How to Save a Dying Language- page 3 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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

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“I’m getting very excited about some vowels here,” Khan said as Esho carried in the steaming plates of food.

“And I’m getting excited about the kadeh,” Bet-shmuel deadpanned.

The half-dozen Neo-Aramaic lin­guists I spoke with said informants often served feasts, confided family gossip and plied them with take-home boxes of fruit. But some are puzzled by the outside interest in their language, and others suspicious that their interlocutors are spies.

And bum steers abound. On our drive to one informant’s house, Khan told a story about his multiyear search for a Chicago man from Iraq’s Barwar region who had been described to him as a font of Assyrian folklore. “When we finally met, I said, ‘I heard you know lots of stories.’”

The man’s response: “I’ve forgotten them all.”

When we arrived at homes around Chicago, Khan, in dress shirt and blazer, explained his research, then drew from his backpack a digital voice recorder, a microphone and a sprawling loose-leaf questionnaire. Each session lasted two or three hours, as Khan worked, like an archaeologist with a soil sifter, to tease out nuances, among dialects, in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

How would you say, “There they are”? he asked. How about, “Here I am”? How about, “He wants to come”? And on it went: “You want to come. I want to come. Come!”

To make sure he heard words correctly, Khan repeated them slowly. He held his mouth open an extra second to verify a vowel or ran a finger over his Adam’s apple to confirm a guttural.

At a public housing tower, we spent more than an hour with a 97-year-old Assyrian from Turkey and his 90-year-old wife. When we stopped for coffee afterward, I asked Khan whether he’d found the meeting productive. “Some pronunciations of one of the consonants in the word for ‘hen’ are not according to what I predicted,” he said.

Advances in field linguistics, I saw, come in dribs and drabs, not eurekas.

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