: Turkish, Persian, the Balkan languages, and eventually Italian and French. It was primarily a spoken language, written down at first only in word-by-word paraphrases of Hebrew texts (parallel to the Taitsch used by the Yiddish-speaking community), but became a literary vehicle with the publication of the Me’am Lo’ez, an extensive commentary on the Torah, in the 18th century. There are Ladino links here and a grammar here, there is an anthology whose introduction provides a good sample of Ladino if you want to try reading some, and Hippocrene publishes a bizarre and delightful dictionary.
Those who went to Western Europe, however, mainly spoke Portuguese, which was the language of the communities in the Netherlands, England, Hamburg, and (at first) France, as well as of those who emigrated to the Americas (including New Amsterdam, now New York). Spinoza‘s mother tongue was Portuguese. As I say, I had no idea, and I am glad to have my picture of linguistic history still further complicated.
Addendum. The implausibly polyglottal Bob Cohen reminds me that Sephardim also spoke Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Provencal, and Romaniote Judeo-Greek; see his comment for further info. (There are also Judeo-Persian speaking communities, notably the “Bukharan Jews,” but including them as “Sephardim” is controversial.)