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St. Andrew’s church in Glenview, Illinois. (Greg Ruffing)

How to Save a Dying Language

Geoffrey Khan is racing to document Aramaic, the language of Jesus, before its native speakers vanish

In a highly connected global age, languages are in die-off. Fifty to 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to go silent by century’s end. We live under an oligarchy of English and Mandarin and Spanish, in which 94 percent of the world’s population speaks 6 percent of its languages. Yet among threatened languages, Aramaic stands out. Arguably no other still-spoken language has fallen farther.

Its first speakers, the Arameans, were desert nomads. (The Bible describes the mythic forebear of the Hebrews as “a wandering Aramean.”) Spreading out from ancient Syria, they so blanketed Mesopotamia that when the Assyrians conquered the Middle East in the eighth century B.C., they adopted Aramaic—not their own tongue, Akkadian—as a language of empire. So did the Babylonians when they vanquished the Assyrians, and the Persians when they toppled the Babylonians. The language crossed the lips of Christians, Jews, Mandeans, Manicheans, Muslims, Samaritans, Zoroastrians and pagans.

The writing on the wall (the proverbial sort) came for Aramaic in the seventh century A.D., when Muslim armies from Arabia conquered the Middle East, and Arabic routed Aramaic as the region’s lingua franca. Aramaic survived only in the Kurdish mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, places so remote they never got the memo. Jews and Christians there (though not Muslims, who spoke Kurdish) kept up Aramaic as an everyday tongue for another 1,300 years.

The number of Aramaic speakers alive today is difficult to calculate. Though some estimates set the figure as high as a half-million, that number is misleading. Because of its ancient lineage, lack of standardization and the isolation of speakers from one another, the modern tongue, known as Neo-Aramaic, has more than 100 dialects, most with no written analogue. Many dialects are already extinct, and others are down to their last one or two speakers.

As an everyday language, linguists told me, Aramaic is safe now in only one place: the Christian village of Maaloula, in the hills outside Damascus, where, with Syrian state support, elders still teach it to children.

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Like many Neo-Aramaic experts, Khan, whose accent bears traces of his working-class childhood in northeast England, stumbled on the field almost by accident. In his early years at Cambridge, he worked on a trove of ancient Jewish manuscripts—in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic—known as the Cairo Geniza. But the long hours squinting at microfilm were a downer. Eager for change after a dispiriting day in a Jerusalem microfiche lab in the early 1990s, he asked a local organization of Kurdish Jews for referrals to actual native speakers of Aramaic.

No sooner had Khan sat down with a Jew from Erbil, a northern Iraqi city whose Aramaic dialect was undescribed, than he felt he had found his calling. “It completely blew my mind,” he told me. “To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating.”

The traditional aim of fieldwork is to produce for undocumented languages what linguists sometimes call “the holy trinity”: a grammar, which is a road map to sounds, syntax and structure; texts, which are chunks of unedited speech that reveal a language’s texture; and a dictionary. Over the past two decades, Khan has published highly regarded grammars on the previously undocumented dialects of Barwar, Qaraqosh, Erbil, Sulemaniyya and Halabja, all areas in Iraq, and Urmi and Sanandaj, in Iran. He is also at work on a web-based database of text and audio recordings that allows word-by-word comparisons across dozens of Aramaic dialects.

Aramaic speakers tend to greet microphone-toting linguists with traditional Middle Eastern hospitality. The widow we visited in Niles, Agnes Nissan Esho, would not let us leave before serving an elaborate lunch of kubba hamuth (sour dumplings), masta (yogurt), chicken with rice, and kadeh (spiced-walnut pastry).

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